Social work in schools: an opportunity to change perceptions

    In the second instalment of our series on social work in unusual settings, we look at how practitioners in schools are making a difference - to students, and to perceptions of the profession

    Photo: AdobeStock/MonkeyBusiness

    “I thought they were rude people who interfered in people’s lives, but obviously not. I think they want to help people,” says a student, from a secondary school in a London borough, when asked what she thought about social workers.

    The school is in one of the local authorities taking part in the Social Workers In Schools (SWIS) programme.

    Social workers are often viewed in a negative light by the general public and can experience hostility from service users. One of the benefits of the SWIS programme is the opportunity to change such perceptions.

    Sonia Asaa, team manager of the SWIS project at her local authority, heads up a team of eight social workers who are based in eight designated schools in the locality.

    “A lot of parents associate schools as a safe place, whereas social workers in the office in the main team, are seen as being social services. So they feel safer with the social workers in school,” says Asaa.

    Working within a primary or secondary school means students and staff have constant access to a social worker. They are also available to speak to children where needed – giving more time to develop relationships, not just with children, but with teachers too.

    The SWIS project

    The project, managed by What Works for Children’s Social Care (WWCSC), was initially piloted in 2018 in three local authorities across the country, with the aim of reducing referral rates to children’s social care. Following its success, it was then rolled out to 21 more local authorities.

    The SWIS pilot did a comparative analysis between schools who had social workers and matching schools who did not and found the number of section 47 child protection enquiries were significantly lower in the former in two of the three initial pilot areas. The third area had a reduced number of section 17 child in need cases started.

    As the programme works within a statutory framework, social workers are employed by the local authority and then placed into local schools.

    If teachers or safeguarding staff identify an issue they will inform the social worker in the school, who will decide if the threshold for intervention or referral has been met. The social worker can start work with the child or family immediately instead of waiting for another team from the local authority to get involved. This speeds up the whole referral process.

    What kind of skills so you need?

    Social workers work with school staff on issues including safeguarding, training needs, providing consultation on thresholds and responding to concerns or allegations.

    They also undertake group and one-to-one work with students, and carry out case work with looked after children and those on child protection plans. As well as this statutory work, there is an emphasis on prevention. Being available for children for informal chats is very much part of the remit.

    The school setting differs substantially from traditional social work environments and this can require a different set of skills.

    Asaa thinks effective and diplomatic communication skills are essential for working in schools, not just with students but also with teachers, whose focus and training differs from social work.

    “Teachers are there to help children academically, yes social and safeguarding is part of their work but that’s not the primary role and a lot of teachers don’t understand the reasons behind children’s behaviour.

    “That’s because they are looking purely at how a child is progressing academically and getting frustrated when a child is not doing what they should be doing, without looking at the whole picture in terms of what is behind the child’s behaviour,” she explains.

    Some of the social workers have been shocked at the way some of the students talk to each other and the aggression towards each other at times”

    What kind of issues have social workers come across in school?

    According to Asaa, mental health problems, particularly self-harming and experiencing suicidal thoughts, have been a major issue in schools.

    “I can’t say if this was due to lockdown or not, because we weren’t in school then, but mental health is rife. Some of the social workers have been shocked at the way some of the students talk to each other and the aggression towards each other at times,” she says.

    In February 2023, Unicef published a report on the benefits of having social workers in schools globally. It concluded that embedding social workers within schools is something that schools and children’s social care have benefitted from.

    If the Department of Education, which funds WWCSC, decides to provide more resource for the SWIS programme then there will be further opportunities for social workers to work in schools in the future.

    Another student from the SWIS programme said: “I think every school should have a SWIS worker, it’s important for all children to have someone at school they can talk to about issues they can’t share with family or friends.”

    Case study

    Archie*, a student, was staying in temporary accommodation (a hostel) with his family while waiting for permanent housing to be allocated. He reported to a teacher that he was unhappy with his living situation as the family were sharing a bathroom at the hostel with lots of other people.

    The bathroom was always filthy, and people could easily access each other’s rooms because the locks on the doors were very easy to unlock. There had been an incident that took place over the weekend, which involved Archie’s mother witnessing domestic abuse between a couple staying at the hostel. The male perpetrator of the violence then attempted to break into Archie’s family room, and the police had to be called.

    Police advised they would write to the housing department as it was not safe for the family to remain at the hostel but despite this the family were not moved. After receiving the above information from school staff, Tamara*, the SWIS social worker, contacted the mother to obtain more information about the reported incident.

