Social Worker of the Year Awards 2016: The Winners

A run down of this year's awards...

The 2016 winners
Photo: Genesis PR
The 2016 winners Photo: Genesis PR

A team manager whose passion for supporting frontline practice has created an environment where “good social work can flourish” has been named the social worker of the year for 2016.

Bianka Lang, from Essex council, also won the children’s services team leader of the year award, with judges praising the care, concern and compassion she shows in the role. She was among 16 individuals and teams who picked up awards at this year’s ceremony in central London.

Suzy Croft, who has recently retired after 23 years as a specialist palliative care social worker, was awarded the lifetime achievement award. Professor June Thoburn, who is internationally renowned for her research on children’s social care, received the outstanding contribution to social work award.

Here is the full list of winners:

Overall Social Worker of the Year and Children’s Services Team Leader of the Year: Bianka Lang, Essex council

Bianka’s outstanding commitment to her teammates and superb fulfilment of the crucial first line manager role led her to the overall award for 2016.

Bianka has shown leadership qualities in various ways: by setting an example, by promoting staff wellbeing, and by fostering the growth of individual specialisms within the team, which can be pooled for everyone’s benefit.

Her colleagues’ testimonies reference many qualities – organisation, decision-making, knowledge, approachability and the capacity to inspire – that are the cornerstones of being a good manager.

Her competence is underlined by the way in which Bianka has been able to take on additional duties and responsibility for extra staff members, without losing her trademark serenity. But despite her sometimes understated nature, Bianka’s appetite for social work shines from her nomination – through her enthusiasm for keeping in touch with the front line, her ongoing focus on her own development, and her evident keenness to pass on knowledge to others.

The judges were full of admiration for what Bianka has brought to her team, pointing out that “good social work flourishes in the environment she has created”. It’s hard to think of a more fitting compliment for 2016’s overall social worker of the year.

Outstanding Contribution to Social Work: Professor June Thoburn

June Thoburn has always been a champion for children and families. She started her career as a child care officer in the early 1960s, specialising in preventative child and family social work.

She practised in both England and Canada, before becoming a professor of social work at the University of East Anglia in 1979.

June is internationally renowned for her research on children’s social care, which has covered family support and child protection services for children and families in the community, as well as services for children placed away from home.

She has often been called on to provide expert evidence in complex child welfare court cases and is currently a special advisor to Cafcass and chair of Norfolk’s Family Justice Board.

The trustees described June as an individual with considerable humility, integrity and wisdom whose expertise and experience have made a major contribution to social work. Her longstanding commitment to ensuring families are supported to care for their children wherever possible, and then promoting the best quality of care when it is necessary for children to live away from home, made her a standout choice for this award.

Lifetime Achievement Award: Suzy Croft, St John’s Hospice

“It is amazing how someone who was once just a stranger can suddenly mean the world to us,” say one couple of their nine-year relationship with Suzy as service users.

Suzy, who retired in March 2016, spent three times that long as a practising social worker. The last 23 years were spent in one place – St John’s Hospice – where she made a huge impact on the lives of many people as a specialist palliative care social worker.

Her reputation there stems from her unfailing ability to make time for others, and from her tenacious advocacy for patients and their families. One notable achievement was setting up a group service for terminally ill women from BME backgrounds.

But Suzy’s name is recognised far beyond St John’s – she’s renowned internationally as a researcher, writer and educator.

She took an active role in the Association of Palliative Care Social Workers, and has shaped policy and provision by presenting recommendations to Parliament, speaking at conferences and writing numerous papers and books.

Throughout her career this work – which the judges hailed as offering a “huge contribution” – has been shaped by her own active practice, carving her a distinctive niche in her area of social work.

Adults Social Worker of the Year: Heather Kent, Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust in partnership with Northumberland council

The judges noted that Heather, who has worked within Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust for the last 15 years, “stood out as a social worker within a diverse range of professionals”.

Two cases involving adults with severe multiple sclerosis amply demonstrate this quality. In one instance, Heather enabled a woman to remain at home until her death, and to enjoy the mealtimes with her family that had been such an important part of her life. In another, she acted as an advocate for a woman with no family to help her obtain a new 24-hour care package, resisting pressure from medical professionals who argued she should be taken into care.

Another of Heather’s achievements is her development of the Macmillan social worker role within west Northumberland, after her employer gained investment from the charity. She has trained in and begun providing psychosocial support in end-of-life care, and has already been able to influence Macmillan service provision locally thanks to her extensive knowledge of community, voluntary and statutory stakeholders.

