Interviews and Ideas

Please forgive the blatant self-promotion in this post but it’s Friday and I’m feeling a like I have a bit of a cold coming so I’m less ‘perky’ than usual.

Dorlee from Social Work Career Development has published an interview which she did with me and it concentrates on what I do at work and some of the ways it differs from Social Work in the United States.  Excellent work, if I do say so myself – but joking apart, it is a good way for us to learn about social work in other countries.

Shirley Ayres has written a fantastic post for PSW, the BASW magazine (yes, I know.. ) and it includes some gems from myself. It’s a piece about social media use for social work specifically and is definitely worth a look.  The PDF is available here

As for my twittering on last week about wanting to work collaboratively on more online social work conferences/learning/interaction – well, it’s VERY rudimentary, but I’ve set up a ‘holding site’ here

Feel free to nose around as the whole point is to emphasise openness, conversation and working together on something that can be led by social work and improve social work without having a cost barrier to entry and that allows all who want to learn and contribute to do so. I’ve also added a very basic forum just to collect ideas.

I don’t have any great desire to ‘run’ this project and if anyone with greater technical skills wants to volunteer them then please please do but it’s a start and I hope someone will – even if it isn’t me – because I think something that adds value to our collective, international knowledge base and moves learning out of universities and into practice will be a real ‘hook’ in convincing more practicing social workers to engage with social media and new technologies.

Enough from me, the forum is here. Do join and share ideas.

(Don’t be scared that there isn’t much there yet.. everything needs to start somewhere!)

Life as a Social Work Student 4 – The Half Way Point

This is a guest post from the student who has contributed since before her course started. She first wrote here about her pre-course shadowing experiences, her initial impressions after a few months on the course,  the start of her first placement and the midpoint of her first placement. Here, we join her at the end of her first year of the Masters. 

Again, I’m very grateful to her for contributing, especially as she now has her own blog here – and she’s round and about on Twitter.

One Down, One to Go

As I write this, I’ve just received the official results of my first
year on the Social Work Masters course, which is that:
“You have successfully completed your studies this academic year and can progress to the next year of your studies.”

That one short sentence summarises all the various essays, lectures, seminars, placement work and portfolio, and dissertation proposal into a single pass/ fail. I am proud of the pass, I feel I had to jump through a lot of hoops to get it and I hope I’ve done so with a general good grace. I’m also proud of having written academic essays for the first time in my life and having learned to do it well enough to get a pass at masters level.

I think it’s a truism of any kind of training, whether academic or job-based, that you never feel that you get enough feedback. A sentence or two on an essay that took weeks of stress, reading, and planning can seem a bit sparse. It’s not that I even know what feedback I’d want, maybe just a chance to explain why I did the non-optimal thing, or why the references list may look a bit thin. At college it’s particularly odd because we have to give feedback on the courses as well, usually at a point where you’re pleased to have got to the end of the course so will give it a good mark purely for that. Or maybe that’s just me, I think some of my fellow students are far more critical.

Truth is, I have been generally happy with the standard of teaching. I have learned a lot over the past year, and picked up new skills as well. I can’t judge how relevant or useful any of these will be, except that I felt confident in finding appropriate theory books to back up my extended case study on placement and when I started the course I don’t think I would even have known which part of the library to search.

In any case, now is the calm before the storm of the second year, final placement, dissertation, job hunt, and things in general getting more serious. I really have no idea what the job situation will be like when I’m searching properly next year, I just know that I have a few backup ideas in mind and am not planning to put all my eggs in the statutory sector basket.

Some of my cohort are working through the summer ‘vacation’ which is a great opportunity to get more experience. I’m fortunate in that I get more of a break which I am very much appreciating. Next month I plan to spend more time down at the library making a start on scoping out the dissertation. Meanwhile I’m discussing a possible second placement with a placement agency that looks very hopeful (read: it’s perfect, but just need to sort out whether it’s practical or not due to travel issues.)

And hopefully I won’t have forgotten everything from last year when September rolls around.

