‘I was being patronised’: a care leaver’s experience of a social work degree

A care leaver and social work graduate talks about their experiences at university, and how the barriers for care leavers in higher education need to be challenged

Photo: Drobot Dean/Fotolia

by Anonymous

As a care leaver who has attended university twice, it was important to me that I wasn’t treated differently from my peers, a feeling shared among other care leavers who go into higher education.

Throughout our lives we have felt different and have consistently faced disadvantage. Usually we entered care due to reasons beyond our control. Often it is abuse, which has impacted on our development.

On my second time at university, I did a social work degree. For lecturers teaching social work, one would assume that as the course content is focused on understanding inequalities and how children’s development is impacted upon – while also focusing on strength-based practice and how this assists us to abolish the barriers faced by vulnerable people – it should be natural to understand that although care leavers can overcome the adversity faced in their early years, there will always be triggers that reignite the anxiety that is buried deep inside us.

Mental health conditions are common among care leavers, but since 1995 and the introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act, which has now been replaced by the Equality Act 2010, people cannot be discriminated against because of their mental health as it is a protected characteristic.

Therefore, we should never be made to feel inadequate due to our mental health, which can be understood because of what we were exposed to in our developmental years.


At university I only disclosed my status as a care leaver to enable my lecturers to better understand me and signpost me to available support, should I need it at a later stage.

After that I didn’t want to be treated differently and, most importantly, I would never expect a lecturer to disclose my status as a care leaver on my behalf.

This is because, no matter what course people are on, everybody has preconceptions about care leavers. Whether they take the pity stance or the ‘you must be bad’ approach – this is the stigma we are faced with throughout our lives.

I was once outed as a care leaver by one of my lecturers in front of a new group of people. I hadn’t bonded with this group and I felt so embarrassed for being labelled like that. That was a breach of my confidentiality.

My background

Being a care leaver at university was difficult. I have been through quite a lot and when what we were learning related to my background, I had to learn how to be reflexive in lectures.

At the beginning of the course we were learning different communication techniques to use with children. I remember drawing a life snake and we were writing down our most significant life events and the course leader was going around listening to everyone’s stories.

I remember her making me feel like she couldn’t be bothered to listen to my story and I felt I should have maybe left some ‘drama’ out and not been so honest about my background.

On reflection, I could see how wrong that was, because the whole point of the lecture was to teach us how to listen to children and young people and how to gain their trust, so they feel confident sharing information honestly with us.

At the end of the first week, I asked if I could have a meeting with the course leader, so I could explain why I thought it was important that I contribute honestly regarding my background.

I thought my course mates could gain insight from my experiences and it could help them better understand their future service users. My tutor replied by asking me if my social worker had worked through my attachment difficulties with me, before telling me I did not need to be liked by everyone. I was shocked.

No support

At a different university the tutors were fantastic and taught me to embrace my past, as it will help me in my future work, but now I was being patronised and made to feel inadequate.

Learning about child abuse was difficult for me, but I was never offered any pastoral support. It was also difficult when we spoke about loss and endings as I had friends in care who had passed away from drug overdoses.

On my placement I witnessed bad practice and I tried whistleblowing. As a result, I was taken to an internal fitness to practice procedure. The accusations were completely unfounded, and I got an inconclusive outcome, meaning the university should not have put any conditions on me being there.

However, I was made to go to an occupational health assessment.

Because I had disclosed anxiety and depression and said that the fitness to practice proceedings had made this worse, it was now being suggested that I was not fit to be a social worker.

This really upset me and made me want to give up, but I am not a quitter. I attended the occupational health assessment with the knowledge that I was protected by the Disability Discrimination and the Equality Acts.

I know that social work is about promoting equality and challenging barriers, so it seemed ludicrous to me that my ability to practice was being questioned. The occupational health assessor agreed, and wrote a letter stating I could continue with my course.


When I returned, I had to go in the year below because I had missed so much time. The tutor never tried to introduce me to the group and everyone felt quite distant at first. I later found out the course leader had warned everyone about me and said I was trouble. At this point, I wasn’t surprised.

I was never encouraged to share my experiences, even though since the introduction of the social work degree it has been compulsory to include service users to provide insight. I was very isolated on my course, and it was so different to my other university experiences.

Even the named worker at the university, who was there to provide support to care leavers, did not know what to say about my problems.

I did eventually go to a Dean when my criminal record was used against me and I was told that the university were showing potential placements my DBS before giving them a copy of my placement request forms.

They were very supportive, and to my surprise I got an apology from the course leader, but after that they were still negative, and suggested to pupils that we would not all necessarily pass and some of us were not dressed right for social work.

During some lectures I remember questioning how much of this attitude towards me would impact on how my course mates might interact with their future service users? Would they think its acceptable to treat their service users how they had treated me?


My main point here is that those teaching at higher education institutes need to acknowledge how few care leavers reach them at all (6% to be specific).