Within her team, Heather is described as being an “advisor, educator and supportive colleague”. A long involvement in social work education as a practice assessor and mentor completes an impressively rounded set of credentials.

Children’s Social Worker of the Year: Emily Tiplady-Ead, Suffolk council

The pages of glowing feedback from children and families Emily has worked with speak volumes about her social work. Foster parents write warmly of her communication skills, while one mother simply expresses gratitude for “having faith in my ability” to parent her son.

Emily’s talent for delivering excellent, thorough assessments was spotted soon after she joined Suffolk’s child in need team in 2012. Her subsequent move to a child in care team was seen as an opportunity for her to build these skills and develop her expertise ‒ something her service manager describes as being a “privilege” to observe.

Perhaps the most striking section of Emily’s nomination discusses her ability to forge relationships with families who have been hostile and reluctant to deal with services. In two cases highlighted as examples of her practice, she was able to build rapport with mothers ‒ one who was a care leaver, and another with substance misuse issues ‒ and eventually help enable their young children to return home to them.

Emily’s approach has inspired respect within her team and beyond for being risk-sensible, as opposed to risk-averse, and always solutions-focused. The panel commented on her “absolute commitment to achieving the best outcomes for families”.

Mental Health Social Worker of the Year: Dee Belford, Birmingham council

People who know Dee professionally come back again and again to the way she puts service users’ needs at the centre of her practice, often succeeding as a result in achieving positive change where other professionals may have struggled.

Judges commented on her special ability of “being able to stand by the side of a service user without appearing ‘with power’”.

At times this means confidently challenging fellow practitioners’ actions or interpretations of situations. Dee has been able to do so by virtue of her excellent knowledge of the law, finely tuned cultural awareness and willingness to go the extra mile in order to ascertain important details that others miss.

Dee’s route into social work came via roles in a number of other settings such as women’s refuges, offender rehabilitation and an NHS multi-disciplinary community mental health team. The latter helped hone her keen awareness of the links between socio-economic factors and people’s mental wellbeing.

Her work as part of Birmingham’s dedicated citywide AMHP team has been boosted by her ability to operate autonomously with little supervision. Colleagues praise the relaxed, calm approach that enables her both to engage with clients and to help soothe their families’ anxieties.

Newly Qualified Adults Social Worker of the Year: Jamie McEwan, Birmingham council

Jamie’s nomination form set out clearly his ability to deal with complex cases, respect for citizens’ independence and consistent consideration of their human rights. Testimonies from the families of several older people he has worked with served to underline these qualities.

One case where a man, ‘Albert’, was distressed because of the possibility his son may be mismanaging his finances, stood out. Jamie acted tactfully and proportionately in determining how best to proceed. Having assessed Albert as lacking capacity, Jamie ensured he was empowered through the support of an independent mental capacity advocate, and kept him informed as to what was happening in relation to his finances.

Colleagues speak of Jamie’s thoughtful approach to these tricky cases, the way in which dealing with them has helped him grow as a social worker, and his perfectionism. His practice educator praised his ability to “use professional assertiveness to challenge decisions, stand up to other professionals, and give difficult messages to citizens”.

But Jamie’s value within the team is also based on the way he makes time to help others by talking over difficult situations. The judging panel described his all-round set of attributes as being “stunning for an NQSW”.

Newly Qualified Children’s Social Worker of the Year: Benn Vaughan, Cumbria council

Benn is quick to acknowledge his transition into statutory children’s services, following a post-bachelor’s degree stint working mostly in adult social care, has involved a “steep learning curve”. But it’s the way he’s got to grips with the challenges he’s faced, as well as his keenness to take on extra ones, that made him stand out in this category.

While it may be a well-used accolade, several of the judging panel couldn’t resist pointing to the “passion” for social work that shone from Benn’s nomination, as well as his obvious development during his first year.

Besides managing a range of complex cases, he’s been promoting resilience workshops for other NQSWs and other colleagues, with an eye on mitigating burnout and skill-sharing – hopefully helping fellow social workers find ways to enjoy longer careers in the profession.

Despite his relative lack of experience, Benn has shown an aptitude for leadership, taking on the role of champion both for homeless 16-17 year olds and for the team’s electronic database, ICS. He has already found himself able to offer support and guidance both to student social workers and to more experienced practitioners who have moved into child protection from other areas.

