On a semi-derelict council estate in south Birmingham, Dave, a 42-year-old father of seven children, three of whom are autistic, waxes lyrical about the phenomenal difference a local project has made to his life. Dave met Jayne Cresswell and Jayne Hulbert (pictured below, left to right), social workers and founders of the Sweet Project, five years ago. Since then, “the two Jaynes” have helped Dave find his first ever job, assisted with getting one of his autistic children re-schooled and are currently helping the family apply to be re-housed. “They have been here every day I’ve needed them,” says Dave.
This part of south Birmingham is one of Britain’s most deprived areas and Dave’s case was just one of many that inspired Hulbert and Cresswell to start up the Sweet Project – a family support service provided mainly by local social work students – in 2010. With over 20 years’ experience between them, Hulbert and Cresswell had worked in the area for several years as social worker and senior family support worker respectively, and had seen for themselves the high levels of need.
When both were made redundant by a family support charity in the area, they realised the charity’s imminent move to north Birmingham meant that, for many of these families, their only means of accessing social work support would have entailed a two and half hour journey by public transport. Not only was this highly impractical for families on severely restricted incomes, but Hulbert and Cresswell also realised that, culturally, it was just not likely to happen. “People don’t travel within the local estates, let alone across Birmingham,” explains Hulbert. “Some of the families have never even been to the city centre.”
Hulbert and Cresswell found jobs elsewhere, but remained concerned for the welfare of these families. Eventually, the pair came up with an idea for a social work agency with a difference. Both had worked extensively with university social work students on placements during their previous jobs, so they were well aware of the lack of supervised, hands-on training opportunities available. So they came up with a two-birds-one-stone solution: an organisation that would offer in-depth, fully supported, in-the-community experience for social work students, while also providing much-needed family support services in south Birmingham. And so the Sweet Project (Social Work Education, Experience and Training) was born.
Starting from scratch
However, although everyone they spoke to agreed that Sweet was an excellent idea, nobody was prepared to offer them any funding. Hulbert and Cresswell launched using only the fees from university student placements, agreeing not to draw any wages for themselves for at least the first six months. In March 2010, in what was – according to Hulbert – billed as “the coldest March on record”, the Sweet Project began operating from an unheated room in a local junior school.
Their first cohort came from Birmingham University. The placement director and course director knew of the women’s reputation in the local community and agreed to place nine students with them. They had 29 case referrals from GPs, local schools and health visitors, all of whom had previously worked with Hulbert and Cresswell. The women hoped their vision of training and supporting students would offer something that had not previously been available. “I think one of the biggest things we can give students and families here, in a way that other agencies can’t, is time,” says Cresswell. “Students need nurturing – and we have an open door policy.”
Each case is co-worked by two students, for quality assurance purposes. “Students aren’t afraid to challenge each other and, if they see something they’re not happy with, they will raise it and we’ll use it as a learning area,” says Hulbert. When students are not out on visits or in case management tutorials, they attend community groups, domestic abuse support groups, carers groups and support groups for families affected by autism spectrum disorders and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder. Final placement students also receive specific training regarding substance and alcohol misuse, neglect and mental health issues.
In addition, there are regular talks at Sweet by visiting lecturers, including High Court judges, police officers and health visitors, all of which are designed to demystify processes and give students the opportunity to raise their own queries. “When you’re learning in class, you get really scared,” says Esther, an MA social work student on placement from Nottingham University. “You’re scared of the courts and all of that – but when this judge came, he said, ‘What you need are the skills to prepare evidence. That’s what we’re looking for.’ And that gave me confidence; it made me think, ‘I can do this’.” The students are also often struck by the circumstances of the families they come to work with. “In most of the families, poverty is an issue,” says Esther. “There are people struggling even to get a meal. It has definitely changed my views.”
Hulbert and Cresswell randomly select three or four cases per week and phone up the families to make sure everything is going ok. For the most part, the families say the project works well, but occasionally a student’s lack of experience or suitably for the role becomes apparent. “I’ve had a few bad students,” admits Dave. “When my auntie’s kidneys failed, we thought she was dying and I was really upset and two students were here giggling between each other. I had to ask them to leave.” But he adds that most of the students have been impressive: “For some of the younger ones, it’s a learning curve; they won’t do it again.”
Support from the academic world
By March 2011, a year after Sweet launched, the project was taking placements from Coventry, Worcester, Nottingham and Edge Hill universities. Thanks also to a contract with Birmingham University, which guarantees Sweet a minimum of 50 students per year, the organisation has been able to grow and they currently have 60 students from 14 universities. “I’m extremely impressed with what students are offered at Sweet,’ says Rachel Hek, lecturer and placement manager at Birmingham University. “The quality of the social work input they get to do there is amazing because they have direct work experience with the service users and their families. So that really develops their communication skills and thinking about how they can work alongside service users. It also develops a range of skills around working with other agencies – the whole gamut of social work skills. And then on top of that, the sort of teaching support and supervision the students receive is second to none.”
The project has recently moved to spacious premises on an industrial estate, just a few minutes’ drive from the south Birmingham communities the students work with. A large, open-plan central office is surrounded by smaller individual offices, all of whose doors are left resolutely open. The walls of the meeting room are decorated with drawings by children the project has worked with. Hulbert and Cresswell are now developing plans to provide parenting courses and courses for teenagers experiencing domestic violence at home. Says Hulbert: “We’ve got lots of ideas and we’ve got the space now, so we can do anything.”