By Lauren Brown
On the face of it, Adam Birchall’s route into social work wasn’t too uncommon. At 21 he decided to return to college and gain an access qualification before going on to university to complete his degree. But what drove him initially to “be the best social worker I can be” was, in part, down to a chance encounter in the Olton Tavern in Solihull, where he used to work behind the bar.
Birchall tells how Stacey, one of the pub’s locals and a volunteer working with children to raise drug awareness, “tackled” him behind the bar and said: “‘Look, I need you to work with these kids. Are you up for it?’ And then my life changed.”
After volunteering with Stacey’s group for a while he then travelled to Australia and met an aunt he’d never met before. She turned out to be a social worker herself, doing what Birchall calls ground-breaking work with victims of domestic abuse, and inspired Birchall to take his passion to the next level.
While with his aunt, his voluntary work and her social work “connected” in his head, and he thought: “‘I know I want to make a difference and I know I want to work with children’… and then I became a social worker. Whilst I was still travelling I started looking into how to get onto a social work program.”
‘Best cure is prevention’
Having been a young carer in the past, helping improve children’s lives was something Birchall has always been passionate about.
He qualified in 2008 and his first placement, working with homeless people, helped focus his direction. “Some of the reasons these guys were here was because of their childhood experiences,” he realised.
“I thought, if I really wanted to make a difference in terms of substance misuse, the best cure is prevention.”
Since then, Birchall has worked in children’s services and the difficulty of the job has, at times, brought him close to quitting. Before his current role in Solihull, the environment of his previous authority made him question whether it was what he truly wanted to do. The authority was going through difficulties, he says, and there were difficult experiences with management. “I thought ‘god, this isn’t what I came into social work to do’ and I really wanted to give it up”, he says, but his move to Solihull reignited his drive.
He credits his “amazing” line manager in Solihull for helping him progress to his current role. “She was challenging,” he says, “but challenging in a way that meant that you could disagree and that was ok. You could put forward your argument and that helped me think critically about cases and it made me sure on the decisions that I was making.”
The support and encouragement he has received over the years, he says, has made an immeasurable difference to his ability as a social worker. His enthusiasm is infectious as he explains: “I could start to see the difference that I was making. That for me is what kept me sane!
“I was able to progress and now look at me, I’m principal social worker! I get a fun title and everything!”
He says while the job remains unglamorous, feeling as though he is having a positive impact is what has kept him in it for a decade. “It’s not a profession you get into because it’s glitzy and glamorous and you live a fantastic lifestyle as a result. It’s hard. But seeing those outcomes is just the best feeling in the world.”
Birchall admits, too, that it is important to him to spend his free time away from work: “I do things that aren’t social work related which kind of keep my head above the water.”
“It’s really difficult, but what I’d say is the things that keep me going is I’ve got an amazing support network, I’ve got an amazing partner, I’ve got two beautiful children and I’ve got a great friendship group.”
Having a family of his own has given Birchall a new perspective which he believes has benefited his work in an “indefinable way”.
“When I had my own children, I was suddenly slightly more forgiving than I was previously,” he explains. There were times when he thought: “Oh my god parents have it so tough. That was really useful.”
Cooperation and retention
The career support he has received has inspired Birchall in his current role. It is important to him to create and contribute to a working environment which encourages self-reflection and communication.
“I think sector-led improvements should be led by the sector and that’s the beauty of the role that I’m currently in. I can see what the problems are because people will talk to me,” he says.
“I think the principal social worker role has the potential to do really well and I think I can evidence in Solihull how I’ve helped shape the role to make a difference to the workers and therefore the families. I think when you talk to Ofsted they really feel that when there’s a really strong principal social worker in place the outcomes for the children are better in that authority,” he adds.
“I’m doing a bit of work with another part of the service in the council which I wouldn’t ordinarily be involved in,” he adds.
“That’s quite interesting and different in terms of quality assurance and bringing what I’ve done as the principal social worker and using the same kind of technique to different problems that we have.” Birchall also meets regularly with other principal social workers to troubleshoot problems: “We share resources and we do try and help each other.”
This teamwork increases retention, an issue Birchall, who sits on the board of Futuresocial, a collaboration of 12 local authorities and two children’s trusts in the West Midlands, is passionate about. In his opinion, focusing on one area can in fact be detrimental: “If I concentrate solely on raising the standards in Solihull but our practitioners move around the area, it seems silly not to focus our attention on the experiences of children across the board. If we can get this area working well then everyone is in a better position and it means that we can learn from each other in a positive way, rather than learning what not to do.”
Going forward, he hopes this trend will continue to improve services in his area: “It’s still very early days but I’m really looking forward to the drive on that and the principal social worker network has really led heavily.”
Birchall admits that when he first went to university, he’d joke with friends about how ambitious he was and how successful he was going to be. He would jokingly say to them: “I’m going to be your boss one day!” But after a decade in a profession he is passionate about, his ambition has taken on a different hue. “If I can be the best social worker I can be, then I’ll be happy.”
This article was updated on April 9 to reflect that Futuresocial consists of 12 local authorities and two children’s trusts.