As Wiltshire Council prepares to launch a range of programmes to support people who want a career in social work, or want to return after time away, we spoke to Julie Stoten, about life as a social worker in Wiltshire.
Tell us how you got in to social work.
I returned to my studies as a mature student. Before that, I was very busy bringing up my family – I have six children – so I did lots of volunteer work at their primary school, including work as a child protection governor, then as the chair of governors. I attended some Wiltshire Council training courses, and it was there I first met some social workers. They were so encouraging, and answered my questions about the work they did.
Where has your career led you since you qualified?
I qualified in 2013 and joined a neighbouring council as an AYSE within a combined team. So I gained experience in lots of areas like case held, looked-after children, and child protection cases. During my time there, I realised I wanted to specialise in safeguarding, so when the job came up in the safeguarding and assessment team (south) at Wiltshire, I knew it would be the perfect fit. Plus, a friend who did the same degree worked there and recommended Wiltshire as a great place to work, and she was right. It’s good here, as you keep hold of looked after children until the second case review, and they’ve promised to lower our caseloads to 18, which has already made a big difference to our working day.
Why is a lower caseload important to you?
I’m more in control of my cases. My line manager is incredibly supportive, and protective of me. If it looks like you’re about to take on too much, they help you find ways to decrease your workload. Everyone’s caseloads have started to come down, as more people are recruited to the team. Wiltshire is employing more newly qualified social workers as part of a structured programme they’re rolling out over the next few months, so we’ll rely less on agency workers. And they want to help qualified social workers return to work, or support staff that want to do a social work degree. That kind of continuity of care is so important. It feels like the right way forward.
How have lower caseloads changed your working day?
Truthfully, if I hadn’t changed jobs, I might have given up social work completely. Higher caseloads affected my health and stress levels, and it felt unsafe. I became torn between the children on my cases, and my own children at home. And it’s your own children who end up missing out on your time. I worked lots of evenings and weekends, and although I do a bit of that here, I don’t have to, unless it’s very urgent. No one clock watches because they know how hard the team works.
What’s been the knock-on effect for your work/life balance?
It’s changed family life. Our managers here understand how important life outside work is. So they let us flex our working hours if we have a late night parents’ evening, or need to come in late because of the school run. I live in Salisbury, so in my previous role, I commuted for an hour each day. My son went to breakfast club at half seven in the morning, and sometimes I wouldn’t get home until gone nine at night. Now I can take my little boy to school in the morning. Wiltshire has given me a flexible working life back, which as a working parent is invaluable to me.
What makes being a social worker a good career choice?
It’s the best thing I ever did. I’m passionate about social work, and I love my job. The team here at Wiltshire is amazing, and we all socialise together. We’re colleagues, but we’re friends too, who all genuinely like each other – which make the atmosphere brilliant. It’s a great career if you want good quality of life for your own family, while you help improve the lives of the families you work with.
What does the future looks like for social workers?
In the light of recent government cuts, we’ll face more and more challenges as resources often aren’t there, and we’ll have to be more creative. But these are exciting times too. Wiltshire is committed to recruiting and developing AYSEs, which is brilliant as there is a shortage of qualified social workers across the country. I’ve seen other counties offer great ASYE packages, but the salaries were low. That’s been addressed here in Wiltshire. In a talk recently, our principle social worker, Deborah Barlow, asked us where we see ourselves in two years’ time, so they can help us get there. I have a clear plan of how I want to progress, and I believe that can happen here in Wiltshire.
Any advice for someone wanting to get into social work?
Find out about the programmes Wiltshire are offering in September. Their student bursary scheme in conjunction with the University of the West of England might be helpful if you need financial support during your studies. The degree is general by nature, so talk to other social workers to get an idea of areas you could specialise in, and try to tailor your placements in that direction. Make sure you do volunteer work too. And don’t listen to the media, because the good we do is never reported. If you spoke to the majority of the team I work with, you’ll hear that they love the work they do. So if you’re qualified and looking for a new job, talk direct to a few teams. Finally, go on recommendations when you look for a role. I found Wiltshire because I was seeking a position in my specialist area, but the team also came recommended by a friend. I’m so glad she did. Now I’m encouraging others to come here too.