Student Social Worker of the Year: Odi Oquosa, University of Sussex

Odi is described by his first-year MA tutor as having been “the beating heart of an especially cohesive, positive group of students”. Many others who have come into contact with him during his time at the University of Sussex feel similarly.

As well as applying a sharp intelligence and profound understanding of international social work to his studies, Odi stands out for his extra-curricular achievements as a student rep. Notable among these was managing to establish a common room for social work students – not easy on a space-starved campus – with a view to improving student cohesion.

But it wasn’t just by creating a shared space that Odi helped his coursemates develop together. As an older student, who grew up in Nigeria and had lived in other countries before settling in England, he introduced a distinctively different perspective to his predominantly young, white British, middle-class peers. This contributed to the group reflecting more deeply on questions of diversity than they might otherwise have done.

Odi’s dissertation, on shamanism, spirituality and social work, was also highlighted as offering a genuinely groundbreaking contribution to social work knowledge. There’s real excitement about where his career will lead.

Team Leader of the Year, Adult Services: Kirsty McLeod, Calderdale council

Kirsty, first as a team manager and then as group manager for learning disabilities and older people’s mental health, has had a transformational impact on adult services in Calderdale.

Under her leadership the council has seen the lowest ever number of adults with learning disabilities and older people with mental health support needs living in care homes. The latter team used to place nine people per quarter into care homes, which dropped to one or two once she was in post – and most recently no placements have been made.

Such statistics stem from Kirsty’s relentless human rights focus. Social workers in her teams are expected to enable risk and work to promote positive life choices. Within those teams, there’s a policy of employing NQSWs and supporting their development – the palliative care service she set up, for example, was built around a team of four NQSWs.

But Kirsty’s nomination as a “quiet radical” was also founded on her commitment to integration in its broadest sense – with the NHS, the voluntary sector, family and carer groups and advocacy providers. In the near future, her teams will be based in a shop in Halifax, run jointly with people who use their services.

Practice Educator of the Year: Daniel Hope, Cafcass

A practice educator for almost a decade, and with Cafcass since 2010, Dan’s personal commitment to sharing knowledge, via the opportunities he offers his students, was evident in his nomination.

Within Cafcass, he has sought to improve the breadth and depth of students’ experiences by a number of methods. These have included recruiting other practitioners to co-work cases with them, and setting up an exchange programme with Leeds council managers so that students can gain knowledge both of the local authority setting and court proceedings.

Beyond this, colleagues point to his consideration and skill when it comes to tailoring placements to individuals’ needs, ensuring their practice gets the maximum benefit. Several of Dan’s former students credit him as forming the main practical foundation of their social work knowledge – something that didn’t escape the judges’ attention.

As well as his extensive child protection experience, Dan has long been involved in extra-curricular voluntary work promoting family-based care with the charity SFAC (Substitute Families for Abandoned Children), which has taken him all over the world. He has created a pathway for York University social work students to undertake placements in Uganda, to gain some understanding of how social work practice differs outside of England.

Principal Social Worker of the Year: Mandy Nightingale, Essex council

Mandy has developed her role on three fronts over the last year: within Essex County Council as Principal Children and Families Social Worker (PCFSW), via her continued direct management of Essex Social Care Academy (ESCA), and nationally through the PCFSW network, for which she took on the role of chair in July 2015.

That’s perhaps appropriate for someone who one colleague has described as being “like an onion” – having so many layers that she defies easy description.

While she’s a demanding and direct operator, Mandy’s care and compassion for people shines through. Under Mandy’s leadership the PCFSW network has grown from an embryonic state to a powerful voice within social work.

She has worked closely with the Department for Education and other key agencies to influence policy and practice and has also played an active role in consultations and steering groups, being unafraid to challenge as well as collaborate.

Locally, Mandy has worked hard to keep engaged with practitioners at the sharp end, and to make sure that Essex’s social care academy delivers training opportunities to drive her service forward.

Tellingly, more than one member of her team within the academy describe her as the best manager they’ve had.

Team of the Year, Adult Services: Daytime AMHP Team, Devon council

Devon’s new daytime AMHP service was set up in response to a familiar litany of problems. These included high stress levels among the county’s AMHPs, high staff turnover, and practitioners being isolated in different mental health teams.

Following a full launch in June 2015, these issues have been addressed, something the judges described as “very significant, in a service area which in most places is in crisis”.

Through embedding reflective practice and peer supervision, the team has also succeeded in placing social work values at the heart of an often medical-dominated area.

