Training of Children and Families Social Workers - Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

Annex: Record of informal meeting with recently-qualified social workers

Informal meeting with social workers

Monday 22 June 2009

These notes are a general account of the opinions expressed by a group of social workers from eight different London boroughs who met Members of the Committee for an informal discussion. Comments in bullet points are paraphrased quotations.

What's good about being a social worker

  • "Being a social worker puts you in a unique position to influence the lives of children—I love it. It's great when you can see change in a child over time."
  • "I moan about it but I love what I do. I'm taking a case to court next week; I know the case inside out, I know the child really well, and it's a really good feeling to know that I'm going to secure his future."
  • "I love the exposure to different types of work that being in a locality team gives you."
  • "I love the feeling of being part of a team."

Initial training

Most but not all of the group qualified through the Master's route; some had first degrees in related subjects such as sociology or psychology. Comments on the quality of degree courses varied; some said their course had been "very good", that "it prepared me well and equipped me with useful theories and approaches", while others complained their course had been "hit and miss", "pretty unstructured", or that "I expected more challenge from a Master's course". While placements are important, it was pointed out that they are not in themselves sufficient to compensate for a poorly taught or organised course.

  • Degree level training is essential for a social worker. You have to learn critical thinking, analytical skills, child development—you need a degree level of knowledge and intellectual ability to make the decisions we make.
  • Our training does not equip us to go out into the field on day one. What you learn at university is very different from the experience of day-to-day work. Even with two Master's degrees behind me (one in a related subject) I did not feel fully prepared by my training.
  • Depending on the placements you have, you may start work without having seen or done looked-after children paperwork, assessments, child in need reviews or court documentation.
  • The degree is a very intense experience, with three exams a month and no summer break, but it was also very general and basic.
  • I never did any long-term work or looked-after children work in my training.
  • Multi-agency working was an important focus in my degree course, and I learnt a great deal about it while on placements as well.

Training placements

There were mixed reports of student placements. One social worker said she had a very good experience, being given sufficient responsibility so that she felt prepared when starting work, but also feeling able to say so when out of her depth. Another, who trained on an employment-based route, praised her local authority for matching her placements to her needs, with the authority's head of training closely involved. Others, however, said that placements were "a total lottery", and that they knew many people who had poor placements which lacked supervision and support. It was often necessary for students to seek out their own placements to ensure they got what they felt they needed. Reports of what is expected of students on placement also varied: some complained of having to put together a detailed portfolio, which comes to dominate the placement at the expense of focusing on developing your practice. Others said they had not felt bogged down by academic requirements.

  • I had a placement in a secondary school; no other social workers were working there, so I had to be creative about my work. I didn't come across any of the statutory social work forms or procedures.
  • The placements I was offered were not what I wanted—I was offered one in a doctor's surgery—so I set up my own according to the learning I thought I needed.
  • Textbook knowledge can only take you so far—you can't learn how to work in a team, or how to work with challenging families, just by being at university. Placements are crucial to gaining these experiences, but students are often sheltered from complex work even if they are capable of taking it on.
  • Social work is about accountability, about taking responsibility for making assessments, judging risk and so on. That cannot be learned just by shadowing others.

Newly-qualified social workers

Several members of the group were participating in the Newly-Qualified Social Worker pilot programme. It was reported that different councils were implementing it differently. There had been no consultation with the new social workers about how the programme should be implemented. The programme was experienced as very academically-led, with participants being asked to evidence the same competences they had already been asked to evidence throughout their degree course. One said, "It's taking me a step backwards; I'd rather have a chance to be reflective about my practice in supervisions".

One social worker commented that, while the theory was good, in practice the programme did not build progressively or developmentally on previous experience. All that was required was to sign against targets, some of which were not necessarily relevant. There are monthly meetings for NQSWs, but the purpose of these appears to be "to discuss how to tick the boxes". The meetings are chaired by trainers, but it would be more helpful if they were chaired by an experienced social worker who could discuss practice and cases. At the moment, she concluded, the NQSW programme "is not fit for purpose".

Structure of training

One member of the group cited approvingly the Australian model of two years' study followed by two years of placements, and recommended that new social workers go on a rotation of placements through every aspect of social work, including the adults' side. Others agreed that further development in the first years of practice should be build into the training, like doctors' clinical placements.

Asked about whether courses could be made longer, one social worker said she would not have considered undertaking a four-year course, without receiving any payment. One worker was employed by their local authority as a trainee social worker, with one year of employment before starting the course, and so was paid throughout. Another participant reported that her authority had recently stopped recruiting through its 'grow your own' scheme. The idea of a paid probationary year was popular.

Career and pay

The majority of the group said that they anticipated staying in children and families work in the future, but raised doubts about whether this would be in the local authority sector, or on the frontline. Pay was mentioned as an important barrier to staying in frontline posts, though at least two local authorities were experimenting with higher salary scales for specialist, experienced practitioners.

