By Nushra Mansuri
Being one of 20 local authorities judged to be inadequate is a tough place to be, particularly when you work in a council that has been given a notoriety all of its own. I am, of course, talking about Birmingham, which as I write is reportedly 82 social workers down.
I qualified as a social worker 20 years ago and was absolutely clear where I wanted to start my career and learn my craft – it had to be a city with a rich cultural diversity, so my sights were clearly set on Birmingham. I had also originally qualified as a secondary school teacher in the city and felt a connection with the communities and young people I’d come into contact with. It is a decision I have never regretted.
In those days, Birmingham had a careers fair for graduates where the city’s team managers or assistant team managers tried to convince the next generation of social workers to come and work with them in their area office. This personal touch was highly influential. I spoke to the person who ended up being my team manager and liked him immediately. I knew this was someone I could work with and I got a clear sense of his values and ethos.
Memories of a strong team culture
We were allowed to apply to five areas and rank them in terms of preference. This process wasn’t infallible – inexplicably I was given interviews in areas I had not applied to – but I was elated to get not only a job interview, but also a job offer at my first choice.
My memories of those early days are of a very welcoming environment with a strong team culture. Most of the social workers were experienced, ranging from two to three years to over 10. I felt truly blessed as I learned so much from these colleagues.
One of my key concerns now is how a positive identity can be instilled in a team, particularly in environments where people are expected to ‘hot desk’, where there may not be a designated area for people to gather for a coffee or lunch. Healthy social work teams are more critical than ever in the current climate. Social workers are not ‘islands’, we need each other to survive and thrive.
I was also based in an office with adults’ social workers, the home care team and two day care officers, which was very useful in terms of understanding the bigger picture. Times have changed since then, with the separation of children’s and adults services.
Our office was also a short walk from the high street, which meant children and families could easily locate us and pop in if they wanted to. Social workers took pride in creating child-friendly meeting rooms that could be booked for direct work with children.
Advice to social workers
While we can’t turn the clock back, I would urge all social workers of all persuasions not to allow themselves to become ‘siloed’ in their practice. And, where there are opportunities to talk to social workers in other settings, take them, it will enrich your practice as well as help develop some valuable relationships.
I feel sad that this model has been abandoned in Birmingham. It now tends to house social work teams in two locations, neither of which are community-based. One social worker told me that there were no child-friendly facilities in her building.
However, we weren’t confined to the four walls of the area office, we were also encouraged to work in the community and make use of resources like the local voluntary sector family centre, which was an integral part of one of the local estates. It provided a more neutral venue for sessions like observed contact, which can feel a bit clinical in a social work office.
It’s good for individuals and teams to think about the partnerships they develop with local resources and how they might be able to negotiate use of their facilities with families on the books of the school and children’s centre, as well as social care.
In those pre-ASYE days, I was very fortunate to have a structured induction in my introduction to working in Birmingham. It was great to meet social workers based in various locations in the city and compare practice experiences. I imagine that now, an AYSE group would give newly qualified social workers (NQSWs) a bit of an identity.
Our team also had at least one practice teacher so there was good commitment to learning experiences for students. Although I didn’t want to rush into this in my first few years of practice, it certainly spurred me on to become a practice teacher in a different setting. I realise I was very fortunate in the start I had. Not all NQSWs in the city had such a positive experience, usually due to familiar issues like high staff turnover and instability.
Appeal to Birmingham leaders
Even my, relatively speaking, ‘halcyon days’ in Birmingham were destined to come to an end as the next cycle of restructuring was being introduced. This meant settled teams like mine were about to be uprooted from their work base and shoe-horned into another area office to merge with an existing team. It was a recipe for disaster: those who were there resented the space we took up, while we struggled to deal with loss and an alien environment.
So, this is my appeal to leaders in Birmingham. Please, please, in any changes you make, don’t forget the voices of your social workers. I am pleased to see moves by Peter Hay to involve the authority’s social workers in reviewing progress. Some of them will have seen many restructurings and their wise words need to be heeded.
Social workers will know what is actually working well on the ground and how this can this be maintained and built upon. Yes, Birmingham needs to change, but it also needs stability. We need to think about how we can create positive and supportive environments that get the best out of social workers.
Social workers I have spoken to about Birmingham have said it was refreshing to have such honesty from the top in response to such damning national criticism. Prior to Peter Hay’s admission that the council was struggling to recruit enough social workers, I couldn’t remember the last time a director spoke candidly about the vacancy rates.
It is never going to be a ‘quick fix’ and we need Peter Hay, supported by local and central government, to hold his nerve and do what social workers do best – work with hope in what appear to be impossible circumstances. Like most cities, Birmingham has an amazing spirit, which I hope will never be broken, even though it has been severely tested at times.
We know that negative labelling can devastate young lives; we can’t allow a negative Ofsted label to decimate an extremely valuable and much needed service. Let’s not give up caring about Birmingham, its communities and its social workers.
Nushra Mansuri is professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers