How did you find out about Step Up and why did you apply?
I have a degree in French and politics, but my career background is in service development and redesign in local government. I was working on children’s commissioning and redesigning speech and language therapy and I felt there was a certain resistance from the practitioners because I didn’t really have an understanding of their role; so how could I have an understanding of how services should be redesigned? I left to go travelling with the idea that I couldn’t do that anymore, that I had to have some hands on experience.
When I came back I got a temp job in one of the social work area teams as an admin worker. There were Step Up candidates on my site at the time, but I hadn’t necessarily put two and two together. And then I saw the advert for cohort two. When I said to one of the team managers that I was thinking of going for it, they were really supportive and they introduced me to the Step Up people so I could get a sense of what it was about.
What was it about social work that appealed?
Funnily enough the thing that put me off social work before was that my friend was a youth offending social worker and she’s incredibly different to me. But when I was doing the admin job, I realised that lots of different people do social work and practise in different ways.
How did you find the course?
It was pretty intense, I think it would be fair to say. It’s different now because you don’t have to do a dissertation, but even now, I would say if you don’t think you can do it, if you’re not 100% sure, don’t bother to apply, because it’s not worth it.
The assessment process was rigorous. You had to have a 2:1 or above and some experience of working with children, young people and families. I’d worked as a teaching assistant before that and then in my [service development] role a lot of the change work was face-to-face with service users. When I first started on Step Up, I thought I was really different to everybody – lots of people were family support workers, drugs workers or mental health advocates and I felt I stuck out a bit – but I soon realised the qualities we had were the same. We all enjoy working with people.
As for the course itself, you’ve got to be motivated. You’ve got to get yourself to the library on a Saturday morning. But then on the plus side you’re working in a team, doing the job.
It’s very child focused, so although you have a placement with adults, it’s very much focused towards the parent groups that you might work with. Mine was in mental health, knowing that, in a lot of the families I work with, the parents have a mental health problem. When I was on placement at first, I thought ‘this isn’t really what I want to do’, but now so many of the parents I work with have borderline personality disorder or schizophrenia. I’m the person that knocks on your front door, that’s my job, so to go into that situation and be able to read what’s going on with the parents, understand it and be able to manage it, that’s incredibly useful. When you’re doing children’s social work the majority of the work you’re doing isn’t with children, it’s with the adults surrounding those children. So it’s really important to understand those issues.
Did you consider doing a social work degree?
I couldn’t have afforded it. I would rather work my backside off for the 18 months of Step Up and be paid for it.
You’re on the Assessed and Supported Year in Employment (ASYE) programme now. How are you finding it?
The support we get from the consultant social workers is invaluable, because when you’re thrown a curveball, they can help you think about how and why to respond in a certain way. So it’s more of a pastoral role.
Social work is not an easy job and I suspect part of the issue with recruitment and retention is the fact that people float around feeling like they’re struggling and having that sense that no one else gets it. Their manager’s saying ‘here’s your caseload’ and they don’t feel they can say ‘I don’t know what I’m doing’. So the ASYE programme gives us the opportunity to have those conversations with peers who go, ‘it’s ok, I don’t know what I’m doing either’. And the consultant’s saying: ‘It’s ok, you’ve been practising for three months, why on earth do you think that you should know what to do about everything? Let’s look at what you’re struggling with and work on those as a group.’
I think you get to the end of your course and you think you’re invincible. I’m a decent practitioner, but I’ve had my wobbles.
What do you most value in a job or employer?
Good support and opportunities for progression. And this idea of investment in professional development. I think it’s good at Sheffield; people have a sense of where you are on the career path and they give you challenging cases. We used to swap between long and short term teams after a year, to get a breadth of experience. That’s changing, but there’s still this attitude of asking, what are you going to do next? Social work’s never boring, but it’s good to have a broader sense of what’s going on, because if you’re going to progress up from there you have to have that understanding.