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An International Women’s Day event and a chance conversation on a quay are the ingredients that cooked up a unique scheme for social work students to work with asylum seekers and refugees in Plymouth, Devon.

Until then, people dispersed to this historic city were supported by the education department’s ethnic minority achievement service.

“The department meets every new family, does the initial assessment, finds schools for them, buys their school uniform – it’s an intensive three- or four-week period,” says Helen Taylor, refugee support co-ordinator.

“I was then having families asking for help filling in forms and to explain what letters meant. When a Rwandan family were given leave to remain, it was the first time this had happened in Plymouth. None of us knew what this might involve. They asked me to help. I called social services, which said as it wasn’t children in need they couldn’t take the family under their remit.”

It was obvious that something needed to happen.

Avril Butler, lecturer in social work and practice learning co-ordinator at the University of Plymouth pinpoints the catalyst for change: “At an International Women’s Day event in 2001 somebody spoke about asylum seekers being dispersed and that we needed to think about what could we do. I thought: ‘student placements – that’s what I can do’.”

Butler, who lives in the same village as Taylor’s manager, Belinda O’Flynn, adds: “We were talking on the quay one day in desperation at all the work Helen was doing – all these requests from families, and how it wasn’t her job, and that nobody else wanted to know. So I said to her ‘What about students, then?’.”

And the deal on this innovative project was struck. Taylor and Ann Edgecombe, community care worker for social services, were released to the scheme for three hours a week to provide supervision and links to other services. Because students can be supervised only on one afternoon, only three can take part at any one time. So far, 11 students have completed the placement successfully.

“We took applications for this placement and needed to choose confident people,” says practice teacher Louise Houston. “Students don’t get daily support, so they need to be self-starters,” adds Butler.

The scheme received a £3,000 grant from the Home Office Refugee Integration Fund. Butler says: “We bought two laptops so students can have an office wherever they go and three mobiles as most of our families use these for texting. The grant also paid for an information sheet on the service translated into all languages required, so when students appear at a door, it will explain who they are and what they are there for.”

Plymouth has 58 asylum-seeking families – 88 adults and 166 children – and 29 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. And the city is, says Butler, still coming to grips with how to deal with people from other cultures.

“One of the biggest things for students is dealing with the shock and anger they have over the racism suffered by these families,” she says.

Taylor adds: “One grandmother didn’t know what operation she had had until six months after because it had not been explained to her.”

The students also learn an enormous amount, says practice teacher Viv Horton: “Instead of looking at things and thinking, ‘What theory can I link into my practice for the sake of the placement pack?’ it’s ‘If I don’t know this, I can’t do it’. And they are so generative – we pick up so many things from them, websites and so on.”

So what does the future hold: stormy or calm waters? “Ideally, what we would like is funding for a full-time co-ordinator who can have a finger on the pulse of who the families are, what their needs are, and bridge the gaps between students finishing and starting,” says Butler. And that’s one sea worth navigating.

– For more information e-mail Avril Butler at 


Scheme: Student social work service to asylum seekers and refugees.

Location: Plymouth.

Staffing: Three hours a week, social services and education officer time; two practice teachers.

Inspiration: To provide meaningful placements for students while providing a practical service to asylum seekers and refugees outside a social services remit.

Cost: £17 a student each placement day.

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