Doing it for real

Earlier this year, just as the government launched the second phase of its social work recruitment campaign, Community Care met with six final-year Diploma in Social Work students who were planning careers in the profession (“Social care expects,” 18 April).

The group was diverse. Some already had experience in social care, others were joining straight from university and one was retraining from a career as a barrister.

Now, six months on, the group have gained their DipSWs and started work as qualified social workers. But what do they make of their training and their new jobs, and is social work meeting, exceeding or failing their expectations?

Name: Nik Flavell

Training: Two-year DipSW/MSc, Jesus College, University of Oxford.

Post: Social worker in a duty and referral team, Sunderland Council.

Nik Flavell decided on a DipSW to help him do more for the vulnerable people he met during a year practising as a barrister. He lived in London during the course, but planned to head for the North East to avoid London’s high housing costs. He wanted to work on a referral and assessment team for children and families.

“I moved to Durham because it was close to both Sunderland and Newcastle Councils, both with three stars in the league tables.” He adds: ” The stars will definitely affect recruitment – what newly-qualified workers would willingly go to a zero star authority?”

“As a social worker in a duty and referral team in Sunderland, I earn just under £20,000, which I am resigned to, though it isn’t comparable with other public sector professions. It makes me ambitious for promotion to obtain more money. There were no incentives. I think this happens more in the South East whereas up north it’s more unimaginative.

“The workload is greater than you can imagine before you start. I was unprepared for paperwork and interagency liaison. The first month in the job is a nightmare.

“The course was very non-specific so when you begin work there is a lot to learn, and potentially clients will suffer while you’re learning -Êthere are risks in that approach to training. It is easy now to understand how mistakes are made.

“The good side is I am now working with families to bring about good changes and keeping children safe. I will stay in the job until I feel the need to gain experience in a different setting. I am ambitious and want to be a director of social services.

“I miss the prestige of being a barrister because social workers have to fight harder to justify their existence,” Nik adds. “A high degree of self-motivation and determination is needed to get into social work – it is not for the faint-hearted.”

Name: Helen Woolgar

Training: Two-year DipSW/MSc, Green College, University of Oxford.

Post: Social worker with looked-after children, Southwark social services, south London.

Helen Woolgar also studied the DipSW/MA at Oxford University. She already had some experience working with disabled people and befriending, which inspired her to go into social work. In contrast to Flavell, she was planning to move to London and work with disabled children.

“I moved to London because it is diverse and I thought it would be challenging in terms of social work,” she says. “I accepted a job at Southwark social services as a social worker with looked-after children. I thought I would gain broader experience from this post and would specialise later.

“An initial concern was that I would be a ‘form-filler’ and wouldn’t be able to forge relationships with young people. But I do life-story work, which is hands-on. It’s challenging building a relationship with a child that has had four social workers.

“I was prepared for the job, but I would have liked to have learned more about child development on the course, which would now help me make assessments,” Helen says. “Around 50 per cent of the people on my course now have jobs that they didn’t need the DipSW for. I still aim to go into research in the future, as I passionately believe research should be led more by front-line staff.”

Name: Leslie Wilson

Training: Two-year DipSW/MSc, University of Nottingham.

Post: Children’s services inspector with the National Care Standards Commission in Derbyshire.

Leslie Wilson, 34, has worked in a number of settings and held various management posts for nine years. He took the DipSW to maintain this level in social work after two years out for a degree.

“I got my dream job as a children’s services inspector with the National Care Standards Commission in Derbyshire, which will include inspecting children’s services, registering managers, and some limited child protection work.

“I got the job in July, but I’m still waiting for my police check with the Criminal Records Bureau. If inspectors are not cleared soon, there is the chance government targets won’t be met. Therefore I have to start my job on 28 October regardless -Êalthough in the first month I’ll be working alongside another inspector who has already been checked.”

Leslie has also lost out financially because of the delay.

“I started training for my new job and I know there will be a hot-desking system, which I don’t like as you have no personal space in the office.” But he adds: “The team has a lot of new employees so I am looking forward to the buzz.

“I hope the job will change my perception of children’s services. I came out of it 10 years ago feeling that it was too easy to get burned out and disgusted with a system where any person with ambition was regarded as odd.

“If the job is bad I will stay for a minimum of two years but if it’s good, six years, and then aim to be an assistant director, children’s services. I don’t want to go higher into management because I don’t want to remove myself from the service users or become a pseudo-politician.”

