Social Worker of the Year Awards 2017: The winners

A look at the 2017 award winners

A hospital social worker described by her colleagues as “approaching every case with passion and commitment” has been named Social Worker of the Year for 2017.

Vidhya Biju, from Birmingham council, also won the accolade for Adults’ Social Worker of the Year at this year’s Social Worker of the Year Awards.

The judges praised Vidhya for having an exceptional depth of social work practice, adding that she typifies “everything that is good about the social work profession”.

Vidhya was among 17 individuals and teams who scooped gold awards at the awards ceremony in central London last night. Andy Butler, who has spent the past 27 years working for Surrey council, picked up the Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of his passion for rights-based practice and commitment to promoting the Mental Capacity Act.

Professor Ray Jones, who is renowned for his expert commentary on child protection services and the Baby P case, received the Outstanding Contribution to Social Work award.

This year’s awards introduced two new categories to recognise the work of individuals who have championed social work values and raised the profession’s profile.

Here’s the full list of winners:

Overall Social Worker of the Year and Adults’ Social Worker of the Year: Vidhya Biju, Birmingham council

“If I ever need a social worker, I would absolutely want it to be Vidhya”. This sentiment was echoed throughout the endorsements in Vidhya’s nomination, as well as by the judges.

As a hospital social worker, Vidhya’s work takes place in a busy environment, where she is often only involved with service users and their families for a short period of time. However, despite this, her nomination showed that she has had huge impact on the lives of many.

In one case, Vidhya went above and beyond to ensure an elderly woman could return home from hospital. Health colleagues said it was too risky, the woman’s daughter lived 10 miles away, and the woman herself was a private person and was worried about having carers.

Vidhya took the challenges in her stride, and her approach resulted in the woman’s daughter agreeing to stay with her until she was gradually introduced to a carer of her choice. Vidhya also retained case responsibility after discharge to help the family apply for a direct payment.

The board of trustees selected Vidhya as Overall Social Worker of the Year because she typifies everything that is good about the social work profession.

Lifetime Achievement Award: Andy Butler, Surrey council

Andy stood out to the judges as a social worker who has never lost touch with the frontline.

His career started at age 18, when he started work as a community service volunteer, before later moving to Wandsworth and taking up the role of residential social worker for children.

After qualifying in 1980, Andy led the development of one of the early ‘patch-based’ social work teams, and worked part-time for a church developing a variety of community groups.

For the past 27 years Andy has worked for Surrey council, where he is currently the principal social worker for adults’ services. He has been truly inspired by the Mental Capacity Act, and trains and lectures at universities and conferences on this subject, as well as regularly advising colleagues on the most complex socio-legal cases. Alongside his professional career, he has volunteered as a local magistrate for nearly 30 years, sitting in criminal and family courts.

Andy’s colleagues said he “absolutely lives” the core principles of what a good social worker should be, and his strong commitment to supporting the rights of individuals and his promotion of equality and justice have made him the “go to” person for professional advice at the council.

Andy’s colleagues said he “absolutely lives” the core principles of what a good social worker should be, and his strong commitment to supporting the rights of individuals and his promotion of equality and justice have made him the “go to” person for professional advice at the council.

Outstanding Contribution to Social Work: Professor Ray Jones

Ray has always been a voice for social work and has been unafraid to speak out, sometimes against the trend, for the profession and vulnerable people he passionately believes in.

Ray spent 14 years as director of social services in Wiltshire, where he pioneered the integration with health services that is now standard policy across England. He then moved into a career in academia, through which he has published five books, including his analysis of the Peter Connelly case and the impact of media and political behaviour on those involved.

Ray became a key commentator on child protection after Baby P hit the headlines, at a time when very few voices were being heard. He has chaired safeguarding boards, led the improvement of “failing” children’s services, and also provided behind-the-scenes support to the social workers involved in Peter’s case, a testament to his integrity and compassion.