The AMHP service comprises a central unit and five locality teams. AMHPs work flexibly across the whole county, travelling as needed to deal with local spikes in referrals.

During quieter times they are encouraged to work on development of themselves and their service. Taking time off in lieu is also something the management team insist on, helping ease the pressure of the job.

Turnover has stabilised, and with an eye on the longer term, a new ‘trainee AMHP’ role has been developed. This not only adds support to the team but has helped increase numbers of applicants wanting to train as AMHPs to a 10-year high.

Team of the Year, Children’s Services: Children in need team – Cheshire West and Chester council

Cheshire West and Chester’s Winsford and Northwich CIN staff don’t have it easy.

Over the past 18 months the 27-strong (plus a senior manager) group have carried significantly heavier caseloads than their two sister teams within the local authority area.

Recognising this burden, at the back end of 2015 a multi-agency summit chaired by the local director of children’s services came up with an action plan to help staff stay on top of their workload.

Forging close relationships with partner agencies has helped, as has an able, stable management team (a ‘good’ service-wide Ofsted rating at the start of 2016 included an ‘outstanding’ accolade for leadership).

Reflective practice has also been implemented within the team, including regular, well-attended peer reflection and peer development sessions.

Over the past two years staff retention has been steady, reducing the need for agency social workers. The knock-on effects have been 50% cost savings – and an invaluable stability in terms of service delivery.

Recent feedback reflects the latter benefit, with service users and fellow professionals describing team members as the best social workers they have come across. As the judges put it: “Standard teams doing amazing things every day should not be underestimated.”

Creative and Innovative Social Work Practice: Yasmin Ishaq, Kent council

In a quarter-century social work career, Yasmin has been no stranger to developing and delivering new services.

Over the past year, her focus has turned to implementing peer-supported open dialogue – based on a mental health treatment model originating in Finland – in Kent. It involves maintaining a consistent relationship with a service user’s family and social network, by the same practitioners throughout their care, with all decisions being co-created by the client, their support system and professionals.

Crisis interventions within 24 hours are designed to keep people from hospital admissions wherever possible, and by drawing on family and community resources the aim is to reduce reliance on traditional services and medication.

Judges praised the work as “genuinely innovative”, pointing out that Yasmin is the only social worker in the country who’s leading in this area – more commonly the territory of medical professionals. A family member of one service user who’s been involved in the project simply describes her as “epitomising the word ‘hope’”.

To date almost 40 professionals from various backgrounds have been trained within the peer supported open dialogue model. A standalone team is set to be formed by the end of 2016, with Yasmin continuing to support the service’s development.

Social Work Employer of the Year: Achieving for Children

Community interest company Achieving for Children(AfC) faced big challenges when it was set up in 2014 to deliver children’s services across Kingston and Richmond.

Improving the situation in Kingston – which had back-to-back ‘inadequate’ ratings – was a priority. But there was also the need to ensure services remained strong at Richmond, to improve staff morale and stability, and to work within a context of budget cuts.

Changes implemented range from setting up ‘bureaucracy busting’ workshops, via which social workers suggest ways of reducing red tape, to appointing a social secretary with a budget for extra-curricular activities.

Workplaces have been refurbished, development spending has been maintained and staff are involved in suggesting and piloting new practice approaches. Recruitment specialists were brought in to help social work managers fill vacancies.

Two years on there has been significant progress. Kingston’s rating jumped two places, to ‘good’, when inspected in 2015, and its proportion of temporary social care staff fell from 57% to 7% over three years. AfC has been named one of eight ‘partners in practice’ tasked by the government to help drive innovation in social work, and two-thirds of staff said in an autumn 2015 survey that they’d recommend their employer.

3 Responses to Social Worker of the Year Awards 2016: The Winners

  1. Lisa Fraser-Pickard November 28, 2016 at 11:03 am #

    Team of the Year, Adult Services: Daytime AMHP Team, Devon council

    What an achievement! Very well done!

  2. karleen Jackson November 28, 2016 at 7:51 pm #

    Its great to see that such good social work practice is happening across the country, however, in reading this article I am a little disappointed that non of the London Boroughs were awarded…..baring in mind that there are at least 52 local authorities across London I am sure that there must be good work happening there also, a suggestion for future years would be to have nominations for regions.

  3. Kevin December 15, 2016 at 3:39 pm #

    Congratulations Suzy Croft! A well deserved award for someone whose passion in supporting people at end of life and commitment to human rights and social justice has been an inspiration.