It seems appropriate that one of the very few black and minority ethnic women directors of social care in the country, Sherry Malik, is in charge of both children and adults’ services in Hounslow, one of the country’s most diverse areas.
She talks with pride of the 254,000 people living in the west London borough, who speak over 140 languages and live in everything from housing estates to green belt villages.
“But what I particularly like is that the council has a reputation for working in partnership to meet the needs and aspirations of all its residents,” she adds.
Malik worked as a social worker in local government for 12 years before embarking on roles in national organisations including Action for Children, the Audit Commission and family courts body Cafcass.
‘Valuable lessons’ from closing the GSCC
But it’s perhaps her immediate past job, as deputy chief executive of the General Social Care Council, which has left the deepest imprint as she was there when the decision was taken to close the regulator.
“Along with Penny Thompson [the chief executive] we had to embark on a two-year journey to still keep staff motivated and engaged so we could close with integrity,” she adds. “It taught me a lot of valuable lessons.”
But when researching where she should go next, Malik says she surprised herself by being drawn to the twin role of director of children and adults at Hounslow.
“Many local authorities are restructuring and creating this dual role out of necessity, but I can see the advantages to working with communities and families as a whole rather than through departmental silos. And I felt it would give me the opportunity to learn something new in the bargain.”
From teaching to social work
Curiosity seems to have been a guiding instinct in her career. Originally a trained kindergarten teacher, she says she was always curious about what might be going on at home for the children and impacting on their behaviour in the classroom. This is what attracted her to social work. But she admits that her return to local government has come at the most challenging of times.
“I’m not sure that in five or 10 years local government will look the same with the amount of money that is reducing in the system. With demand for services growing, particularly with the growth in the elderly population, the relationship between local authorities and their residents needs to fundamentally change. The expectations cannot continue to be the same.”
The integration of health and social care is important and is under discussion in Hounslow but she is not blind to its challenges.
“We need some evidence about what are the conditions for success.”
And, fundamentally, she says the culture change needed involves a good old-fashioned social work approach in terms of supporting communities to be more resilient and strengthen inter-generational bonds.
‘We are running out of time and money’
It also involves asking some tough questions.
“I asked my senior team to think about if we had to start with a blank sheet of paper and a smaller pot of money, how would we deliver our responsibilities? Can we afford to work in silos with separate adult and children’s social workers? Do we need a return to social services departments? Do we need to start putting our efforts into high quality social work with a “think family” approach? These are tough questions with so many ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ attached to them. But they need to be asked and we need some answers quick. We are running out of time and money.”
Sherry Malik on…
A social care leader must be….able to look after herself. My mother used to say look after yourself, otherwise you can’t look after your family. I think the same concept applies to work!
If I wasn’t a social work director I’d be…an interior designer – if I wasn’t planning services I would be planning rooms.
I’m most inspired by… Nelson Mandela. His book – Long walk to Freedom is humbling. I was privileged to hear him talk at a London School of Economics event and when he joined the dancers on stage performing for him and danced with them – well – that was just beautiful.
My staff describe me as….”the blog lady”. On my first Friday in the job, I posted a blog for staff, which I have committed to writing every Friday since. It is a platform I use to congratulate individuals for their outstanding work, motivate, inform, empathise and get buy-in for changes. Colleagues tell me that they look forward to it, not only because it tells them about the work of the department, but because it provides an insight into what the director does, which I am told is often a mystery to many junior staff!
What keeps me awake at night…My partner’s snoring – any advice welcome on this!
The government could make my job easier by …..not seeing structural reform as a panacea for change. Its sucks oxygen out of the system.
I’m proudest of….my children Shiv and Piya who are, in their own way, helping to make the world a better place.