He was also the first chief executive of the Social Care Institute for Excellence, chaired BASW and, entirely voluntarily, helped to establish the Social Worker of the Year Awards charity.

His long-time colleague and friend, Peter Hay says: “Ray’s consistency of purpose, clear values, and passionate commitment are to be respected and deserve recognition accordingly.”

Children’s Social Worker of the Year: Jackie Dowding, Havering 

Jackie is described by her colleagues as “the social worker that all social workers aspire to be, and the social worker that all vulnerable children deserve” – and it’s easy to see why.

Jackie taught herself to read and write, and qualified as a social worker in her 40s. Now 74, she remains committed to frontline practice, never missing a visit or review, and even regularly makes a 12-hour round trip to Wales to visit one of the children on her caseload.

She has often been commended by judges, independent reviewing officers and Ofsted for her dedication and the testimonials in her nomination highlighted how the passion and advocacy she has for the young people in her care is “second to none”.

One example of this was Jackie advocating strongly for looked-after children whose experience of care was being impacted dramatically by having different social workers. Her intervention resulted in long-term cases now only being held by permanent team members.

Jackie’s sense of humour also shone through in her nomination, with stories of her recently ‘rapping’ at an event in celebration of looked-after children’s achievements. Tellingly, the young people present all commented on how they wished she was their social worker.

NQSW of the Year (Children’s), Dean Radford, Sheffield council

Dean stood out to the judges as someone who is “tenacious, creative and passionate”.

He was nominated for his astounding work with a terminally ill woman from Africa and her seven-year-old child, who were placed in Sheffield by the National Asylum Support Service.

Dean worked tirelessly to overcome the challenges he faced in securing adequate housing and support services for the family. He visited the mother in hospital many times, and assisted her to write a will expressing her last wishes and a goodbye letter to her child two days before she died, as well as helping to arrange the funeral. He did all this alongside providing emotional support to the child and navigating them through loss, a court order and care proceedings.

The judge in the case praised Dean’s work, and his manager said that in her career she had “never seen a social worker have such a positive impact as on the case described within this nomination”. She recalled how at the mother’s funeral, the first thing the child did was run to Dean and jump into his arms, which she said was “powerful evidence” of all he had achieved.

NQSW of the Year (Adults’), Gary Spencer-Humphrey, Hampshire council

Gary’s strong commitment to community-based social work made his application stand out.

Since qualifying in 2016, Gary has used a range of community resources to help people build resilience. This has included taking the time in his lunch breaks to visit the town centre and speak with shopkeepers about opportunities available to service users.

In one case, Gary’s local knowledge enabled him to support a 40-year-old woman with a severe and enduring mental illness to reconnect with her local community. He knew that a local charity was looking for peer support volunteers and after discovering that the woman had undertaken a mentoring course at college, he was successfully able to link her to the service.

The service user described Gary as “very calming” – a sentiment echoed by colleagues in his application. Gary is valued by his team as a “committed and reliable team player” who is mature, motivated and enthusiastic in his approach, and always supportive of others.

The judges were also impressed by Gary’s appointment to a mental health tribunal panel, and his extensive voluntary experience with St John’s Ambulance, a youth offending team, and as a special constable. They credited him as being a “very competent social worker”.

Mental Health Social Worker of the Year: Gareth Benjamin, Livewell South West

Gareth’s move towards specialist mental health work has been gradual yet purposeful since he joined Livewell South West after qualifying in 2013. But his relentless commitment to rights-based practice has helped him make a rapid impact within the Approved Mental Health Professional duty team, which he moved into in 2016, in preparation for training in this role.

Happiness is an emotion often mentioned by service users describing the impact of Gareth’s interventions on their circumstances, which in many cases had previously been anything but happy. This did not go unnoticed by the panel, with one judge commenting: “It brought tears to my eyes to see how fundamentally the lives of service users had been changed.”