Asked if "re-branding" the profession would bring any benefits, participants acknowledged that many people don't really know what a social worker does, but that it is still a recognised professional title: "if you are eating a Snickers, people still know that you're really eating a Marathon". 'Common knowledge' about the best and worst local authorities to work for are spread by agency workers who move around a lot, as well as a council's reputation in the media. It was pointed out that not all these perceptions are accurate.

  • There should be more opportunities for people who already work in the field to train up as social workers: they will have the assets of people skills and variety of experience.
  • Social workers who have built up some experience tend to become managers and stop working with families. I would have done the same, if I had not found a job in an local authority with 'consultant' posts which are more senior but still involve frontline practice.

Agency workers

It was pointed out that new social workers can enter employment at an agency immediately after qualifying, and earn more than they would in a local authority, but that this would mean missing out on the training and development opportunities available in councils. The group reported that among many social workers, the attitude is that the smart thing to do is get a couple of years' experience under your belt, and then join an agency to get a higher wage.

One social worker said that, in his team of 12, there had been 14 changes of staff within the last year. A lot of this turnover was because of agency workers moving around; he said that agency workers "destabilise" the training process because they disrupt the continuity of teams. Another participant reported that over half of the members of his child protection team are at present agency workers, many of them from abroad.

Age of social workers

A social worker's age in itself was not necessarily deemed important, but it was said that it is important to have some experience behind you; one social worker with pre-qualification experience of residential care said, "I draw on that experience every day—it must be very difficult to come into social work training straight from A levels". Another said that being a more mature social worker doesn't necessarily make you a better social worker; her manager has commented that the more recent recruits are typically doing a better job of risk assessment than more experienced workers.

Issues in practice

The group work in a variety of different teams. Some were in locality teams which do all types of work in a particular patch of the authority, but the usual structure is to have separate teams for initial referral and assessment, children in need or child protection, and looked-after children. Asked if cost was a factor in decision-making about cases, responses varied. When it came to deciding whether a child should be taken into care, "the emphasis is all on assessing the risk". In another council, the policy was not to take over-14s into care because of the cost. One social worker reported frequent discussions about the cost effectiveness of various placement options for children in care, but said she had never been refused a placement. It was reported that there is no consistency in attitudes to thresholds across local authorities, or even between different managers.

Asked what suggestions they have for how cost savings could be made if budgets are tightened in the future, some responded that there is no capacity for making any cuts without damaging the service. Others suggested a reduction in the proportion of budgets that are spent on agency workers and outsourced assessments.

  • In a team where you get a variety of work, it helps to relieve the stress. It means that sometimes you can take a break from court work and other very intense tasks to, for example, spend an afternoon doing a fun activity with a looked-after child.
  • The biggest problem in practice is staff shortages, and that cannot be resolved without more funding.
  • Reducing caseloads to manageable levels is fundamental; we are all capable of doing a good job, but a manageable caseload is the crux.
  • It is dangerous to talk about concrete numbers with respect to caseloads. For me, the key is the support and supervision you get, and being in a supportive team.


Reports of supervision practices varied; mostly there was enthusiasm for the practice, although one social worker said that he would welcome a chance to talk more about methodology rather than tasks. The type of supervision was generally thought to depend on the attitude of individual managers. Social workers in teams with close links with other professionals (such as CAMHS workers and family therapists) felt they had valuable opportunities to discuss cases with them.


Access to administrative support varies, and with it the expectations about what tasks a social worker would get involved in. One worker reported working alongside many recruits from the USA. They often complain that there are no "case helps", who in American social work agencies would process the referrals among other tasks. But she felt that there was a great deal of value in being expected to "own" everything to do a particular family, because only when you know all the details can you really advocate for a family and make effective referrals.

  • We spend a lot of time on paperwork and computers—this means sacrificing time with families.
  • Administration is not a good use of our time—I've got a Master's degree but recently had to spend half a day ordering taxis, when I should be doing tasks that involve, for example, managing risk in families.

Building up relationships with families and children

  • Sometimes we are in the position of making decisions about families that we haven't spent much time with, because of workload.
  • Some of the group work in referral and assessment teams, where social workers have seven days to do an initial assessment, 35 days to complete a core assessment, and three months to transfer the case to a long-term team. Managers are focused on transferring cases out of the team as quickly as possible, and it can be hard to hand over responsibility for a young person just when you are getting to know them.
  • If a young person's case is being moved from a children in need team to a looked-after children team, a change of social worker is another, unnecessary loss at an already difficult time. There is only so much of the knowledge you gain about a child that can actually be passed on to someone else—all the little things you pick up along the way.
  • The amount of time and effort you spend building up relationships with children in care depends on the culture of expectations in your local authority; in my authority there is an expectation that social workers will remember the birthdays of children in care and spend money on buying them a good gift.
  • Whether or not you build up a good relationship with a child or young person depends on you as a practitioner and what your priorities are, and whether you are prepared to work long hours to make the time.
  • I work in a 'social work unit' where all the unit staff know a child, so that if one worker moves on the impact is not so disruptive; I take a great deal of comfort from the collective decision-making of the unit.
  • When applying for jobs, what recruiting managers want to know is whether you are good at meeting deadlines for tasks, not whether you are good at building relationships.

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