Alison Michalska’s journey into a career supporting children started in sixth form. She worked with local youth clubs at the time and knew little about the profession she’d later join.
“I’d lived in a bit of a bubble,” says Michalska, who has recently started her year as President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS).
“I hadn’t really thought about children being in care and there being professional social workers. It wasn’t a profession I really knew anything about.
“To be perfectly honest when I was doing A Levels and wondering whether to go to university, I don’t think I even knew that social workers existed.”
That changed when on leaving school she started youth work. The experience of supporting “quite challenging and difficult young people” opened her eyes to social work, and to some extent “the wider world”.
She says the work instilled a drive to try and make a difference to children that hasn’t left her since, and she’s continuously sought positions that she’s felt give her the best chance of affecting change.
First she moved from youth work into residential work, where it became obvious that “to get anywhere I was going to need to become a qualified social worker”. She did exactly that in 1986 and joined social work in an era of combined adults and children’s services. It was, she recalls, a mixed experience.
“While I enjoyed social work, I found it terribly frustrating,” she says. “You kind of want to cure all of society’s ills. There was a bit of: ‘I could do so much as a social worker, but actually to do what I really want to do then actually I need to move into more management and have a bit more influence in how social work operates and how local authorities work’.”
While some social workers reluctantly, or accidentally, end up in management, Michalska saw progressing up the ladder as necessary to help deliver the changes she wanted.
She remembers seeing her frontline managers and thinking ‘well I need to be one of them’. Then she’d see managers had managers, and the process would be repeated. Eventually she became a director of children’s services, a job she loves and describes as “one of the best jobs – if not the best job – in local government”.
“It is hugely influential and able to shape and improve things for, in my case, children in Nottingham,” she says.
“I was quite determined that I [needed] to keep moving up to be able to influence more – to some extent it’s what drove me to stand to be the [ADCS] president.”
We joke about whether the idea of her desire to have the influence to shape policy and practice for vulnerable children would take her towards trying to be Prime Minister – there is an election on after all – but she laughs this off and says this wouldn’t coalesce with her child focus.
“It’s kind of why I’ve never been interested in a chief executive job in a local authority, I think you lose focus. A chief executive has to care about children, alongside a whole side of other things,” she says.
Hypothetically though: “It would be great to be a Prime Minster who really cared about improving the lot of children and families, it would be absolutely great, but unfortunately I’d have to be bothered about other things as well and I think that might be a bit hard.”
Despite operating at a director level, Michalska hasn’t lost her connection with frontline work. She says her most formative experiences in social work came during her time in practice and stick with her.
She remembers the day a young disabled woman she’d supported got back in touch.
“She had a scrap book, and in the scrap book there were lots of pictures from me, letters that she had from me – and it was absolutely humbling,” she says.
“What that really taught me was, as a social worker, how special you are to the young people you are working with, and we should never forget that. The role that we have, the influence we have, and impact we have on young people is incredible.”
Social workers don’t always realise the impression they leave, says Michalska, and she makes a point of telling her staff: “You are incredibly important, and don’t let anybody tell you you’re ‘just a social worker’.”
In terms of her own influence as ADCS president, Michalska has established four priorities for her year in the role.
Firstly, she wants to reshape the local authority role in relation to school and education. Secondly she wants to help reduce the number of children sent to care placements long distances from their homes. Thirdly she wants to improve sharing of good practice in children’s services. And finally, perhaps most pressingly, she wants to press for action on the looming funding crisis in children’s services.
“We know there is going to be a £1.9 billion gap in funding by 2020,” Michalska says. Part of her and the association’s plan is to build a convincing narrative around “a country that works for children”.
She wants to ensure that children “are getting their fair share of the, albeit reducing, resource pot”. With an eye on the ongoing election campaign, she adds “there’s very little from any party about children, and that’s a narrative we want to change”.
Following a year of intense debate around the Children and Social Work Act, Michalska might have been expecting 2017 to be quieter on the policy front, but she says whatever the outcome of the election she hopes it doesn’t put back progress.
“We are hoping that things get picked up after the election that we were working on. I think there are things around the accreditation of social workers that we have some concerns around,” she says.
“If accreditation’s going to happen it needs to move on, it needs to be mandatory, and it needs to move on at pace. Otherwise, it isn’t going to achieve what the government was hoping.”
The new social work regulator, another area of the government’s social work reforms still being ironed out, is something the association is engaging with but is “pended” until after the election.
Michalska says she also wants to see progress on the government’s promised fostering stocktake and constructive talks with ministers and Ofsted to move towards a social care system that supports struggling services to improve.
After spending a career looking to help improve children’s lives, she’s determined not to waste the opportunity presented by her new role: “As President you have even more influence, be it either on national policy, on working with Ofsted or the Department for Education.
“It’s the same thing – it’s that drive to have a bit more influence…and the ability to have a chance to be listened to, and to speak up for vulnerable children and families.”