In one standout piece of work, Gareth helped five people with mental health issues and significant support needs, who had been living in an “extremely squalid” shared house with four other individuals. Within three weeks he had assessed them and identified alternative accommodation, despite facing challenges around communication and managing their fears, linking with other services and accessing necessary resources.

“It is heartening to realise there will be many, many more people that will benefit from his compassion, commitment and creativity,” his manager said.

Team Leader of the Year, children’s services: Leanne Baines, Stockport Council

The team Leanne leads, Stockport council’s ASPIRE domestic abuse and sexual exploitation unit, is described on her nomination as the best of its kind in Greater Manchester and, arguably, in the country. Since taking the helm in 2015 she has played a huge part in setting those standards – starting with the challenging task of ironing out differences in approach between social workers and the police officers co-located with them.

Leanne’s commitment to high-quality social work practice is evident from the esteem in which other professionals hold her. “Leanne’s approach is one of unconditional positive regard – it’s evident she seeks to truly understand families, and she manages difficult conversations, in difficult times, fantastically,” said one colleague.

She also delivers training within the local authority and to GPs, foster carers, councillors and others, tailoring it to her audiences and drawing on cutting-edge research.

Despite the demands on her time, Leanne’s team invariably mention her supportiveness and availability as a manager – ”her phone is never switched off until she knows everybody has finished safely for the day” is a typical remark. Tellingly, her team has the lowest turnover rate within Stockport children’s services, with no one having left in the past two years.

Team Leader of the Year, adults’ services: Nicky Skinner, Devon County Council

Nicky’s career as a social worker, now spanning almost three decades, has seen her consistently strive to break down barriers between health and social care, in the process earning respect from colleagues across a range of disciplines.

The endorsements on her nomination return time and again to her skill, commitment and person-centred focus when handling complex cases, whether navigating difficult family dynamics or standing up to hostile questioning in the High Court. “Nicky has a consistent calm demeanour and provides a stable link between health and social care, ensuring the best possible care is provided for the individual,” said one community nurse team manager.

Her team members similarly highlight that calmness under pressure, as well as Nicky’s good humour, wisdom and ability to empower and support staff, when discussing the qualities that make her shine as a manager. But her leadership is also evident from her ability to handle tightening budgets – she was the first team manager in Devon to meet her financial savings targets in 2016-17. At the same time, she has enthused her team and explored ways in which strengths-based approaches and non-statutory services can be used to support people.

Team of the Year, children’s services: Pathway Team, East Riding Council

East Riding council’s Pathway Team has put the needs of young people leaving the care system at the heart of what it does, and this is reflected in an impressive range of outcomes.

The team has ensured that 95% of young people are in suitable accommodation, and has well-established Staying Put arrangements, with 75% of care leavers remaining with their foster carers until they are 18, and 15% staying with carers when they become young adults.

Staff have also developed a strong partnership with local colleges, training providers, and the Jobcentre plus, which has seen 71% of care leavers go on to further education or employment. In some cases, young people who left school with no qualifications have been supported into a situation where they are thriving at a university or on an apprenticeship.

The service was rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted in December 2016, and the team credits its success to “getting the basics right and really understanding what works”.

The judges said it was “lovely to see such a shining example”, and were impressed with the endorsements from young people the team has supported, who described staff as “loyal, dedicated, hardworking, and always there when needed”.

Team of the Year, adults’ services: Sexual Exploitation Hub, Newcastle city council

Newcastle council’s sexual exploitation hub, established in 2015, is the first of its kind in the way it addresses sexual exploitation seamlessly for both children and adults.

The multi-agency team, including adults’ and children’s social workers, voluntary, community and health sector members and police, works with many people who fall outside the remit of mainstream services, including individuals who are hard to engage with. Its original members all remain in post, with a strong team ethos as well as access to psychological support helping to sustain their commitment to challenging roles.

Safeguarding people – many of whom have experienced appalling abuse – and helping them move on are the hub’s primary objectives. But it has also offered crucial support to those pursuing justice through the court system. The hub has worked with several hundred children, young people and adults, and 82 convictions of sexual exploitation perpetrators have been achieved with its assistance. As a result of the hub’s work, local awareness of sexual exploitation has risen. Staff have developed policy, procedures and tools for working in the area, as well as speaking at a regional and national events.

The judging panel described the service as “a national beacon of best-practice”.

Championing Social Work Values, Carolyne Willow, Article 39

Carolyne boasts a long social work career, in which she has tirelessly championed the rights of children.

After qualifying in 1988, she spent seven years in local authority children’s services, before moving into the voluntary sector to work as a children’s rights advocate.

Between 2000 and 2012, she was the national coordinator of the Children’s Rights Alliance for England. Here, she coordinated two submissions to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, and wrote extensively on advocacy and safeguarding children in custody.

In 2015, Carolyne set up a new charity, Article 39, which focuses on the rights of children in institutional settings. Her achievements with this fledgling charity have been remarkable, perhaps most notably leading the ‘Together for Children’ alliance to campaign against the exemption clauses in the Children and Social Work Bill, which risked limiting children’s rights.

Carolyne organised a petition that received over 100,000 signatures, and her colleagues said it was arguable whether the clauses would have been dropped had it not been for Carolyne’s “energy, commitment and unflagging leadership”.

The judges praised Carolyne for significantly changing legislation for the better, challenging inequality and “absolutely campaigning for everything social workers believe in.”

Raising the profile of social work: Louise Walker, Redcar and Cleveland council

With 25 years’ experience in a range of roles across adults’ and children’s services at Redcar and Cleveland council, Louise has brought a rounded, inclusive and perceptive approach to her role as principal social worker at the authority.

A highlight of her tenure, which only began in February 2017, was an event that Louise led to celebrate World Social Work Day, featuring input from a diverse group of service users. These included a young adult with autism who was given the confidence to start work, a man with early onset dementia whose social worker had helped him come to terms with losing his independence, and two young women who had spent time in care and discussed the importance of being listened to. Attendees said they felt proud and motivated by the day, as well as commenting on how good it was to hear children’s and adults’ experiences being discussed within the same forum.

Louise’s other achievements so far have included raising the profile of social work within the council’s political framework and providing a space for frontline staff to air their issues with a view to improving working conditions.

The judging panel described her as an “exceptionally strong” candidate.

Student Social Worker of the Year: Louise Watson, Manchester Metropolitan University

Louise’s qualities are perhaps most easily illustrated by her interactions with children during her social work master’s degree, completed over a number of years in which she also worked in support roles at Stockport council children’s services.

Her selection process at Manchester Metropolitan University included being interviewed by a number of young people, who commented that they would have chosen her to be their social worker. Later, during a placement at Stockport’s domestic abuse and child sexual exploitation team – where she now has a job – she was the first person several children chose to disclose their experiences of being groomed and assaulted by adults to. Her practice educator, who called Louise an “outstanding student”, praised her “skills in communication, and understanding of young people’s needs and how to work restoratively with families”.

Louise also impressed with her handling of high-risk domestic abuse cases, implementing theory into her practice and sharing knowledge – including with those who have been on the receiving end of abuse. Despite initially lacking confidence around court work, the latter quality helped her to support a parent who was involved in the first case where a person was found guilty under the new domestic abuse law relating to coercive control.

Practice Educator of the Year: Lynn Lock, Achieving for Children

Lynn juggles her practice educator role with managing the young people’s substance misuse service at Achieving for Children, the social enterprise running children’s services in the London boroughs of Kingston and Richmond.

The ringing endorsements from past students on Lynn’s nomination form speak volumes for her skills, which enable her to equip trainees with the capabilities they need to succeed not just during their placement but deep into social work careers. Several are now managers or senior practitioners.