This makes us a minority, but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a focus on how we experience university. As they are mainly made up of people from middle-class backgrounds, it is imperative that care leavers are not put at a disadvantage or made to feel embarrassed about their identity.

As many people continue to tell me; just by making it to university I upset the odds and should be immensely proud of myself. Even though I faced more barriers at university, the resilience I have established (and continue to build on) throughout this chapter of my life will be outstanding, and hopefully my story will make more young people aware of their potential and eventually that tiny 6% will increase to match that of others accessing higher education.

If we have achieved higher education, we have not let our childhood and youth define us. Therefore, we do not need ostracising as a direct result of our identity as care leavers. We deserve to be treated equally and to have equal opportunities.

For anyone who has had similar experiences, don’t let small-minded people hold you back. From my experience, the only people who will try and hold you back are worried that you will outshine them in your first few years of practice. Keep going, I promise it’s worth it.

This piece is by a care leaver and social work graduate.

17 Responses to ‘I was being patronised’: a care leaver’s experience of a social work degree

  1. Too old for this stuff November 24, 2017 at 12:33 pm #

    Thank you for sharing this. Over the last 25 years of being involved in SW education, I have been appalled by some attitudes of SWs to care leavers entering the profession but also heartened by some more sensitive people.

    Many of us in SW have dealt with difficult experiences and it bugs me that this isn’t routinely recognised.

    I was not initially open about my mental health battles and I still struggle to tell people as I think that there are still negative attitudes expressed by SWs

  2. Lydia Lewis November 24, 2017 at 2:25 pm #

    You come across as a very confident and resilient individual and the fact that you have overcome what appears to me to be a terrible experience, is testament to that. I think you are exactly the sort of individual that social work needs to attact as a practitioner. In my opinion, placements can be the making or breaking of Student Social Workers and whether or not you survive in this type of situation is dependent on:

    1. Support from fellow students or personal networks;
    2. Your relationship with your personal tutor;
    3. Your character and/or emotional strength;
    4. The quality of those providing support or mentoring during your practice placement.

    So, it’s thumbs up to you for showing such strength of character leading to you overcoming the odds. Also good for you speaking out about your difficult experience. This will give others an opportunity to reflect and learn. All the best with your career.

    • Sylvia November 26, 2017 at 12:03 am #

      Reading your story made me feel so proud of you though I’ve never met you. I am a recent graduate social worker with much similarities to your experience on my social work course. In my situation I have a physical disability and was emotionally traumatised by my course leader”s attitude towards my acceptance on the course. I persevere and graduated with a top honors degree . In retrospect I wish I had step out of my co mfort zone and challenge her behaviour towards my disability. I now have a top degree but now experiencing seizure which I belive was brought on by suppressing all the pain to complete my degree now I asked myself was it worth it. Big praise going out to you, you will surely be a great social worker

  3. Esther November 24, 2017 at 6:00 pm #

    I read this article in tears as I can finally relate to someone who shares my experience. I left University in 2004 (2 years after leaving care at 18 years old) at the beginning of my second year for the same reasons highlighted in this article.

    Becoming a social worker is my life’s passion. I have given up a very well paid job to switch careers at the age of 33, after taking time out to get to know myself and reflect on my time being in care. As a care leaver, studying social work can create triggers, but with support and positive reflection it really does make you a better person and allows you to put things in perspective.

    After 12 years I am returning to education and loving every bit of it. I am looking forward to starting my degree next year and a new career as a social worker. The one thing I will do differently is demand support when I need it, instead of waiting for the support to be offered.

    Thank you again to the writer for sharing your story. I wish you all the best.

  4. Leann November 24, 2017 at 9:11 pm #

    It’s shocking that you’ve had this experience but please don’t feel that about all of us within social work and I hope that you have being able to use your experience in a more positive way. It’s a really shame that your university didn’t see how this would benefit your peers.

    Also you are not alone. I was a young carer and it was something that I was completely open and honest about. I didn’t want to hide it and I believed my colleagues would benefit – which they feedback that it did.

    However, some lecturers viewed it differently. When the put me on a placement for young carers, I did naturally struggle. To add that my practice teacher was changed three times within 90 days, including my role within the organisation – I was completely confused and had no clear guidance. When I disclosed this to my lecturer, the organisation were upset. But it was naturally an issue with me and I got told to lower my expectations. Just like to say – I didn’t.

    My confidentiality was breached – the lecturer told someone with my current employer that I had accepted to a social work post before I told them.

  5. LAURA November 24, 2017 at 9:18 pm #

    I am so sorry to read you were treated this way. You sound amazing and your ability to relate to service users and of course your own knowledge, skills, abilities and personality will make you an amazing social worker. All the very best for your career and life 🙂

    Laura 🙂

  6. Andy Walker November 24, 2017 at 9:57 pm #

    Thank you for sharing your story and experience as a fellow SW student and ex-service user myself, testimonials like this only fire me up and inspire me to keep pushing against those attitudes in our profession

    I love the tenacity and boldness of your spirit standing up to bad practice – it is truly encouraging to see, I as a service user had some good and some bad experiences of social workers which made me want to pursue the profession myself.

