How six French students viewed social work in England: notes from a cultural exchange

Yvonne Chappell, a British former social worker who now teaches at a college in France, describes her students’ experiences of shadowing frontline practitioners in England

By Yvonne Chappell

Predictably it started raining as we touched down in London, but that did not dampen the spirits of the six French social work students or me, their tutor. We were on a five-day visit from Ecole Superieur en Travail Educative et Social, a social work college in Strasbourg, France. The purpose of our visit was for the students to see and experience for themselves what social work is like in England.

Our first stop was the London borough of Hillingdon, where we were greeted enthusiastically with croissants and coffee and a brief discussion about how the children’s department operated. Then each student shadowed a social worker who had volunteered to take them round for a day. The students’ experiences were varied, including a child protection case conference, a visit to foster carers, a child protection enquiry, an interview with an unaccompanied asylum seeker and a placement in the fostering and adoption team. At the end of the day, all the students and social workers reconvened for a question and answer session hosted by one of the social work managers.

One thing that struck the students was the friendliness and informality of the social workers they were assigned to when they were in Hillingdon. Although the social workers were very busy, they took time to explain things to the students and some even tried out their French! The students were also surprised at the mix of nationalities of the social workers in Hillingdon. Many different countries were represented, from Sweden to India; whereas, in France, it is rare to have a social worker who is not a French national. The students felt this diversity of cultures among the social workers themselves helped them to understand some of the difficulties faced by non-British service users and helped them to find more creative solutions in some cases.

Two of the students were attached to social workers who were involved in child protection cases. They were very surprised at how easy it was for social workers to get information about a child and his/her family from other professionals when there was a child protection issue. In France, the notion of professional secrecy (secret professionnel) is very prevalent and it is often very difficult to get information about a child from other agencies working with the family. The students thought it was an excellent idea and that other countries would benefit from adopting the English model.

One of the students, Kevin, hopes to work in a fostering team when he qualifies and was pleased when his request to be attached to a social worker from the fostering and adoption team was granted. But it was here that we noticed possibly the biggest difference in approaches between the two countries: Kevin was surprised that English courts have the power to make an adoption order even if the birth parents are opposed to it. In France, family ties are considered sacred and domestic adoptions are very rare. Adoption is almost never considered even if the child is young and it is evident they will never live with their birth parents again. Instead, the child lives with long-term foster carers throughout their life. If an adoption does take place, both biological parents must give their consent. Consequently most adoptions in France are intercountry. The approach in England gave rise to much discussion among the students about the role of legislation and how the culture of “the family” differs between the two countries.

The next few days were taken up with a visit to a project that provides activities for young people at risk of exclusion, as well as projects run by Mind, Centrepoint and Mencap. “Can I come and live here? It’s better than my student accommodation in Strasbourg,” quipped one of the students, Celine, as she was shown one of the individual bedrooms at Centrepoint’s hostel in central London. Centrepoint is a charity dedicated to helping young homeless people and giving them a future. The manager of the London hostel very kindly agreed to host our visit and to take part in a question and answer session. The students were impressed not only by the quality of the accommodation, but also the willingness of the staff and volunteers to engage with the young people and try to find creative solutions for them. Another student, Jeremie, was impressed that the hostel was right in the middle of touristy London, not hidden away in a suburb as if trying to brush the problem under the carpet.

Jacques was surprised at the some of the council housing provided by Hackney as we made our way to another project. Social housing often comes in for a lot of criticism, but Jacques was full of praise for the low level, attractively constructed flats which he felt were built to last and thus created a feeling of permanency in the neighbourhood. We were on our way to SkyWay, an organisation that works with at-risk young people aged 8–25. There, some students helped the younger kids make masks, while others watched a film made by some of the older adolescents. The French students commented on the relaxed informality between the staff members and the young people who came to the centre, and on the fact that there was the opportunity for the young people to make the step from being an attendee at the project to a staff member or volunteer. Jeremie considered the possibility of doing a placement there.

The use of volunteers was something most of the French students remarked on. It seems that, in Britain, we make more use of volunteers in community projects than they do in France. The students were amazed at the number of volunteers involved in the Mind project we visited in north London. They were also impressed by Mind’s non-medical model and the way that each person’s talents or input into the organisation was recognised and rewarded, whether they were staff or centre user. Emilie considered whether this could be a useful model for the organisation where she was doing her placement in France. Xavier, meanwhile, “tested” the drum kit; a keen musician, he started to think about the possibilities of using music in a therapeutic way.

So, we have heard about the positives, but did the students have nothing negative to say? Well, yes they did. They were surprised at the open plan offices. In France, the tendency is for workers to have their own offices and the students thought that such an arrangement was more conducive to reflective thought. However, overall they were impressed with the level of social support available in the UK.

This visit was not a government-funded, in-depth analysis of differences between social work provision in France and Britain; it was a group of six French social work students (and a British ex-social-worker-turned-teacher), who organised it off their own bat and mostly financed the trip themselves, such was their eagerness to see what was happening across the channel. However, we all learned something from it. I think it’s a pity there are not more opportunities for us to have cultural exchanges like this, as the social work profession could learn a great deal from them. So, see you in France?

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