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 childrenI
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."
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 developmentyou 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.
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
wantedI was offered one in a doctor's surgeryso
I set up my own according to the learning I thought I needed.
- Textbook knowledge can only take you so faryou
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
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
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
- 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
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 dayit 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
- We spend a lot of time on paperwork
and computersthis means sacrificing time with families.
- Administration is not a good use of our timeI'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 elseall
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.