Sharon Davidson is a woman with quite a few hats – she is not only Surrey’s principal social worker (PSW) for children and families, but also the service manager for Surrey’s multi-agency academy as well as co-chair of the national PSW network.
She seems undaunted. This is, she says, because all the roles combine her love of good social work practice with a passion for high quality learning and development.
“I felt drawn to the practice leadership of a PSW role – I feel I’m the eyes and ears of social workers here and together we are finding solutions to some of the more difficult issues in social work practice.”
While Surrey’s social workers have case specific discussions with their team and supervisor, Sharon has set up ‘conversation cafes’ to host more general discussions about practice.
“They’ve had to be virtual this year, but so far, we’ve looked at wellbeing and resilience, race, racism and Black Lives Matter, social justice and how we support employability skills for students. I’m now looking at the Rowntree report on poverty and I want us to consider what that looks like in Surrey.
“I’d like these events to be driven by ideas from practitioners as I see this as a process that will last well beyond Surrey’s improvement journey out of ‘inadequate’.”
Racism and anti-discriminatory practice are particularly important to Sharon and it is, she says, a key part of her value base.
“How we practice and engage with each other is so important and all children, young people and their families in this county need to feel this is part of our value base.
Solutions need to come from social worker discussions
“It’s important that we constantly think about this and talk it through and that the solutions come from these social worker discussions. Because the solutions need to work in day-to-day social work practice,” she adds.
The other element that drew Sharon to Surrey was the council’s commitment to high quality learning and development infrastructure.
This started with the Surrey Children Services Academy which has been developed across partner agencies in Surrey to deliver and co-ordinate learning and development. It supports and offers learning and skills development, not only for social workers but also for other professionals working with children, young people and families.
As a result, the academy provides many opportunities for practitioners and managers to learn alongside those working in the police, health, education and across the third sector. This, in turn, should help foster better communication and working relationships, Sharon believes.
Staff awards ceremony
Launched in 2019 the academy quickly entered a year of COVID restrictions which, from a learning and development point of view, has meant that different ways of learning have been possible. Sharon is pleased that engagement in relation to virtual learning has been consistently high over the last year. Not having to travel vast distances to get to training or worry about the logistics of room sizes has meant they can deliver the training to larger groups of people.
A key element of the academy, and Sharon’s role, is consistently promoting and offering a robust career pathway for Surrey’s social workers and helping spread good practice.
“We held our first annual staff awards ceremony in December 2020 where staff nominated their colleagues. Celebrating staff achievement is very important.
“When you share a piece of good practice, or someone wins a practice award, then others naturally gravitate to those people to find out what they did and talk to them about it. That’s what we want – a social work community that pats each other on the back but also learns from each other.”
Robust career pathways
Her current task is developing Surrey’s career pathways, which will officially launch in June 2021.
The council has already put senior and advanced social work roles in place, and these will be part of a pathway offering distinct progression routes in both management and practice.
Sharon says she would like to make becoming a manager a more appealing career option for social workers with more support in gaining the skills needed in those roles.
“But I also know that a lot of social workers will always prefer to remain in practice – focusing and developing their practice skills. They need to have career options as well.”
Opportunities and transparency
She says this is where Surrey’s size can help with the opportunities on offer, as there are lots of career prospects including opportunities to work in different services across the county.
She is also aware of the need for transparency around promotion and progression.
“We are developing a process to help all practitioners better understand how to describe their work with children, so they are more likely to be successful when they apply for progression opportunities. This will be for student social workers right the way through to those looking towards management”.
Through her regular discussions with all the directors and Rachael Wardell, the executive director of children’s services, Sharon says she knows the drive and commitment to developing a learning culture is fully supported.
“I’m really excited about learning in Surrey and the opportunities here.”
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