If you ask a social worker how they got into the job, it’s not uncommon for them to say they fell into it, circumstances led them to it or it was an accident.
However, it’s quite rare to find as accidental a route into the profession as Stuart Gallimore, new president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, who admits it wasn’t until he started his undergraduate degree at Edgehill College that he realised it was designed to provide a route into social work: “I didn’t read the small print of my degree very closely.”
His arrival was what prompted the discovery of what the ‘applied’ in his Applied Social Sciences degree meant: – numerous placements.
At the time, you qualified to be a social worker through a CQSW, which you could complete in one year if you did an applied degree.
“The vast majority of other people on my course who applied for it, [did so] precisely because it gave them a route into their social work training.”
‘Fell in love’
Despite the abrupt realisation of what he had accidentally signed up for, Gallimore didn’t look back, and admits he “fell in love” with the opportunities and placements, and was opened up to a job he had previously never thought of pursuing.
He completed his one-year CQSW before beginning his career in a social work team in Cheshire in 1984, and Gallimore says he was blessed with a succession of good practice teachers.
“At that time they were doing many of the things that we now take for granted in terms of newly qualified social workers. You did a 24-day course spread over your first year with all the other newly qualifieds. You had a protected caseload, the opportunity to work in different areas to the one that your team covered and there was a three-year progression to then becoming what was then a level three social worker,” Gallimore explains.
It’s that firm foundation he believes has kept him in the profession and seen him to where he is now, and in his role at East Sussex he tells students “whether you come to work for us or work for someone else, your first social work job is really, really important, because it is crucial to setting you on the right path”.
Part of the initial falling in love with the profession was the opportunity to work alongside families and help them improve their situation.
Inspired by reading autobiographies of bad experiences of the care system, Gallimore challenged himself to prevent similar things happening to children he worked with, a philosophy that has remained with him at every stage of his career.
His journey into management began when his manager at the time asked why he hadn’t applied for a position, and sold it to him on the idea of helping more people than he would as a practitioner. “I could work with and have influence on the 20 families that were on my caseload, but if I became a team manager, I would have the opportunity to influence what was going on in the lives of 200 families, and there was something about that which just resonated.”
That led him up to the director for children’s services role, and now into his presidential position at the ADCS.
He says he will use his position to carry on the agenda set out in the ADCS’s policy paper, ‘A country that works for all children’, published last October, and really “banging the gong” on funding.
The current financial landscape has left local authorities having to do “stupid things” in terms of cutting back early help and preventative services they know work, he says.
“So we know that we are doing some dumb things, but that’s unavoidable in the financial envelope we are working with, so it is really important to try and get to a position where in the face of increased work [coming] into the services that we find a way as a nation to properly and appropriately fund those services.”
He said success will be measured by successfully “stepping up to the plate” on negotiating funding by the time local authorities set their budgets this time next year.
“We will either be in a place where we will be more successful in winning those arguments or we won’t, and if we haven’t done, then I think the consequences for services and for the recipients of those services are pretty dire, to be frank.”
Other areas of focus will be on supporting the wider children’s services workforce outside of social work, addressing the risks and challenges posed by children missing from education and looking at how services can better support adolescents, including when they are on the edge of care.
Outside of funding, he sees “really exciting” elements to the current agenda around sector-led improvement.
“We are in a place around sector-led improvement that we couldn’t have imagined 18 months ago. We are having conversations with the Local Government Association, Department for Education, around the development of regional improvement alliances that recognises that all local authorities, no matter how challenged, have got something to contribute.”
He says this is the “first time” he has seen the sector move away from “ill-advised notion[s]” that organisations can swoop in and deliver improvements, and towards understanding that the people who understand this “sit within the sector”.
“I think there is a real opportunity to actually work together at scale to just sort of lift the standards across the board in local authorities up and down the land,” Gallimore says.
The association’s position on accreditation remains that it would support a mandatory roll-out for social workers across the country, adequately funded by government. Anything less than that would carry challenges, he says, including a potential “two-tier workforce” between authorities who can afford accreditation and those who can’t.
Another area Gallimore is passionate about is celebrating good social work.
“Social work is a tough job, and I think it’s tougher now than it was when I qualified,” he says. But one of the highlights of his job is the time he spends going out with social workers.
“Day in, day out social workers are making tens of thousands of real-time decisions that have the potential to improve the situation for that person or family, and I think sometimes we lose sight of that. It’s a bit too easy to just feel it is all doom and gloom.”
Gallimore believes it is important to take time to recognise good practice.
“I know for directors, managers across the land, the impact it has just dropping an email to someone to say ‘I have heard [about good practice], really well done’. [It] always has a disproportionate impact on the person receiving. They stand a little taller, their confidence is renewed again.”
He tells the story of how a practitioner at his previous local authority intervened in a child’s life and supported them through care, and, now a young woman, they still keep in touch to talk about how her accomplishments are as a result of what the support given to her.
“That’s the power of great social work, that’s the power of social workers going the extra mile, being resilient, imaginative,” he says.