University Interviews

It seems that interview season is under way for social work places at universities. I know a couple of people who have interviews coming up and have asked me for advice, so this is a basic summation of what I’ve come up with and I’d certainly welcome other ideas and thoughts below.

Without being too specific about what different universities might be asking for, I think it’s as good to have an article or something you’ve read prepared, even if you aren’t specifically asked to prepare something.

Have a browse through the Guardian Society pages and/or Community Care and take a look at some of the discussions taking place. Relevance and recentness is the key but combined with a thoughtful approach so it isn’t just about picking up the story that hits the press on any given day – but rather one that might be lingering in the background that shows some deeper thought and research might have taken place.

It might even be worthwhile thinking about a novel or a film that doesn’t specifically reference social work and placing it in context. I did that in my interview and I although that was a long time ago, I think it really did help with the interview (and I was told as much when I was actually a student!). For the record, the book I talked about was The Color of Water – which I’d heartily recommend. I think it is a beautiful book in any context.

As regards basic contexts, I’d expect to be asked about general policy directions rather than specifics.

It’s useful to have a look at the Code of Practice issued by the GSCC and the BASW ones as well.

I know some universities ask for them to be referenced but you’d probably know in advance – having a glance over wouldn’t do you any harm though in all cases.

A friend of mine who works in Fostering Services suggested that I emphasise (for the interviewees) that they make themselves aware of the  Five Outcomes in relation to Every Child Matters as a key tenet of policy direction. I wouldn’t expect a great and in-depth knowledge of policies but that’s fairly straightforward. Also a brief and cursory understanding of the issues facing social work as pertaining to children and families –  the increase in care applications maybe indicating a wider fear of reprisals and ‘getting things wrong’ post the ‘Baby Peter’ tragedy and perhaps the context of the awful case of Khyra Ishaq more pertinently. The dangers of risk aversion all round and how that can lead to a more authoritarian position. The importance of thoroughness and tenacity/confidence, strong management and strong practitioners able to challenge poor management practices remains vital for a good quality service to be provided.

It would be worth glancing through the Task Force summary and putting into context as a social work student and what different directions the profession might be taking. I’d emphasise hope for the future as a potential student and dismiss some of my cynicism.

Regarding adult services, where I feel a lot stronger – I think the debate about paying for care is a great topical discussion to be had. Generally, there is the movement towards Personalisation and Individual Budgets – choice is all good – and it certainly is on paper!

There are changes afoot throughout adult social care and there is a need to embrace different ways of working and perhaps perceive personalisation through the lens of a roll-out of strengths-based work and allowing user choice over services.

In relation to Mental Health, the New Horizons document is clearly the way forward and it might be worth  having a precursory look. That’s a lot of background reading!

Think about your own personal experiences, professionally and personally and tie in to situations where you might have felt or been subjected to discrimination or oppression (read up on the differences between anti-discrimination and anti-oppression!). Think about situations where you might have challenged discrimination or oppressive practice. Examples are always good.

Think about the qualities essential for a good social work practitioner. This is a good starter to consider, I think.

Don’t be shy. Even if you are shy, don’t be for a group interview! Written tests are often about the ability to communicate as much as anything. As are group interviews – but in a different way. It’s important to have your point heard but also respect others’ space to speak.

I’m sure that universities differ massively in what the ask and in the format but that’s a very basic guide that I have no doubt I’ll adapt and adjust as I think of more things!

A massive resource though is the CareSpace forum via Community Care where lots of potential and current students discuss their interviews and current issues in social care. Just beware of the usual forum culprits of cynicism and negativity.

It isn’t all bad ‘out there’ despite what some people might have you believe!

I’m sure I’ve left a lot of things out so feel free to add.. this was more or less off the top of my head on a befuddled Friday after a hectic week!

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Individual Fudge-its.

I have tried to embrace the personalisation agenda. Really, client-choice is wonderful. I welcomed Direct Payments and saw a few through to the finish although always keen to emphasise the difficulties as they arose. Basically, the idea of giving the users of services the power and control to purchase services directly is a good one. Money and finance is such a crucial key in the dynamic and it is an almost Victorian and very ‘modern’ adage for the providers of social care to be spreading cash and services like charities rather than according to rights and needs. I always emphasise that any service provided is an absolute right – nothing to be grateful or thankful for. We have a duty to provide for those who need.

That is where the  mindset needs to be changed however, I think the move towards spreading out individual budgets has been wholly focussed on a model that works extremely well with younger physically and learning disabled adults who are able to advocate well for themselves or have active families and networks around them to provide the support and guidance – either formally or informally.

