By Karl Hedges, children’ social worker
After five years practice in long term and investigation teams in children’s services, I felt my energy levels were depleting but my passion to travel and help others was growing stronger. I wanted to travel with purpose and use my social work skills and knowledge.
My first role abroad was as an advanced practitioner in child protection and human rights in Australia. I decided I wanted to see more of the world and travelled to India. In Delhi, I made friends with a woman from Switzerland. She put me in contact with Sandra, who had recently established a school in a village in West Bengal.
The school was looking for assistance developing child protection policies and teaching styles. There were around 90 pupils aged between two and 10, separated into three age groups. I was offered a three week placement.
I was initially excited about the prospect of being part of something at an early stage of development and applying my skills in a different environment. As it grew closer, I started to feel overwhelmed and wondered if I’d made the right decision. I began to doubt my ability to deliver what the school were seeking. Was this a step too far? Was I taking myself outside of the realm of social work? What would my role actually look like?
The 36 hour train journey across India gave me lots of thinking time and I felt clearer and more positive. As a social worker, I had worked with people from various cultural and religious backgrounds, who did not always speak English. I had been trained in child development. Dealing with complex situations, conveying difficult messages, communicating with a diverse range of people, overcoming barriers and managing conflict were key skills for my daily work.
At the school, I met the headteacher and three class teachers who had all been born and grown up in the village. There was a school social worker who lived in Kolkota. She provided long-arm support with monthly visits and encouraged school attendance – education was not a priority for many families due to extreme poverty.
Although the remote location was beautiful; employment opportunities were virtually non-existent. One child was taken out of school to help his parents collect fish eggs from the beach; the 10 hour working day would pay them enough to buy a bag of rice and vegetables.
The school provided lunch to ensure the children had a nutritious meal, some of their families were unable to provide this at home.
Although I had worked with vulnerable families in the UK, the lack of any support or benefits from the state to meet basic welfare needs made this very different. There were also no formal community provisions for the many socio-economic associated difficulties I saw.
These included depression, substance abuse and domestic violence, which affected the level of care children receive. The lack of education around these issues meant there was very little awareness and this contributed to the lack of support.
Working with teachers
To support the development of teaching, I observed lessons and then met with the teachers at the end of each day for discussion. These meetings were difficult; they were comfortable in their textbook-based teaching styles and did not know anything different to their own experience in the school.
I employed my social work skills to overcome this barrier. I devised a teaching plan, similar to a family plan. I identified a need, made outcomes specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time focussed. We then reviewed this as a team. For example, a need would be to engage the children; the reason, to support learning. The ways to achieve this could be: interacting with the whole group and individuals in the lesson, asking questions, getting children to work in small groups, act out stories and write creatively.
I couldn’t communicate with the children verbally. However, my observation skills allowed me to advocate for their educational needs. I could listen to their teachers speak to them, noting tone, body language and eye contact, gauge their reactions and engagement in tasks and their ability to focus.
I encouraged the teachers to value the children’s voice, asking if they were well, finding the work difficult or did not understand. This was a particularly important turning point: one day a child was asked why he was sleeping. He explained that he was tired and hungry as he had not eaten since lunch the previous day. Staff were able to give him some fruit and water.
The power of a smile
I learned lots at the school. The power of smiling may be the most memorable – even when language and communication is a barrier, a smile can reassure. I used this at the start off lessons to offer a positive, non-verbal cue. After difficult meetings a smile would settle the atmosphere.
The second most powerful memory was a meeting called by village members because of substance abuse and domestic violence within a family. The villagers gathered to discuss the issues and to offer support to the family. The outcome: it was agreed that the man must not drink alcohol or hit his wife. If these things happen, they will ask him to leave the village or take him to the police station. It was incredible to see members of the community empowering and protecting each other.
I have always seen links between education and social work; I had written my thesis on the educational attainment of looked-after children and the implications for practice. In my time at the school, I advocated for the children’s educational needs and supported the school to help them meet development milestones.
My time went extremely quickly; it was amazing to see the changes that can occur in three weeks. It reinforced how I see my role as a social worker – as a facilitator of change. The headteacher told me he will continue the school’s journey, enabling staff to develop their own skills as well as empowering the children by representing their needs. The changes we made would not have been possible without my social work education or experience.