After frontline social work, what next? This dilemma faced Joe, Frances and Shireen, all children’s social workers who wanted to step up in their careers without losing a connection to families, cases and other practitioners.
All three ended up working in a role they feel offers a middle ground. They are consultant social workers, or ‘CSWs’, who oversee local authority ‘units’ of students from social work graduate scheme Frontline. Speaking to Community Care at last month’s CSW conference, they explained what this step meant for them.
“I was a social worker, and I’d had two students before just from traditional university routes. The [CSW] role seemed like a perfect match between wanting to still be practicing social work, but wanting to have a more supervisory, management role,” explains Joe Rogers, a consultant social worker in Ealing.
Joe has been a CSW since Frontline’s first cohort of students started in 2014. The job sees him acting as a manager and educator for four case-holding Frontline students.
Joe doesn’t hold his own cases but works collaboratively with all of the students on theirs. He says group supervision and meetings are a large part of the CSW job, but he sees his main responsibility as helping students apply theory to practice.
“There is nothing nicer than seeing someone come back from a university day and being like – ‘I really don’t understand. I get that this is idea but how does it fit with going to meet a family you’ve never met?’, and then working with them and them coming back and saying ‘I tried this and it worked’.”
CSWs are recruited from the councils Frontline students are placed with. They receive extra training for the role, which is typically graded at a first line manager or team manager position. As Frontline grows, so too do the number of CSWs.
This is Shireen Chinnadorrai’s first year as a CSW in Harrow. She says it was a natural fit for her career plans.
“I was looking at my next steps in social work. The idea of the teaching, mentoring side of it and also learning systemic theories was what attracted me most,” she explains.
Frances Yates, a reserve CSW in Hounslow, was in a similar position.
“I’d got to four years post-qualified, and the next step is to go into management. I didn’t feel ready to leave practice, but equally felt that the social worker role wasn’t challenging enough anymore. So this allowed me to expand my skill base while still being able to work directly with families,” she explains.
“You get the opportunity to enhance skills around managing, supervising and supported learning that you potentially don’t get to do as a social worker.”
Theory to practice
Shireen has previously worked as a practice educator and says she sees a lot of similarities with the CSW role. The difference she notices are that the CSW post is at management level and offers more opportunities to develop your own skillset and knowledge.
As part of the role, CSWs are given access to a leadership development programme, which includes training in motivational interviewing and social learning theory, while also working towards a postgraduate certificate in systemic practice.
Frances adds: “Practice educators traditionally have been employed by the local authority, and are trained by the local authority to be able to support students to learn, [but] they have no connection with the university in which the student is coming from – so you don’t know what they are learning. Whereas Frontline is all integrated, which I think helps in how to apply theory into practice.”
Reflecting on her own route into the profession, Frances looks on Frontline students with envy.
“I wish I had learned like they did. I did a traditional, university-based master’s degree and I did two non-statutory placements. I didn’t have any statutory experience when I qualified and I would say their knowledge is so much more in-depth than mine was by the time they’ve qualified,” she says.
Shireen agrees: “I did do a statutory placement in my final year and it was only in that placement where I was able to see ‘this is what social work is about’, because you don’t learn that at university. You don’t learn it through teaching, it’s only through doing the job that you learn what it is like.”
Frances says, at university, theory’s importance was outlined, but “fell short” without statutory placements, or placements relevant to the theory you were learning about.
“I think this is the first model that I’ve seen of teaching that effectively puts in place theory and practice,” Frances says.
Joe had a similar experience: “If I think about my social work degree and the students that I had, you will learn 10 theories maybe, but you will just learn them in their theoretical sense, then there’s no real application of what that looks like in practice. On Frontline they are looking at four main theories and there’s lots of application to social work.”
As well as seeking opportunities beyond the frontline, Joe says he was motivated by the chance to give new social workers the same positive experiences he had with his practice educators, placement and local authority when joining the profession.
“I think everybody should have an experience like I had.”
Joe planned to move in to social work management but after three years as a CSW he’s rethinking his next steps. That initial feeling of not wanting to move too far away from frontline practice that helped him toward the CSW role is still there.
“I would like to do something more academic or training based, what I don’t want to do is lose the connection to frontline practice and working with people.”
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