Social Worker of the Year talks training with the children’s minister

Estelle Thain tells Tristan Donovan how a painful personal experience led her to leave her job as a financial adviser for a career in social work - and what it was like meeting the children's minister

Children's minister meets Social Worker of the Year Estelle Thain

“It came out of the blue,” says Estelle Thain of her nomination for last year’s Social Worker of the Year Award. “My team manager called me into her office and told me that the assistant director wanted me put forward for the Social Worker of the Year. I was really surprised. I didn’t feel I was doing anything different to anybody else.”

But the judges clearly disagreed. So impressed were they by her willingness to stand up for her professional judgement, they named her Social Worker of the Year 2012.

Thain – a Peterborough City Council children and families social worker who only qualified four years ago – feels that it’s important to speak out for what you think is right. “I think that as a social worker you’ve got to be utterly dedicated and committed to the families you are working with,” she says.

A willingness to speak out

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“Rightly or wrongly, I think that what I think is right for a family is right and that I’m going to fight to get them what they need. Sometimes that means going against more senior managers and challenging some of the decisions they make or being brave in court near the end of care proceedings when a plan might be set in stone but you then identify changes in the parents. That can be difficult but if that’s what’s right for the children it’s worth it in the long run.”

She says that willingness to speak out is part of her personality: “I try to stand absolutely by what I believe, regardless of the consequences. If you know in your heart that what you’re saying is right for that child then it’s important to go all out to achieve that.”

Thain’s path into social work was somewhat long-winded. She became pregnant at 17 and ended up working in her mother’s financial advice business for a decade before deciding she would prefer a career in teaching, midwifery or social work. She ruled out teaching after volunteering at a school and went off midwifery after thinking more deeply about what the job would involve.

“In midwifery you’ve got good outcomes but also sadder ones where there’s nothing you can do. I didn’t think I’d be able to cope with delivering babies who weren’t alive or have severe things wrong with them,” she says. “Social work’s different emotionally – you are always striving to do the right thing and get the best outcomes for children. Often when they’ve been abused and neglected, we come in and try to do everything we can to put that right, repair the damage and make things better.”

A difficult personal experience

One experience that fuelled her interest in the profession was when the boyfriend of one of her friends killed their baby. “The baby was very young and I think that was always in the back of my mind,” she says. “On the surface there were no problems at all and I remember thinking for years after about what would cause somebody to do that.” After testing the water by working for a youth offending team, a children’s home and a fostering agency, Thain signed up for a degree course and four years ago landed her first social work job.

Landing the Social Worker of the Year award has, she says, been “amazing”: “I’ve had so many messages from people I don’t know and have never met who emailed me to say it’s good and positive to have some good outcomes for social work for a change.”

The award also led to her travelling to London to meet with children’s minister Edward Timpson last week. “I half expected that it would be a ‘going through the motions’ thing that he needed to do but he genuinely seemed interested, really nice and friendly.”

Meeting the children’s minister

Timpson asked her about her career and experience of social work in Peterborough, she says: “He was interested in the newly qualified social workers – how they are and how they cope and get supported. My experience of Peterborough is that they all seem to be supported.”

Social worker training is a topic that is close to her heart. “I don’t feel that the degree prepares you adequately for the on the ground work. There were basics missing from my degree training – I didn’t even know what a core assessment was when I left university and that’s key to the job. It was very difficult those first few months in the job because I felt I didn’t quite have enough skills or experience to take on the role.

The degree failed from that perspective although it taught me a lot about methods, models and theories of social work. But I feel positive that there are changes being made to the degrees and the newly qualified social work year is much more protected and supported than when I did it.”

The award has also put Thain in the public eye, which she concedes is a bit uncomfortable. “I’ve had to do stuff like talking to the press and radio that I’m not really good at or used to. We were asked to do a day in the life of a social worker for a TV news programme but I’m not sure I want to be on TV. I have visions of being filmed while driving along in my car – you know how they always have that in the car thing. That would make me feel nervous. I’ll probably drive through a red light or something.”

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