Something that particularly shines through is her capacity for helping students to overcome doubts and anxieties so they can achieve their potential. “Because of her encouraging style, each day that I spent in Lynn’s team, I felt my passion return, my confidence in myself grow, and my motivation for a future in social work reignite,” said her most recent student.

As well as her motivational qualities, Lynn’s nomination highlighted her dedication to her students, keeping in touch with them many years after their placements, and her adaptability to their needs. The judges added that the impression was of someone who “sees every student afresh”, identifying strengths while putting in place tailored support to help people feel at home from the outset.

Best social work employer: Central Bedfordshire council

Three years ago, Central Bedfordshire council’s children’s services department, which employs just under 120 social workers, was in a tricky situation.

Around half of children’s social workers at the authority, which faces natural recruitment and retention challenges because of its proximity to London, were agency staff, with 54% of posts sitting vacant.

Since then, Central Bedfordshire has made sweeping changes. Teams have been restructured into smaller units with non-caseholding managers, helping to improve practice standards and bring average caseloads down from around 30 to 16.

An innovative academy has also been set up, combining children’s social work learning and development opportunities with those available to early years professionals. This has enabled social workers to access bespoke child-focused training in order to meet their needs.

Underpinning these headline changes has been a focus on supervision, communication and support – including external counselling, which some social workers have said has helped them stay in their jobs. The vacancy rate among children’s social workers is now down to 18%, with 91% saying that they receive regular supervision and 97% understanding their team’s aims and objectives. The judges noted that the improvements at Central Bedfordshire indicated that a “whole-systems approach” was in place.

Creative and innovative social work practice: Virtual Dementia Tour Training Team, Essex council

The Virtual Dementia Tour (VDT) uses special equipment to give people with healthy brains a taste of the challenges and sensory impairments faced by individuals with mid-stage Alzheimer’s Disease. Originally developed in the US, its UK training provider has now trained Essex council staff to deliver the hands-on course to colleagues and others.

While this was primarily done to ensure geographically dispersed adult social care staff could be trained up as efficiently as possible, the VDT has now been opened up to all council employees, many of whom are also carers. The 11 council trainers – most of them frontline practitioners or social work assistants – manage their responsibilities on top of their day jobs.

Staff and family carers alike praised the power of the VDT training, which frequently leads to profound changes in the ways in which people approach those with dementia. “The experience of the tour was overwhelming,” said one older people’s team manager. “I had no idea as to the impact dementia could have on day-to-day senses, and how this could leave you feeling.”

The judges, meanwhile, hailed Essex’s “bold and brave learning and development work” and called for the model to be rolled out nationally.

Community Care is the official media sponsor of the awards

More from Community Care

6 Responses to Social Worker of the Year Awards 2017: The winners

  1. Jane Kenyon Drummond November 28, 2017 at 6:54 pm #

    How do you apply to be one social worker of the year for 2018…. thankyou

    • Mithran Samuel November 28, 2017 at 9:38 pm #

      Hi Jane
      In 2018 there will be an announcement when nominations open for the awards. We will report on this on Community Care.

  2. Carol November 28, 2017 at 8:42 pm #

    I’m voting every single social worker, social worker of the year. Bless you all!

  3. Heather Kent November 29, 2017 at 3:27 pm #

    Well done everyone ! Very inspiring to see great social work celebrated. Of course we know that this goes on day in day out all over the UK and there a plenty of unsung heroes out there – but how wonderful to see some of them celebrated!

    Warm wishes to all,

    Heather Kent (Adults Social Worker of the Year 2016)

  4. Jo November 30, 2017 at 11:19 pm #

    Well done Jacqueline, very committed and dedicated social worker

  5. John O'Gara December 6, 2017 at 3:42 pm #

    I was pleased to see that practice educator was included in the awards. For a profession that relies on practice educators to maintain standards it is an essential role. I hope that the specialism of practice educator continues to be acknowledged in the wider social work community.