There has never been a better or more challenging time to be a social worker in the capital, writes Kathy Oxtoby
London’s streets may not be paved with gold but, as the Olympic host city, gold is becoming an apt word to associate with the capital. And, as the countdown to 2012 gets underway, it could be a rewarding period for those who work there.
With 33 local authorities, there is no shortage of social care employers from all sectors looking to recruit. There are also more jobs than people within a manageable travelling radius, so you can pick and choose.
One social worker describes how boroughs compete with each other to attract high-calibre staff. “They not only offer ‘golden hellos’ but good training options and opportunities to work in different areas.”
Salaries for social care workers are also higher in London, which helps to make up for the higher cost of living in the capital.
London’s social care providers have years of experience handling the practicalities of recruitment. This means they can help recruits find their way through what can often be a maze, such as organising work permits and General Social Care Council registration for overseas social workers.
Mix of cultures
For those who want to work with a mix of cultures, the capital is home to more than 50 non-indigenous communities of more than 10,000 people – 30% of London’s population was born outside the UK.
“The city attracts fascinating people from all over the world, so social work in London is a global experience. London reflects the best of a multicultural country,” says Anthony Douglas, chief executive of the Children and Families Court Advisory and Support Service, the largest employer of social workers in the UK.
Social care professionals in London can also expect to work with people from some of the most affluent and impoverished areas in the country.
For John Goldup, corporate director for adult health and wellbeing at Tower Hamlets Council, his area, in the east of the city, is home to the most diverse communities in the country. “The borough is incredibly varied, dynamic and exciting with energetic and enthusiastic communities.”
However, working in areas where there is an obvious juxtaposition between rich and poor and also some of the highest levels of homelessness and substance misuse in the country can also be “very challenging”, acknowledges one social care professional.
“Caseloads and budgets are very borough-dependent. I know people who work in boroughs which are poorly resourced. Another friend, who works in one of the richest boroughs, has an enormous wealth of resources and a lower caseload,” he says.
With some of the highest caseloads in the country, social care in London is fast-paced but offers “the sort of professional development you can’t get from a book or learn in the classroom”, says Nick Brenton, secretary of the Association of London Directors of Children’s Services.
“People who come to work in social care in London don’t expect an easy ride – they expect a variety of professional challenges that will prove whether they will sink or swim. But they also have the chance to make a difference and turn people’s lives around.”
There are plenty of opportunities to progress your career and even to take on responsibility earlier than your contemporaries living in other parts of the country because of the high turnover of staff.
“Staff churn in London does mean you can go quite high in your career quite soon,” says Douglas. “Unlike living in a rural county where there may be only half a dozen employers, in London you can endlessly reinvent yourself to find new roles and jobs.”
The sheer size of the city and the scale of the problems its communities face mean there are always new projects to be involved in. “London has always been innovative,” says Douglas. “There are some terrific schemes out there and there are still not enough, given the scale of the problems.”
To develop creative solutions, social care workers can also cross professional divides, for example by teaming up with health care professionals in primary care trusts. Staff even have the chance to reshape social care provision because, as Brenton points out, “services in London are a movable feast”.
Choices for social care workers considering a career move are not confined to the public sector. The private sector, charities and agencies are also a rich source of jobs and there is always a surplus of posts to fill.
London also offers more opportunities to specialise. Patti Simonson was working in a small town where there was little scope to develop her role. Now she is head of social work for the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability, a medical charity in London. Simonson specialises in the rehabilitation of people with brain injuries and neuro-disabilities, assisting in the long-term planning of their care and working with families to help them adjust to the profound disability of their loved ones.
Having such a satisfying role has helped her to put down roots in the city. “The fact that I value my work so much has meant that I’ve been able to settle down here. I’ve never regretted moving to London.”
For anyone coming into the social care profession, working in London is demanding but can offer the most rewards, says Goldup. “You need to explore ways of relating to such a wide range of different cultures, to be prepared for challenges and to learn from your experiences,” he says.
“There’s an awful lot of work – but it’s great here.”
Case study: Saffron Allnutt, social worker, Westminster Council
Saffron Allnutt seemed destined for a career in social work in London. Born and bred in Tower Hamlets, with a mother who was a social worker in Greenwich, Allnutt was inspired “to give something back to the community I grew up in”.
In July 2007, after achieving a social work degree at the University of Reading, Allnutt returned to London and now works for the duty and assessment team at Westminster Council.
Compared with other places she has experienced, London is much more demanding she believes. “There are a lot more challenges, but it’s interesting work,” she says. “I’m involved in making child protection assessments which is emotive work but it can be really rewarding to think you’ve made positive changes to someone’s life. Protecting vulnerable children involves a new challenge every day. Every family is different and the work is varied.”
She enjoys the perks that working in London brings, such as the extra salary and good public transport – you don’t need a car to work in Westminster – not to mention the benefits to her social life.
“It’s a ‘young’ city so there’s a lot to do and with London’s transport everything’s accessible. I’ve got some good work colleagues and we often go out and socialise.”
London is perfect for those who prefer a fast pace of life, Allnutt feels. She says: “It’s busy, constantly changing and evolving. But it’s never mundane or boring. My job is fast-paced but exciting, which keeps me interested and challenged. I’ve enjoyed putting into practice what I learned from my degree and have also earned a lot from working here.”
And there are many more career opportunities out there. Allnutt adds: “The different boroughs are always calling out for social workers and there’s so much variety between them – from Greenwich to Brent every borough is different. London is just a brilliant place to work.”
Published in the 4 September edition of Community Care under the headline ‘London is the Place for Me’