Where the system seems to struggle is firstly that (wrongly in my very humble opinion) choices and more importantly, money is less forthcoming with over 65s. The budgets are tighter and there just isn’t so much money around. There are also less ‘support’ hours available from social workers – in the sense that allocations in over 65s services are MUCH higher than in the other more specialist teams. Whereas someone who has a learning disability may have been known to a particular social worker for many years and have had time to build up relationships with a team and a family, an older adult will likely have much less time to have any form of ‘relationship building’ going on.

Self-assessment questionnaires are all well and good  but from my own experience, I’ve had a couple of people completely freeze up when presented with them (even in the context of me explaining that I would be happy to help) or laughed at (What?? Another Form?? All the questions ask about physical disabilities?? It’s just like a DLA/AA form (accompanied by a disheartened sigh ).

Any time I have raised concerns at meetings or training, I have been shouted down by the trainer as being opposed to client choice and just being an old stick-in-the-mud ‘care manager’ style of social worker who wants to retain all the control myself. I find that offensive for a start as these trainers have no idea what challenges exist and in their minds we have hours to spend constructing care plans for every person that we come across.

The truth is that it is a fudge of the highest degree. There is no more choice than there was for the people who don’t have networks of support. They are still constricted to the same care agencies that charge the lowest amount and pay their staff the minimum wages. Sure, they can employ people directly but there is no safety net or extensive support to recruit that was once promised. Being an employer is not for everyone – especially if it is someone who might be suffering from a cognitive impairment without a family member to actively choose and advocate. There is more flexibility, for sure, but it is found through such a convoluted method to have been painful to reach. The ideas are good but unless the commissioners and project managers listen to those who have experience, there will be no different outcomes for the most vulnerable service users.

That is my concern and has always been my concern. It has been emphasised that no more money will be made available. It is hard to provide a better service without more money coming in and noone seems to be prepared to accept that. Between one party saying they will ‘try and keep people out of residential homes’ and the other talking about insurance plans to ensure that more people go into homes there is a hotch-potch and neither of the main parties seem to have engaged with the personalisation agenda very much through their arguments about funding, fear of the middle classes who feel resentful about having to pay for services for their parents with their own inheritances and the thought of an actual cost being attached to the provision of quality care.

Self-directed support sounds wonderful and it honestly is wonderful for some people. What seems to have been lost is not that I particularly want to choose the services that other people get – I like the idea of choice and flexibility – but really the idea that some people need a lot of support to plan and develop personalised care and support plans and there has been no account whatsoever taken of the time factors in a team that this means.

We are running pilots at present in our borough and I feel almost resentful at the lack of listening that has been done. There is an assumption that is actually ironic when you think about it that the roll-out of individual budgets is about empowering people and not assuming ‘we know best’ however the manner of the implementation is the same through mental health, learning disabilities, physical disabilities and older adult services.

Some people are actively ignoring the growing pace of the agenda – I’ve tried to embrace it so as to be in a better position to add my voice to those who are shaping the policies. I am trying to be positive and think that some elements are really good – it has just increased my paperwork a thousand-fold.  I know complaining about paperwork is old hat  but the extra man hours haven’t been factored in.

We have an option to ask some local advocacy services to help with self-assessment questionnaires and support planning however, in our service where we do have the opportunity to build up relationships with users and carers over a period, I should see it as some kind of triumph that everyone I work with has preferred me, a face that they know and (hopefully!) trust to assist as opposed to someone else new coming in to do these pieces of work. At least they know I’ll be accountable over the longer period.

And so while trying to be positive, I have a certain amount of annoyance with the implementation. Yes, it’s a good idea. Yes, it sounds wonderful on paper. No, noone has actually listened much to ALL the practitioners who work with different user groups and noone seems to have taken note of the barriers that existed to direct payments as a starting point.

I think it is another means to privatise and decentralise services and to give ‘responsibility’ to the service user as a way of diluting responsibilities of the provider. I hope I am wrong and just a little too cynical for my own good.

I still try to be hopeful for the future though. I still intend to make my voice heard by making positive suggestions as opposed to merely grumbling and griping in the corner.

That’s the ‘right’ thing I do, I’m sure of it. I have no doubt whatsoever that this will be something of a theme for me over the coming months.

