In 2009, after over 20 years of social work roles for local authorities in England and Scotland, Andrew Johnston took on his first job in the voluntary sector when he joined a fostering social work team run by the charity Quarriers.
His team are commissioned by Dumfries and Galloway council to take on certain statutory social work duties – mainly assessing, matching and managing foster carers who can provide family-based short-breaks for children with disabilities. So does he notice any differences to being a social worker with a charity, compared to a local authority?
Flexibility and imagination
“We’re probably less hidebound here. There’s limited space in local authority social work to do work without the statutory responsibilities, especially in the current climate,” says Johnston. “Basically I think there’s more scope and flexibility here to think of imaginative ways of creating packages that support people.”
Johnston points to various projects the Quarriers team runs as examples: friendship groups for disabled children, a support network for fathers with disabilities, an Easter egg hunt for the children they work with, group activities to build links between foster carers and a women’s group.
“With the friendship groups for example, I’m not sure if you’d have scope to do that in local authority work at the moment,” he says. “It tends to be very linear thinking in local authorities – you’re working with a specific family, a specific child – what you wouldn’t get is so much group work. You might have done in the seventies but you don’t so much now.”
Group work is becoming increasingly important to the Quarriers team as resources are being squeezed. Johnston says that the social workers are always trying to be creative in how they can work with families to pool resources – for example, from time-to-time bringing together the family support ‘hours’ allocated to individual families – to deliver an activity that can benefit everyone.
Strong community ties
The team say they are “heavily, heavily dependent” on their strong ties to the community.
It’s something Alana Perry, a social worker who works with Johnston, is looking to draw on as she tries to set up an allotment project where children with disabilities can come and learn about the natural environment and where food comes from.
“We’re hoping to get a wee garden,” says Perry. “We’ve got absolutely no money for equipment so we’re thinking about ways that we can access funding for that. I’m hoping I can rope some keen gardeners into help because some people locally absolutely love their gardens.”
“We have to think outside the box for our kids. We have to be thinking creatively all of the time to provide the best possible opportunities,” she adds.
Evenings and weekends
Another major difference Johnston and Perry see in their role, compared to a lot of local authority work is the shift patterns. Much of the team’s social work has to be done in evenings and weekends because that’s the only time foster carers are available due to their own work and family commitments.
“That’s very different to local authority work,” says Johnston. “In a lot of those roles social work tips into Emergency Duty Team at 5pm and weekends.”
“And if we’re going to successfully recruit foster carers we need to be available when and where they are,” adds Perry. “We need to be prepared to be flexible. Certainly all the work I’ve done with couples is in the evenings because they have work commitments and family commitments.”
But life as a voluntary sector social worker is not devoid of many the issues faced by local authority teams. The huge amount of work involved in fostering assessments means that many of Perry’s and Johnston’s days are “dominated by paperwork”. And, perhaps unavoidably in the current economic climate, resource pressures are always looming large.
“The increasing pressure on budgets is the hardest bit,” says Johnston. “For example, travelling expenses for getting people to and from places where we’re running activities is being strongly squeezed at the moment.”
The team are constantly looking for ways they can boost resources, including by fundraising themselves. In 2010, Perry walked the great wall of China to raise money for Quarriers while Elaine, one of the admin team at the service, tells me that her partner and a dad from the team’s fathers project took on a sponsored motorbike ride from Lands End to John O’Groats a few years ago.
Johnston says that they have had a “huge success” in engaging with local organisations and groups to help with activities too. That connection “reinforces what we’re about and what we do”, he says.
Johnston was born in Cumbria. Having worked on both sides of the Scotland/England border he’s noticed a subtle cultural difference between the two countries.
“I firmly believe there is a different sense of what community is in Scotland that’s really positive. I think that’s a truism and it’s something we build on in all of the work we do locally,” he says.
“It’s a cliché to say it’s a privilege working with the foster carers and some of the other people we work with here but it’s true. I’m constantly amazed by how generous the people that we work with are and how much they get and are prepared to go that extra mile.”