    Tamara then contacted the housing department that had placed the family at the hostel to share her concerns about their safety there. The housing department acknowledged the concerns raised by Tamara and arranged for the family to move to a more suitable hostel straight away.

    Having the SWIS team linked directly to the school cut down the usual referral process, which would have caused delay. Tamara was able to deal with the situation quickly and prevented things from escalating further.

    *names have been changed for anonymity

    This is the second instalment in a new series about social work in unusual settings. Our first was on social work in prisons. If you would like to share your experience of social work in a non-traditional setting, please email

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    6 Responses to Social work in schools: an opportunity to change perceptions

    1. Sandra Chapman March 9, 2023 at 2:45 pm #

      Interesting how these things come around again and again as new and innovative ideas..

      The Childrens team that I was in ,was doing something similar in 1978 in Northamptonshire.

      Again , when I was an ESW , I completed research to identify the need for social workers within schools and/or within assessments teams with a focus on schools.

      • Alec Fraher March 10, 2023 at 5:26 pm #

        Yeah, I thought the same too Sandra.

        But then I thought so what’s actually ‘the innovation?’

        In management speak the innovation is defined by the word ‘IN’.

        I suspect that schools will also seek, eventually, to be the employer of said social worker’s replacing the LA’S, eventually. I also feel that it’s Treasury driven too.

        One would have to ignore historical facts about the old institutional care systems, for both children and adults, and the brutality therein and there’s definitely no innovation IN that.

        With-IN These Walls, Eh!

    2. Berlinda Obeng Mensah March 11, 2023 at 6:28 am #

      I want to know more about social work

      • Alec Fraher March 13, 2023 at 5:05 pm #

        Doli Incapex, no?

        The actual political radicalisation of children and childhood started with the lowering of the age of criminal responsibilities from 14 yrs old to 10 to years old in England and from 14 yrs old to 8 yrs old in Scotland.

        ESW’s aren’t an entirely new phenomena, neither are PSWs

        For sure, the standing of the likes of Paiget, Lakatos, Stern, Patterson, Harlow, Bandura, Klein, Carlson and countless others who’ve written on children’s development, is as always in need of updating, and especially sociologically and geographically for a feminist perspective.

        But let’s make it grounded in the lived experience. I grew up on a street with 60 children between no 2 and no 32. Everybody knew who the social workers and probation officers were. Indeed, my own family could boast an ESW, PSW and Probation Officer. It was an ordinary and very much valourised set of services. In short, it meant the difference between being in custody or not.

        Doli Incapax mattered, not that we were in the know about what it meant as a concept. We did know that it was the difference between your life being stereotyped and written off before it had even started.

        This is at the very heart of social work, no?

        • Alec Fraher March 13, 2023 at 5:43 pm #

          For CPD, although dated these texts are useful grounding:

          1. Chapter 8, pgs 299- 334, Intentionally in Disorder in Mind, Meaning and Mental Disorder: The Nature of Causal Explanation in Psychiatry and Psychology by Derek Bolton and Jonathon Hill.

          2. Power, Violence, Decision by WJM Mackenzi

          3. De-Schooling Society by Ivan Illich, which is also a topic Babette Babich covers in a paper titled Education and Subversive charting pedagogy from Illich to Zizek.

          NB: the formation of Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnership’s under the, then, Crime and Disorder Act 1998 permanently shifted the territory Social Work held in both Adults and Children’s Services. Marking the end of The Director of Social Services, and marking the fragmentation of Services ever since. Crucially, the idea of seamlessness and holism became a ‘spurious’ contracted requirement without the necessities of a legally binding concordat for indivisible and non-reducable accountability and responsibilities despite the legal fact that the Duty of Care cannotbe delegated to ThirdParty Providers, which includes by way of the law of tort, a requirement not to create the conditions which cause harm. Q: Is LASSA Dead? Long Live LASSA?

          If there was ever a time to know more about social work it’s now, surely?

    3. Alec Fraher March 14, 2023 at 7:23 pm #

      Without Doli Incapex, in it’s original sense, how is Compassion and Trauma Informed sw practice in schools ever, really, gonna be achieved?

      What are the metrics of such indeterminacy let alone the commensurabilities and incommensurable ethic.

      Jam and Bread, Again? Please Sir, Can I Have Somemore?

      Private wealth is the only Real measurement of Educational Attkinson.

      Sheesh, Eh!