by Andy Faulkner
As someone who is over half a century old, I did not go into social work expecting it to be all sweetness and light, nor did I ever think I’d save the world (or even a fraction of it).
However, my experiences within the profession have left me wondering why I even bothered in the first place.
In 2012 I was one of the very lucky ones, one of the “high flyers”, that managed to get a place on the government’s prestigious ‘Step Up To Social Work’ scheme. Reserved for those that already had a 2:1 degree or above, I went through one of the most arduous interview processes I’ve ever been through, and my reward was a place with my local consortium.
Prior to this I’d had a (fairly) successful career working in schools, working my way up the I.T. ladder from humble computer technician to the exalted heights of Senior Network Manager and Developmental Officer.
Maybe it was midlife crisis, maybe it was something else, but in 2011 I felt I needed a career change.
Back in university
My wife (a successful and very talented social worker) suggested social work as I had a very good rapport with students and their families.
So in February 2012 I found myself back in university, studying for my Master’s degree in social work.
As “high flyers” we were expected to complete the two-year degree course in just eighteen months. This meant a lot of evenings and weekends studying hard and submitting work, including some over Christmas.
Obviously, we also had to work within two placements and complete two portfolios at the same time in order to gain our social work status.
We were meant to qualify as generic social workers at the end of the course and this required us to have both an adult and a children’s placement. This is where things started to go wrong.
My children’s placement was amazing; it was within a referrals and assessments unit and I loved it. I met many wonderful and dedicated people there, my on-site mentor was a marvel and she taught me a great deal. Her tuition enabled me to create assessments that were so good they were given out to Newly Qualified Social Workers (NQSW) as examples of good practice.
However, my local authorities’ idea of an “adult” placement was within a children’s Sure Start nursery. Their rationale for this was that I would be interacting with the parents and carers of the children, therefore it could be construed as an adult placement.
Obviously, this meant that, despite being a ‘generic’ social worker, I had NO real experience of working within adult social care (and no likelihood of gaining a job within that sphere). This was where my alarm bells started to ring.
As we were coming to the end of our training and university places, myself (and the others in our authority’s consortium) were starting to get concerned that the other students from other consortiums were talking about the places their authorities had already arranged for them to go into as newly qualifieds; our authority was the only one that hadn’t made ANY arrangements for us after qualification.
I spent ages talking to their Human Resources department and emailing senior management asking for clarification on our position and was assured that “something” would be done about the situation.
After we qualified in September 2013 there were no newly qualified places for us to go into, so I was offered a temporary post as a social work assistant for six months within the Looked-After Children’s team. This gave me a good grounding in the processes and sheer scale of work and commitment that social workers were dealing with on a daily basis. But this didn’t deter me, I was still determined to become the best social worker I could be.
True to form, at the end of this temporary contract there was still no places available as a NQSW so I was offered another temporary contract as a Personal Advisor for their Leaving Care team. While this was enjoyable (and instructive in how young people progress from being Looked After to semi or full independence) it is not what I’d trained to be.
Thankfully, in May 2014, I was finally able to take up a position as an NQSW; back within the Looked After Children’s team I had been with before.
I had expected to be put on the ASYE (Assessed and Supported Year in Employment) right from the beginning but delays meant it was a month or so before this happened. In the meantime, I had been assigned a caseload of 9 families.
Unfortunately, the majority of these cases had had very little social worker involvement for some considerable time before I had them (some hadn’t been seen for over a year) so all of their reports and visits were already well out of timescales.
The day after I was inducted onto the ASYE my caseload went to the 12 it should have been; it was meant to rise by 2 cases every three months until I was on a full caseload by the end of my first year. But this didn’t happen.
Because my authority had been given an extremely poor report by Ofsted they were shedding agency workers at a great rate. Unfortunately, as they didn’t hire any qualified social workers to replace them their cases were then being given to anyone; regardless of experience or ability.
I started to dread going into work as it felt like every time I went in another case had been added to my caseload. By the time I left in August 2014, I had 18 cases and had just been told that I was to get two more before the end of the month.
This was a level I shouldn’t have reached for a year, but one I was going to hit in four months.
When I raised my concerns with my manager, the ASYE mentor and senior management their response was “you’ve been allocated the cases and they are staying with you” and “the ASYE is only guidelines, recommendations; we can ignore them!”
I believe that I was coping with my cases (despite the obstacles placed in front of me) but as it seemed like there would be no end to the additions to my caseload it would not be long before I couldn’t.
After long deliberation, I decided that I couldn’t honestly say that the children and young people in my care would get the service and attention they deserved from me, so I resigned.
It was such a shame that senior management couldn’t (or wouldn’t) listen to the concerns of one of their most vulnerable, inexperienced members of staff.
I feel like I had some very good experiences within social work. I met and worked with some wonderful, very dedicated social workers that genuinely cared about the people they dealt with.
My proudest achievement during my time with the young people in my care was that they all got visited regularly, even those I had that were well out of borough. I got ALL of their statutory visits and reports back up-to-date and their files were meticulously updated; I even got congratulatory emails from the management for my efforts.
Luckily for me I had another profession to fall back on; something that younger, less “worldly-wise” newly qualifieds wouldn’t have. I feel for these young professionals because, unlike me, they may feel trapped in their roles with no other avenue of escape.
As for myself? After months of trying to get back into social work I gave up and returned to working within education. I am now on track as a trainee teacher, where I hope to use my social work training and experiences to become a safeguarding officer.
So ultimately – after the decision to change career, 18 months of training and two temporary posts I was a social worker for just four months.