‘My advice to student social workers’/‘If I knew then what I know now’

‘My advice to student social

Ian Johnston, director BASW
“Don’t compromise your principles. You always end up
paying for it in the end. Fight for what you believe is the right
outcome, and don’t be bullied or worn down into passivity.
Social work is not just about protecting people at times of
vulnerability. Challenging injustice and promoting social change
are a daily event. I remember vividly the response from a local
Round Table many years ago to my suggestion that the annual
christmas party for adults with a learning disability should be
replaced by trips to football matches. I remember too the
resistance to the banning of physical punishment in schools. When
people greet your suggestions with disdain and anger, you’re
probably on the right track, just ahead of your time.

“You also need a strong sense of professional identity and a
clear set of values to succeed. I get mine from my BASW

Alexis Jay, director of social work, West
Dunbartonshire, and president of the Association of Directors of
Social Work
“First, continue learning. When you finish training, the
temptation is to toss the textbooks in a corner and turn with
relief to something lighter. I certainly did this – over 30 years
ago – and looking back I wish I had continued the reading and
learning habit immediately after qualifying, although I did return
to it some years later. It has become a cliché, but you are
responsible for your own professional development. Your employer is
responsible for creating a climate which promotes access to
learning and knowledge, and gives you the tools to get on with

“Second, be confident and believe in your skills. Your job is
about protection of vulnerable people, inclusion, and empowerment
which helps people, whatever their life circumstances, to live as
full a life as they can. This is a hugely important contribution to
make to society.”

Chris Hanvey, UK director of operations,
“Advice, as the Earl of Chesterfield said, is seldom
welcome, and those who need it the most always want it the least. I
would therefore tread gingerly when it comes to giving advice to
social work students embarking upon a challenging career.

“Perhaps three signposts are worth noting. First, recognise that
you will be working in a social welfare universe that will change
beyond recognition in 10 years. A nimbleness will be required as
voluntary, statutory and private sector move closer together and
social care becomes practised in new settings.

“Second, make sure you get on top of those areas where knowledge
is essential and

measurable. In child care, for example, know the legislation, be
familiar with human growth and development and learn about those
disabilities you are likely to encounter. Your credibility partly
depends upon your hard earned knowledge.

“Third, develop a resilience which will help resist the slings
and arrows of ambiguous politicians, a poorly comprehending public
and a fickle press.”

‘If I knew then what I know

Armed with hindsight and a wealth of experience, key figures in
the world of social work give the benefit of their 20:20 vision to
the next generation of social workers.

Peter Clarke, children’s commissioner for
“I did my social work training at Warwick University
rather late in my career, when I was already involved in management
in the late 1980s. I had already experienced some of the hard
knocks that come to all of us in our careers. Perhaps a better
indicator would be when I was a trainee social worker at Lambeth in
the early 1970s. Heady days when everything seemed possible as the
post-Seebohm area teams set out to solve the social problems of
south London. If I had known that Thatcherism would mount such a
successful assault on the value system underlying our work I would
have been far less lazy in assuming that everyone knew and
understood it.

“I would also have been far more aware of child protection – I
often wonder how many children we missed in those days. One thing I
would still do the same is to continue in this work – we need to
ensure that it again becomes as attractive an option as it was to
me then.”

Owen Davies, national officer, Unison
“I went straight from studying history at university to a
social work course. That was a mistake. There must be some young
people of 21 who are ready to make that sort of career decision but
I should have found a social care job for a couple of years before
signing up for training.

“I went into my course with some fanciful ideas about what
social work was about and without any solid experience of what the
day-to-day work was like. I survived the transition from student to
newly qualified worker thanks to the support of the experienced
team I joined, but I would have been more use to the clients if I
had known more about the job before I arrived.

“And I really should have joined the union as a student social
worker so that I could have found out more about the pay and
benefits on offer.”

Dame Denise Platt, chair, Commission for Social Care
“I spent much of my career doing jobs that seemed not to
count for the next thing I wanted to do!

“My first jobs before I went to university – a GP receptionist,
and an apprentice teacher in a primary school – do now seem very
relevant to the current agenda. They said my arts A levels
didn’t equip me to read a science degree in economics – but
they were wrong. They said my degree in economics didn’t
count as a suitable background for social work and that I should do
an extra placement before starting my qualification – so I did.
They said being a health service social worker wouldn’t equip
me to work in child care – they were wrong. So I learned just to
get on and do it and not let others talk me out of it. You
don’t have to do the conventional things to work in social

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