Social work diary: A social work student is planning to ask for help from a food bank

A social work lecturer reflects on the current pressures facing social workers


Today I’m in a local authority providing supervision training for social work managers. It’s a very committed group of practitioners but they are also tired and depleted.

They are the squeezed middle. They know the importance of providing support for their hard-working social workers, yet are also under significant pressure from the senior managers above them.

The impact of Ofsted weighs heavily on the conversations and mood. There is a lot of change in the organisation and this means that the managers doing my training are getting very little supervision themselves. This is very problematic when we look at things systemically. There needs to be a culture of supervision in the organisation; everyone needs support and challenge to be effective in their jobs.

There is a limit to how long these excellent staff can give out to others without being replenished themselves. I quote the American social work academic and popular writer Brené Brown who says, ‘You can’t give what you haven’t got.’

‘But what else can we do?’ a group member replies.


I’m back for the second day of the course. It’s always inspiring to be with practitioners but as in most local authorities I visit I am increasingly concerned about what is happening in the profession. Although leaders know the importance of reflective supervision, and indeed Ofsted is also looking for analysis and reflective practice, managers are also often required to discuss every case in their supervision so that enough management oversight can be demonstrated.

I understand why this feels safer but discussing fifteen to twenty cases in each supervision does not allow time for in-depth reflection. As most recent research on the subject indicates, the management function of supervision is overwhelmingly dominant. I wonder about the costs of this. Good supervision provides connection for people. Reflection helps remind us of the meaning of what we do. We rediscover the purpose and heart of our work which inevitably gets lost in the busyness and stress of day to day practice.

I recently heard the philosopher Roman Krznaric talk about what humans need to thrive. He said we need three things: autonmy; connection/relationships; and meaning. I think about this in relation to social work. This profession, for all its challenges, has the potential to meet these important needs and is why it can be such a satisfying career. Relationships are at the heart of social work whether it is with our service users, or our colleagues and managers. Connections helps us find meaning and purpose in what we do.

Yet, these foundations are being eroded. Managerialism means social workers have less autonmy and agency. Hot desking threatens the centrality of colleague/team relationships. The challenges in providing reflective supervision mean that people will find it more difficult to properly experience the meaning in their work. I wonder what the cost of these changes are in terms of burn out and retention. The current direction of travel is likely to be a costly one.


I’m back at University today and have an appointment with one of my third year BA students. She’s a very promising student who is nearly at the end of her course. The student describes the financial pressure she is under. It’s not only the worry of paying back the student loans, her day-to-day life is hugely affected by not having enough money to live on. Completing the 100-day placement and the pressure of the academic assignments has meant that she is no longer able to work part time. She describes how she has so little money left that she cannot afford food for the week and is planning to ask for help from a food bank. These financial pressures are not uncommon especially for students from poorer backgrounds who are less likely to have family members who can loan them money in an emergency.

This student will be starting work soon. She’s very able and has already got a job but can’t afford to take any time off between finishing university and starting work. I worry about the affects of this very stressful period and whether she will be depleted in energy by the time she starts her social work career. I’m struck again by Brené Brown’s words:

‘You can’t give what you haven’t got.’

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7 Responses to Social work diary: A social work student is planning to ask for help from a food bank

  1. Amy September 17, 2018 at 1:08 pm #

    As a student starting her final year and final placement in two weeks time I am in rent arrears from being unable to work over the summer due to small children and with a switch over to universal credit being an absolute shambles. Student finance reduces the amount we are entitled to receive in year 3 and I am actually scared about my financial situation limiting my ability to complete the course. I am from a lower socio-economic background as a single parent with no family to turn to it. I budget and still can not afford basic essentials unless they are for my children. I know this course and career will allow me to better myself but it saddens me that before the semester has even got into full swing, I will be applying for money from the university ‘hardship fund.’ I feel privileged to be able to apply for that because I know my future service users will not have that luxury.

    • Mary September 17, 2018 at 6:22 pm #

      I qualified last year from the masters programme. I did not receive the bursary although I was told at interview I would get it. It was only after 6 weeks I was told that as I applied for the course later than others. the university did not have enough bursary places available. I am a single parent too and worked as much as I could, but got into lots of debt. I used food banks too to feed my child. All I can honestly say those 2 years were the worst years of my entire life, which I would never want to experience again. BUT I got through it, I am now working, still struggling to make ends meet, but it is all worth it. Keep going!!!

  2. Chrissie Martin September 17, 2018 at 6:40 pm #

    Such a shame that placements can’t be paid, even at the apprentice rate. Students in my experience have some hefty caseloads and work just as hard as other social workers. It’s craxy that a student social worker should be relying on food banks. It certainly wouldn’t happen in private industry.

  3. Hayley September 17, 2018 at 7:49 pm #

    I have used a food bank sporadically over the last 3 years. I’m almost qualified. I have studied a Masters and worked part time for the NHS in the field I will soon practice in. I’m also a single parent to 2 children. Not choice. Marriage breakdown. I have a mortgage & require a car for work. I’m a professional juggler with money. Yet there are times when no matter what I do, the cost of living is so high that I cannot afford enough food. Every area is cut to the quick. I am the working poor. But I have the determination, resilience and ability to learn that will enable me to get out of the poverty trap. And I will use my experience well. In fact, I already do. In a twist of irony one of my roles is to sign and distribute food bank vouchers and budgeting skills to vulnerable adults. Tabula rasa

  4. Jemma September 19, 2018 at 9:52 pm #

    Have any of you looked into the adult learning funds (ALF bursary) and hardship payments from Uni?

    These are not shouted about purely because it is for when you are in these situations and so they are not open for all. Most Uni’s should have this and the ones in my area (Bath/Wiltshire) do. Please look into them to see if you can get any help financially. They should come as a bursary NOT a loan and therefore not expected to pay them back. I hope this will be of some help

  5. Roger Wild September 19, 2018 at 10:15 pm #

    In response to Chrissie Martin. The funding a social work student receives is more than an apprentice receives. A social work student is given limited/protected caseloads and closely supervised by their practice educator so not realistic to compare with qualified social workers caseloads. As for food banks that’s down to the individual not managing their personal finances (HCPC code of practice). Finally if Chrissie believes work is better in the private sector then give it a try. No final salary pension scheme for starters.

  6. Adaocha September 26, 2018 at 1:50 am #

    The experiences of all commentators are very insightful and yet filled with anxiety for one who just embarked on an MA Social Work degree!

    So sorry to hear from those suffering to meet ends meet, while pursuing a worthy profession. It’s ironic that the perspectives from the varied experiences still pose a stark reminder that the decision to go into this profession must bear compassion and the rest of the buzz words. On the other hand, it suffices to question whether well looked after social workers in training and post qualification turn out to be better in their jobs?

    Im learning now at the entry stage to manage finances, pay apt attention to my overall well being and my child’s, improving on my weaknesses and reflecting on how I will contribute in a profession from the original spurred interest which was simply ‘compassion and empowerment’. Financial reward is key for personal needs and solving all kinds of issues which money can solve! Wish me well! I also wish everyone well! Thanks for taking up the courage to go into this profession and for being honest!