Name: Toby Flight

Training: Two-yearÊDipSW/MSc, University of London.

Post: Social worker, children’s team at Surrey Council.

Toby Flight, 31, had experience of specialist therapeutic work and residential work with adolescents. Before he passed his DipSW/MA, he wanted to work in a child protection team.

Now, he says: “I didn’t look for a job immediately as I wanted to reflect after a hectic 18 months studying, plus I wanted to make the right choice. In early September, I got a job as social worker in a long-term children’s team at Surrey Council. It involves planning and co-ordinating work, liaising with other agencies, child protection, and work with families.

“Initially, I felt ambivalent, as you hear horror stories of people leaving field work prematurely due to stress, but the team has been a good introduction to field work.

“I chose Surrey because the salary exceeded my expectations, with bonuses and mortgage subsidies that recognised the high living costs. I was also attracted by their approach to newly-qualified workers and so far feel I have been managed well, given appropriate cases and good supervision. Learning the systems and inter-agency work is challenging but rewarding.

“I enjoyed my course and felt it was forward thinking, but you can never be fully prepared unless you have a field placement, which there is a desperate shortage of. I plan to stay at least two years to understand systems and gain experience before trying for a senior social worker post. I already feel I have grown enormously in the past weeks and still aim to train as a play therapist.

Name: Abbi Adair

Training: Two-yearÊDipSW/MSc, University of Durham.

Post: Social worker in the referral and assessment duty team in children’s services, Sunderland Council.

Abbi Adair, 28, was studying a DipSW/MA at the University of Durham. Her parents fostered children, and she had been a support worker with adults with learning difficulties. Abbi wanted to be a children and families social worker.

“Managers from children’s services at Sunderland social services came to our university to talk about their department, which impressed me. So did the authority’s three-star status in the league tables, plus it was local and so I applied for jobs there.

“I started as assistant social worker in June and moved automatically to social worker in the referral and assessment duty team in children’s services after my results came through.

“My job involves carrying out initial assessments of children in need, producing service plans and offering advice to families. I have a fantastically supportive team, I love the work, and being paid is great. I expected £16,000 but my salary is just under £20,000. The nature of the job means the hours can be long, but the work-load is always spread equally.

“The learning curve on the course was tremendous, but nothing compared to the workplace. The DipSW course is good grounding but the job puts the meat on the bones. A two-year course is too short, and more placement time is needed.

But she adds: “Because of the pace there is no time for reflection or to read current research, although managers try and include this in team meetings. I have already started post-qualifying training at work, which is to prepare new social workers for the reality of work and this has time built in for reflection. I intend to stay in the job for a long time to gain experience and knowledge before I think about climbing the career ladder.”

Name: Nora Dudley

Training: Two-yearÊDipSW/MSc, University of Sheffield.

Post: Over-11s team social worker at Bracknell social services, Berkshire.

Nora Dudley, 23, had experience in playgroups, nursing, respite, residential and support work. She completed the DipSW/MA at University of Sheffield and hoped for a job as a field worker in a council looked-after team somewhere in the south.

“The course prepared me to be a social worker in a theoretical way but the day-to-day work is not covered as well as it could have been. I wish I had been prepared more for the paperwork.

“As I’m practising, the training is coming back but the gaps, which I knew were there, are exacerbated. I obtained a job as an over-11s team social worker at Bracknell social services, in Berkshire, in April subject to me passing the DipSW. The salary was good and I was given a relocation package to help with the moving costs from Sheffield.

“I am now paying my debts back slowly. I feel I earn a good wage but am living as tightly as when I was a student.

“The amount I have learned in six weeks is huge, the in-house training has been fantastic. I have just done solution brief therapy training for intense pieces of family support work and minimising problems, and had some really good results in practice. The reasons children are accommodated surprised me,” Dudley says. “It is the complete opposite of the tabloid myth that social workers snatch children away from parents.

“There is a protected caseload system to protect new staff. I am supposed to work a seven-and-a-half hour day, but I find it difficult to walk away and therefore I am working longer hours. I will have to watch the situation. I expect to stay in the job for at least two years as I would learn more in a statutory than in any other setting.

“I miss the voluntary sector as there is less paper work and more autonomy. I’d like to return in the future, although I intend to explore a few other areas too.”

In June 2003 Community Care reporter Clare Jerrom revisited the six to find out how their careers were progressing.  Click here for more.

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