The best and worst decisions I’ve made

For Sandra Gilfillan working in a school with families and children was ideal. But then it was time to move on

The best decision I made

It was 1998. I had worked for 13 years in my post in Tower Hamlets, London. Life as a social worker then had its challenges, but mostly I had enjoyed it and felt I was making a positive contribution to the lives of the families I worked with. At that point, I wanted to leave statutory social work and find a new direction.

Then came my dream job – a children and families counsellor in a school for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties – and I began a unique journey that lasted seven memorable years.

I worked with pupils who had all sorts of difficulties. Some were very challenging even in one-to-one situations. But I had the freedom to create my own style of working, and the notes I kept were a simple aide memoire. I had the time to build a relationship with each child, and find the spark that could ignite their often crushed self-esteem.

It was a privilege to work in such an inspiring and creative environment. Until recently, it was painful to think about because the sense of loss and the contrast with my current work seemed so acute.

The worst decision I made

In my seventh year at the school, I knew it was time to move on. I had done what I could and the school was thriving. In September 2008 I re-entered the world of statutory social work.

Three weeks into my first locum post, the Baby P tragedy hit the headlines. Everything I had learned in my previous job, especially about emotional literacy, was apparently absent. There was no open discussion in the team about this major event.

There was simply a ratcheting up of pressure on frontline staff to get things done. Colleagues were off ill with stress, people were working until 9pm to try to keep up, there was a surge of the blame culture. Most of all I noticed the fear that had become endemic in the system and the profession.

Since this baptism of fire I have moved to another area. After some difficult months things are now on a more even keel. And yet, the busy-ness continues, with forms, meetings, the integrated children’s systemtrying to be efficient.

But getting to know children is different. Efficiency and cost-effectiveness have their place, I admit. But at the expense of social work values, the well-being of staff and of clients? I still hope that this is not really the case – and hope for a brighter future for social work.

Sandra Gilfillan is a locum social worker for children’s services in London

This article is published in the 14 January 2010 edition of Community Care under the headline “I switched from a dream job to a Baby P blame culture”

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