On-the-job learning is a critical part of any student social worker’s journey to qualification; but what if you could also get paid for it? For apprentice social worker Nicki, the financial freedom provided by training on Dorset Council’s apprenticeship scheme has been critical in helping her transform her aspirations of becoming a social worker into a reality.
As the Social Work Apprentice scheme is funded by the apprenticeship levy, paid by employers such as Dorset and then topped up by government, rather than student loans, apprentices like Nicki don’t have the worry of building up debt as they study.
Nicki has always had an interest in social care and was able to secure a job working for a company that were working alongside Dorset Council. This job allowed her to work with social workers and get valuable insight into what the job entailed and what social care positions would come up.
“I was able to see what positions were available for the assessment support coordinator – the unqualified position – and was able to apply for the position when it came up,” she says.
A route to social work
Dorset currently has five apprentices undertaking the social work training programme and would typically already work for the council in a social care setting. The majority are employed as assessment and support coordinators on a salary ranging from approximately £21,600 to £25,300 per year. This coordinator role provides support to social workers and occupational therapists.
“The apprenticeship role helps promote and develop our internal workforce as a career development opportunity, enabling staff within unregistered roles to progress into professionally registered roles,” says Steve Crocker, principal social worker in adult care at Dorset Council. “We also currently offer post-graduate routes as well as apprenticeships recognising that a few of our staff hold academic qualifications that allow them to take different routes to qualification.”
Although the scheme was not available when Nicki started her initial Open University (OU) social work degree programme in 2017, she was able to transfer after a year when the scheme went live.
“I had to apply through Dorset to see if we could be sponsored and complete an application form which my manager had to approve. As part of the application, we had to do group exercises, which was an intense process but this was good because it meant you knew what was on offer and what you had to do to be part of that course. I noticed a difference between the straightforward degree course and the apprenticeship scheme.” The difference was not just financial, she says.
“Whereas with a degree course, students complete their assignments and have social care placements, the apprenticeship scheme allows students to embed themselves into the everyday environment of social care. Working on an everyday basis means that I am already aware of the systems and what I am supposed to do, and that gives me a bit of an insight of what it is like to work for a local authority.”
From the time that Nicki applied to train, she has been supported along her journey. A benefit of learning through Dorset’s apprenticeship scheme is that everyone involved in her training is hands-on and always available if she needs support. Her practice educator is employed by Dorset and her OU practice tutor has longstanding experience working with Dorset Council.
With less than two years left to completing her training, Nicki is building up her expertise across both adults’ and children’s services. She is currently one of 25 social workers operating in the council’s peripatetic team, where she is involved in filling resource gaps in adult social work teams across Dorset.
“I started my apprenticeship working in adults’ services in the learning disability team, which allowed me to build relationships with service users and their families. And because the projects were long, it allowed me to really get my teeth into them.”
Other projects she has been involved in have included assessing and reviewing the needs of adults living in supported living environments. Nicki has worked in the learning development team as a peripatetic worker and moved to children’s services where she was conducting parenting assessments in the family specialist assessment teams, but had to cut short her training there shortly before the Covid-19 pandemic hit the UK.
“Being able to work in different teams and move around every four to six months and learn something new is critical to my development. It allows me to pick up skills and opportunities,” she says.
“I had completed 30 days of training in children’s when the pandemic hit,” says Nicki. “I now work in the hospital team in Poole. But there is no break in my training, I am still doing my assignments and projects. The only difference is we are not going to the wards and we are not assessing the way we normally would, face to face. Instead, we work in the office or from home and do our assessments by speaking to people and their family and friends remotely.”
The pandemic has not stopped face-to-face assessments across the whole of the council but it has meant that Dorset is embracing more use of digital technology to undertake video and telephone assessment.
The support Nicki has received in continuing her training despite the pandemic has been invaluable. And having people involved in her training and education has been key because it has meant that when the pandemic hit there was a strategy in place and Nicki’s training continued uninterrupted.
“There has been clear and frequent communication during the initial stages of the pandemic and we were made aware of how our working arrangement would change,” she says. “There was cover where it was needed, which is why I’ve been relocated to the hospital. My university was involved, as were my tutors and the information I have received from everyone has been the same. So, although it was an unsettling time because things were different, it felt like everybody was on the page and everybody wanted it to be a smooth situation for us to get through this difficult time.”
Asked if she would consider working anywhere else once she finishes her course in 2022, Nicki says, not for now. “There are a range learning and training opportunities and there is a network of managers and trainers there to offer continued support and the space for much-needed reflection. If you are looking for a local authority that is going to promote your learning and development, Dorset is one that does that.”
Our strengths-based approach means that we put people at the heart of everything we do
People interested in finding out more about Dorset’s apprenticeship scheme can take advantage of virtual sessions that have been launched recently. These sessions outline what the council is doing and how they can apply, says children’s services executive director Theresa Leavy.
“We’re really excited to be shortlisting from applications now and will start the assessment centre process in the middle of June. We’ve also recently rolled out a new model of working in children’s services and are in the process of moving to a locality-based offer. It’s so important that we work as a multi-disciplinary team and are based where people need us”.
Speaking on the development opportunities the scheme offers, Vivienne Broadhurst, executive director for adults and housing at the council, adds:
“This is a real opportunity for anyone interested in all aspects of social work to start their career here. Our strengths-based approach means that we put people at the heart of everything we do, and we focus on what they can do, rather than what they can’t.
“This has had such a positive impact and brought many different outcomes for our residents. There are so many opportunities for development and we want Dorset to be a place where social work professionals can grow.”
Read more about the council here: