Student Heather Phillips explains why social work values can play a vital role in the more “authoritarian” setting of secondary schools
Multidisciplinary working between education and social care is not a new idea, but one still in its infancy. And, with the expansion of extended schools, it’s a model likely to grow in the future.
I was one of nine social work students placed in schools in Stoke-on-Trent last year to help bridge the gap between universal and higher tier services. Located with the education welfare officer and home-school links worker, I found the school staff welcomed me into the school community and were very supportive.
My first task was to develop a role that complemented the work already being done. This was a challenging process which continued throughout the placement. The resulting role that developed was one focused on prevention, including working voluntarily with young people and their families to set goals, locate barriers and identify strategies in line with the five outcomes of Every Child Matters.
Working with young people, families, teaching staff, support staff and senior managers enabled a holistic, whole-system approach to meeting young people’s needs. Interventions ranged from developing individual action plans to adding to the school’s personal and social education programme and developing staff resources on accessing other agencies. This approach allowed us to respond in a way that was person-centred and knowledge- and values-based, unconstrained by the managerial agendas, bureaucratic procedures and heavy caseloads of traditional statutory working.
In terms of supporting children and families, working from a school setting proved extremely effective. Being accessible on a day-to-day basis allowed me to develop close, trusting relationships with pupils and staff, to seek regular feedback regarding the pupils I was working with, and to respond quickly to any concerns, changes or difficulties quickly. This contact also made it possible to gain an understanding of the school system from the young person’s perspective, and seek feedback from staff accordingly. This close working proved highly beneficial both in terms of each person’s satisfaction with the process and with the sustainability of the outcomes.
The universal setting of a school offered a less stigmatising route to social work support and information, and I found young people and their families welcoming and keen to engage regardless of their interest in education. The school setting also offered a neutral environment to develop a trusting relationship outside the privacy of the home.
While the authoritarian system did at times clash with the social work value base, school staff were very active in their willingness to discuss these differences to agree suitable ways of working. This open dialogue was essential to the success of the work. We also discussed at length the importance of developing a distinct role for staff, pupils and families.
Although my initial uncertainty over my role left me unconfident and unassertive in discussions about my professional boundaries, this developed throughout the placement. In terms of power differentials, my role was facilitated by being able to remain outside the classroom and operate on first name terms. As a result, I was successfully able to advocate on behalf of young people and their families within the school.
The placement was thoroughly enjoyable and well supported. However, in a non-traditional multidisciplinary setting, the importance of confidence in our knowledge, values and ethical base cannot be overstated. I believe there is definitely a role for social workers in schools that will prove a very rewarding partnership for all involved where such arrangements are welcomed.
Heather Phillips is a social work studentThis article appears in the 6 March issue under the headline “‘There should be a place for social work in every school'”