    I can see that you are going to be an fantastic social worker! do not let the opinions and thoughts of others quench that burning passion to see change, keep fighting the good fight!

    – A brother in Social Work

  7. StepgSteph November 25, 2017 at 8:18 pm #

    Thank you for writing this. I had an awful time at uni with insensitive and downright insensitive and discriminatory lecturers. My circumstances were different but I’m now thriving in my area of social work. Good luck

  8. Faye November 26, 2017 at 12:58 am #

    Amazing and would love to work with you – I am going to keep this article.

  9. Lynn November 26, 2017 at 1:43 pm #

    For a caring profession we are surprisingly uncaring about the struggles of colleagues and students!!

    • Planet Autism November 30, 2017 at 12:08 am #

      …and especially so of families.

  10. Shirley Thomson November 27, 2017 at 8:40 am #

    Thank you for such an open and honest reflection. I believe it is time more therapeutic understanding is in SW training. Your story provides us all where our profession should improve.

  11. Ted November 27, 2017 at 5:55 pm #

    Thank you, thank you thank you

    As a recently qualified graduate I can relate a lot to this piece.

    Its such a shame that such insensitive behaviour was instigated by those teaching you how to be a social worker.
    Good luck and thanks for sharing

  12. Angie November 27, 2017 at 8:46 pm #

    Thank you for sharing. Hopefully the tutors (And others) at the universities you attended have read your honest article and are able to reflect on their own practice and on how their behaviour and attitude not only impacted on you but on the practice values of many future social workers. It’s very disappointing.

    I have just graduated and I had to suggest and organise including people who have experienced care/care leavers in the course content. The feedback from other students was phenomenal explaining that hearing real life experiences had more of an impact then any of the lectures by the tutors, giving opportunity to reflect, understand theories in practice ad ask questions.

    Including people who have used services personal ecperiences in the education of future social workers is vital if only to educate on what not to do (ie. Break confidentially, patronize and discriminate).

    Again thank you for sharing and good luck in your future career.

  13. Planet Autism November 30, 2017 at 12:12 am #

    “people cannot be discriminated against because of their mental health as it is a protected characteristic.”

    Only it is something that social workers do daily, discriminate against service users with mental health issues to the degree that it is used as a reason to take children away.

    Do you see the irony of this?

    I’m really glad you touched on the fact that the course leader’s attitude would affect graduate’s attitudes in their careers. Shocking to have a SW course leader like that training future SWs. I wish I could say it was also surprising.

    “On my placement I witnessed bad practice and I tried whistleblowing. As a result, I was taken to an internal fitness to practice procedure. The accusations were completely unfounded, and I got an inconclusive outcome, meaning the university should not have put any conditions on me being there.

    However, I was made to go to an occupational health assessment.”

    Sadly this is what happens, when honest decent SWs speak out about unethical practices. It’s the same in the NHS.

    Whatever happens stay true to yourself, stick with it, if you see bad practice continue to speak out. And remember to translate what you have been through in your training, as regards bad attitudes and discrimination, into something you will never do against parents.

    • Anonymous November 30, 2017 at 9:56 pm #

      Not you again! Can you PLEASE STOP with all this “pity the parents” thing? You are starting to sound like an advocate of “parental alienation syndrome”, or maybe someone who believes in “false memory syndrome”!

      Yes, some parents do have their kids taken into care. But it is NOT always the result of some “evil” Social Worker or Health Visitor “discriminating against service users with mental health problems to the degree that it is used as a reason to take children away”. Sometimes such measures are absolutely necessary. Or do you refuse to believe that child abuse actually takes place?

      Some kids are placed in care because they are abused – physically, sexually and emotionally. Some are neglected and left to fend for themselves – maybe having to eat out of litter bins, or go to school undernourished, filthy and poorly because their parents refuse to take them to the Doctor. Some kids are shouted at, sworn at, told they are stupid and useless. Some kids are shaken, slapped and kicked. Do you wish to deny this happens?

      THESE are some of the reasons kids are taken into care, and NOT because workers are deliberately discriminating. Indeed, if parents are accepting of support (even where they have mental health issues) as opposed to remaining in denial, and abusing or refusing any offers of support made, then it is likely their kids will remain with them.

      It is upsetting to see such an insensitive comment about people’s being taken into care posted in response to an article by a care leaver. Do you deny that there may have been a genuine reason why the author of the article was in care?

  14. Blair McPherson December 1, 2017 at 10:48 am #

    Your experience shows the challenges and dilemmas faced by students from minority groups. You have some valuable insights to offer the other students and lectures but understandablely you don’t want that to result in being labelled,stereotyped or patronised. Yes you would hope that those running a social work course would be more sensitive. I would however like to read the views of lectures not necessarily those on your course Because I am sure most would want more students with direct experience of the care system on their courses and would want to provide a better experience than you had.

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