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On Memory

We have a standard MMSE (Mini Mental State Examination) which we use as a rough bar to judge how someone’s cognition may be changing over a period of time. There are lots of criticisms at the moment but taken with a pinch of salt and in conjunction with other changes and differences – it is a guide of changes. No more and no less. In my view anyhow.

As a matter of course, I’ll update the MMSE that we might have at an interval if there is someone who we think might have a cognitive impairment. I needn’t have had any worries about Mrs P, whom I visited last week.

As a part of the process, I ask her what day of the week it is, and what date it is. She responds. I explain that she’s one day out. She looks at me with some degree of bemusement.

Of course, I had been having one of those days when you are absolutely convinced it’s Wednesday – but actually, as she gently pointed out to me – it was Tuesday. She was right and I was wrong. In fact, she’d scored better than I would have on our MMSE that day!

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A Home to Fit

I have worked with Mrs G for about 18 months. She has a degenerating dementia and is becoming more physically frail. Unsurprisingly this is not an uncommon basic scenario that rears it’s head at work. Mrs G has no surviving family but she was a very active local politician – involved in lots of causes and has wide and varying groups of friends who have endeavoured to keep an eye on her and provide substantial care and support for her over the last few years. It just goes to show that sometimes the links of friendship can be just as tightly bound as those of family.

A conference of friends was called yesterday. There were a fair few people who all have an interest in her wellbeing. We talked about residential care. I first raised the prospect of residential care for Mrs G shortly after I was first involved with her. I felt that things were not going to improve and that she really needed more support than could be provided at home. I was wrong and happily so. Friends came out of the woodwork and banded together to augment a formal care package with lots of informal support.

As I spoke to Mrs G yesterday, she wasn’t really able to follow the conversation or the flow. She is a sociable person by nature who, I think, if we can find the ‘right’ fit of residential care home – may actually enjoy an aspect of it. I know exactly what type of care home I’m looking for – one with a bit of spirit to it and character. Preferably one that might have room for a cat as well. It isn’t an impossible call because I’ve known it to happen but I have to say the prospects aren’t looking too hot.

Sometimes I despair at the generic nature of some care homes. I know there is an optimum economic way of providing care to the most people at the lowest possible cost. I also know some care home managers that care enormously for the quality that they are able to maintain for those who use their services. It can seem like looking for a needle in the haystack at times though.

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The Hamster

Our foster child has now been with us for five months. There are no plans for her to be moving on any time soon although previous (admittedly limited) experience proves that things can happen and change very quickly.

She arrived late on a Thursday night. We had been called by the council just after five and were given no more information than age and gender. It was an emergency placement and after some time (at the police station) she arrived with her social worker who was clearly working extremely late that night so didn’t have much time to stay and chat.

That evening as we made something light for her to eat, she told me about her hamster. She was worried about her hamster because she had only had him for a few days and he was at home alone. Noone to feed him or look after him.

The next day, I called the social services department. Repeatedly. About the hamster. Could anyone reassure us that hamster wasn’t ‘home alone’? Would we be able to tell a very distressed, displaced child that her hamster – that her parents had clearly told her that she was responsible for – was safe. She was terrified that her hamster might not survive the weekend. Clearly and understandably, I suppose, hamster care is not the top priority for a very busy child protection team in London. We had no response.  Eventually and actually after calling an out of hours team, we had some information that hamster was safe. I have to say I was a little suspicious and thought it might have been a rapid ‘fob off’ and I’m sure we developed reputations about neurotic foster carers obsessing about the well-being of a hamster.

But the importance of a hamster was not lost for a child who had been robbed of so much familiarity. Her home life had been blown apart. She had just started a new school in a new country with a new language (English is a second language to her).

The weekend was tough with no firmer news of hamster but news arrived on Monday that Hamster was safe and well. The next day, we took delivery of a foster hamster who came to join her owner.

I write this with child next to me playing with that same hamster. She has so much love for the little critter. She feels that her hamster is going through what she is going through. When she was sick, hamster cage moved into her bedroom. I might laugh about the little rodent but I look at the little furry face and can’t imagine how much little hamster is helping her.

We have had some scary overenthusiastic play ‘Don’t squeeze the hamster’ ‘No, you can’t take the hamster to meet the neighbour’s cat’ ‘I’m not sure your hamster really enjoys being thrown up in the air.. even if you are sure you can catch him’.

I have to say, I’ve gotten quite fond of the hamster too. He is very bombproof and has been handled to extreme levels – while displaying not the slightest nibbley temperament – unless you have a chocolate drop in your hand.

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