Working in one of the largest local authority areas in Europe can widen the learning opportunities open to social workers keen to promote their career progression, says Michelle Robinson – head of children in care services – who started in the profession as a senior social worker assistant.
Michelle joined Birmingham Children’s Trust 22 years ago, when it used to be Birmingham City Council, and by taking up shadowing, mentoring, and co-working responsibilities, she has developed skills and knowledge that has enabled her to progress into senior positions, she says.
“Because Birmingham is so large, the opportunities are available to frontline social workers that want to take on secondments opportunities, progress into managerial roles, or move laterally into other services such as placement, fostering and adoption, or commissioning,” says Michelle.
Michelle started her career at Birmingham as a senior social worker assistant in 1999. Keen to formalise her career, she gained a degree in social care, graduating in 2005. She rose up the ranks from qualified social worker, entered into a supervisory role in 2013, and then as a team manager in 2014. It is in the last two-and-a-half years, that she has become head of service for children in care – a service that supports an area team with over 530 children. She is one of only a handful of Black/African-Caribbean social workers in senior management.
“I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would end up in a managerial role, to be fair,” she says. “But I soon realised that in supervision meetings, I was confident telling my manager all the things I was going to do and I didn’t need much guidance – all I needed was approval for things that were beyond my control or for authorisation, such as finance. In addition, I got encouragement from my managers and peers, as well as training to support me along the way. And as a manager, I believe that it is imperative that we are being clear about our staff’s development journey and how we can support them.”
Making the transition
Michelle says transitioning from a qualified role to a senior social worker position in 2007 came about via the internal progression route. This pathway is still available for newly qualified social workers in Birmingham today looking to progress their career.
“Instead of qualified social workers having to wait for vacancies to be advertised, we have an internal progression route for social workers [following completion of their ASYE year] who are ready to progress to senior social worker level. It is a document that the social worker and team manager complete in support of the practitioner’s progression.
“They then progress to a panel for interview that includes a learning and development practitioner, a head of service and an area director. This is a relaxed process, and the majority of the practitioners will know the head of service and or area director.
“The aim is to understand their practice and how they have developed post qualifying. It is an opportunity for them to give case examples; how they apply theory models to practice, legislation and policy and procedure; demonstrate cultural competence; reflection on the strengths of their practice, as well as the challenges and ethical dilemmas they may have experienced. The panel will then make a decision as to whether they have achieved their senior progression.”
Michelle took the managerial route in her career progression, however there is the opportunity for employees to move across locality and service areas when vacancies arise. This enables social workers to gain valuable experience and the opportunity to take advantage of short-term pilot projects and secondments.
Verdella Tuitt, a senior practitioner at the Trust’s east assessment and short-term intervention (ASTI) team 1, chose the secondment route. Having worked, since 2015, in the children in care team for five years, she wanted to learn new skills. Through this experience, she was able to turn a six-month temporary placement into a permanent role.
“I applied for a secondment in ASTI in August 2020 to a more senior level,” she says. “Three months into the secondment, a permanent position came up. I felt I had not learnt enough in that area and wanted to stay a bit longer so took up the role.
“When I joined ASTI, there was a new team manager, a new team so it felt like a lot of change going on. But I was able to draw on my previous experience in children in care to support less experienced colleagues and also received a lot of guidance from my manager, which boosted my confidence. When you’ve got the support of managers around you, it does make you realise that if they see your capabilities, clearly, these capabilities must be there.”
Birmingham Children’s Trust describes itself as an organisation that listens and learns from others, improves social work practice and supports staff. Michelle believes this focus on promoting a good learning culture extends further than just developing skills in practice.
“I think staff feel listened to,” she says. “There is a strong emphasis on personal development, of staff and discussing their personal welfare, which I think is important because our practice model is relationship-based practice therefore as our approach is to work relationally with families, this approach is also applied to our employees as well.”
The Trust has a number of forums such as the employee forum, where nominated representatives from across the Trust (finance, family support, HR, business support services, fostering/adoption and frontline social work and health and well-being forum), meet bi-monthly with the director of practice and the chief executive, to raise any issues they have.
I really enjoy where I work, and I’ve never not wanted to come to work – and I think that says a lot.
Most recently, the Trust created the equality forum which was influenced by the killing of George Floyd. The forum provides staff from black, Asian and other ethnic groups with a space to discuss issues on a bi-monthly basis.
“The Trust has recently recruited an equalities and diversity manager to work across the Trust,” says Michelle. “With the board and executive, the aim is to help us make a step change in our leadership of equalities and anti-racism in our service delivery. A benefit from these forums is it gives staff the platform outside of other means to share their experiences. It ensures that feedback can be received, and actions agreed on to improve equality.”
For Verdella, the area and service-wide monthly practice forums, have been a good way for staff to reflect with their peers about practice.
“Birmingham is very much built on relationship-based practice and I feel like spaces like our monthly practice forums give us the opportunity to make the transition from children in care, to care leaver much smoother,” she says.
“We’ve had care leavers come in and share their experiences and we have offered them ways that we can improve the relationships between children in care and some of the social workers that support them. By talking to the young people, we are able to help them understand that what we are doing for them now can help to impact them in their future.”
This is one of the reasons why Michelle thinks social workers like working at the Trust.
“Two agencies staff that are looking to become permanent told me they didn’t know working for Birmingham could be this good,” she says. “They said they liked the fact that there was an open-door policy with their manager and that they could raise views and be heard”.
Verdella agrees. “I really enjoy where I work, and I’ve never not wanted to come to work – and I think that says a lot. Birmingham has a lot to offer in terms of the diversity of cases, the families you work with and the support you get from management.”
Benefits of working for Birmingham Children’s Trust
- £3,000 incentive payment on joining if you have up to 3 years practice experience.
- Up to £8,000 relocation payment (T&Cs apply).
- Retention payment of £2,400 for frontline social workers.
- Includes subsidised travel passes.
- KSS module-based programme to prepare staff for the National Accreditation Assessment System (NAAS).
- Access to Research in Practice and Community Care Inform.