Life as a Social Work Student 2 – Beginning the Placement

Czytelnia Humanistyczna BUR

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This is another post from a friend of mine who is in the first year of her studies as a social work student. We’ve followed her through  pre-course shadowing and initial impressions.  She’s now just started her first placement and is sharing some of her thoughts/reflections. Thanks very much to her for contributing.

– cb

Into the Fray

I think I’d just gotten started on the academic round of lectures,
tutorials, and essays when I last wrote about being a student, and it
already feels like an era away.

Towards the end of last term, everything got a bit more serious. We
had real essay deadlines, not just practice ones, and then the round
of placement organisation and interviews. And outside of the
cloistered college environment, the constant news about planned
government cuts which spun off a lot of discussion about our fears for
the various agencies and service users we’d been working with
previously.

One of our older lecturers commented at the end of term
that he couldn’t remember having seen students in general so
radicalised – my perception is not that we’re off organising
revolutions but just that everyone is very willing to challenge the
government and policies right now.

Lots of people are involved in demos, whether for social work, students, or uk uncut.   In hindsight I have enjoyed writing essays far more than I was
expecting. I wasn’t entirely sure that writing academic essays was
going to be a good fit for social work (I still have some doubts.) But
having time and space to read up on specific areas of theory/practice
and figure out how they fit together, and how current thinking was
arrived at has been very interesting.

Still, the one thing you can’t get away from with academic work is that you’re pressured very heavily to build on previous work. This is fine if you want to write about areas that have been well researched, or don’t want to heavily
challenge established thinking.

The best advice I could give to anyone else is just to read a lot and talk to people. Particularly on theory, don’t stick to one book. Sometimes different writers will just click better with you and reading different descriptions and approaches to the same theories has really helped me.

I am also getting used to social work jargon in which phrases such as
‘kick off’, ‘move on’, ‘engage’, and ‘young person’ have very specific
meanings. It still feels a bit unnatural to pepper conversations about
real people with jargon words, especially when different agencies have
different conventions, ‘client’ or ‘service user’ as a classic
example.

– Social Work  Students Let Loose –

So now we are all out on placement. From being in college together
four days a week, we now just see each other for one day of lectures.
And in a few weeks time, it will be full time placement. And we’re in
a very diverse set of agencies, running the range from statutory to
voluntary. Some people have already been thrown in at the deep end,
others spending days reading policies before they get a glimpse of an
actual service user.

Before the end of last term, there was a lot of pressure about
placements. Not because the college couldn’t provide them – as far as
I know, everyone has one – but work based students or people with
statutory placements were being fairly loud about it. Privately, some
of us agreed that we thought some of the more interesting work would
be outside the statutory sector so I’m pleased with mine.

I’m based in an agency that works with young homeless people (well,
not homeless when they’re living with us). In the office, there are a
battery of CCTV cameras on the outside of the building, and since the
young people are fairly nocturnal, most of what I saw of them the
first few days was glimpses on the cameras in the evenings as they
left the place. It feels like Bill Oddie’s badger watch. The staff I’m
working with have a wealth of experience in the field. I try to
explain that I’m learning a lot just from being in the same room as
them and listening to them talk to each other.

The web of student, practice assessor, workplace supervisor, and
practice tutor still seems very confusing. They all seem to know what
they’re doing but it’s a lot of people to be on your best behaviour
for. Being assessed constantly does make me nervous, and wondering if
every little thing I say and do is going to end up on an assessment or
worse is actually quite a lot of pressure to live under for 100 days.
I have a wave of empathy for service users who go through this
process, especially when they need to impress people who can gatekeep
services a bit more key to their lives than just a good grade.

Tuition Fees

I’m going vaguely off-topic today but I want to write about the vote to raise tuition fees at English Universities today and why I feel so strongly about it.

I have an undergraduate degree and a postgraduate degree. I have not paid a penny in tuition fees for either. I did have a loan to pay some of the living expenses for my first degree but that was paid off relatively quickly. Incidentally, the thought of the loan so distressed me at the time that I continued to choose to pay it back even though I was earning way below the ‘threshold’ to pay back. I was working as a volunteer and a care assistant when I paid back my now seemingly meagre student loan.

And that’s one of the issues I want to raise that I haven’t seen discussed in the press much.

Yes, Nick Clegg can argue till he’s blue in the face that logically having a threshold of not paying back anything until one is earning £21,000 means that these payments will be delayed makes this a ‘fair’ system but there is one element  he and the cabinet (and government) of millionaires have failed to appreciate – but then, I wouldn’t expect them to.

That logic appeals perfectly to the confident middle class mentality and attitude towards debt. That is the comfortable logic that grows up with someone who has grown up with an attitude of never having to really struggle to put food on the table.

There is a different mentality to debt when you grow up and you really don’t know what the next day will bring, whether you will ever have the security of work and have been taught from a young age that debt is bad. In that world, it doesn’t matter that you won’t pay back until you are earning £21,000 – you feel an obligation – yes, a moral obligation to pay back money that you owe.

I continued paying my student loan debt when I was earning £11,000 pa in London, simply because I hated the idea of debt and felt guilty having it.

The interest rates increasing is another nefarious touch but mostly my opposition comes with both the reduction of general funding towards higher education and laying the burden of debt onto a younger generation assuming the middle-class sensibilities exist regarding owing money and logical debt management.

As for the cost of university education, I favour additional income tax, both for future, current and past students. I am more than happy to subsidise todays and tomorrows students and pay back for what I was able to study when I needed it most. I would pay increased percentage points of income tax tomorrow to ensure that todays and tomorrows students gain the same opportunities that I had. Education is a right.

I am a Philosophy graduate as well. I loved (and continue) to love to learn. Even if I had gone to university, I doubt very much I would have chosen a subject like philosophy. It’s  hardly well-known for the production of immediately economically viable graduates. But I am enormously proud of my undergraduate degree and feel so fortunate in having been able to undertake it. I see its value now, far more than I did at the time because it taught me a way of thinking that I can apply to any other situation. Every day I am confronted in my work with ethical dilemmas and the rather esoteric ‘philosophy of language’ that I took in my final year relates absolutely to anti-discriminatory practice and the way that words shape the ways we think about things. My at-the-time-hated logic classes that I struggled with because it all seemed ‘too much like Maths’ have provided an absolutely fantastic foundation in forming and presenting arguments. I am a far better practitioner for having a first degree in philosophy than I would have been had I taken an undergraduate degree in social work when I initially left school – which is a moot point because I don’t think I even knew what social workers did when I left school!

But where are the philosophy graduates of tomorrow? Eton, Harrow, Westminster?

I doubt very much they are growing up on the same estate I grew up in.

Life as a Social Work Student 1

NB: This is a guest post from the now-student who contributed previously about her pre-course  observation of a social worker. I hope she’ll continue to update me as long as I can persuade her to . I sneaked in the ‘1’ part of the title as a hope that there may be a continuation of this series in the future!  Thanks a lot to her for fitting a post in amid the essay-writing Smile – cb

The First Few Months

Well what a difference a couple of months makes. When I last wrote here I was mulling over my experience shadowing a social worker last summer and thinking how strange it felt when she introduced me to people as ‘a social work student.” Now I’ve actually officially been a real student since the end of September and … it’s brilliant! I even handed an essay in the other day, I was quite pleased with it (it actually had an introduction and conclusion, and was around the right word count) but I think that like a singing dog, the wonder is not whether it is good but the fact that it exists at all.

Back in the Jurassic Thatcher era when I was an undergrad, I remember going on demonstrations against the ending of the student grant. Our slogan was, “A grant is a right, not a privilige,” (sic) and we had to redo one of our local student union’s banners after someone noticed that privilege was spelled wrong. (Those were the days.) But it also seems oddly resonant that students are on the march again today about cuts to student finance which are far worse than we ever faced back then.

I’d be there on the demo myself if I didn’t have a child observation to attend! And unlike lectures which probably will be suspended, since I arranged the observation myself it’s just extra hassle for me if I want to change the date. To me, this sums up life as a mature student in a nutshell.  Suddenly your life revolves around university timetables, the library, and the other students on the course. Until you get home and are back in the familiar zone of household chores and family commitments. It’s a balance. I have the greatest respect for my colleagues who have young children to manage on top of everything else, handling the demands of a masters degree on top of that is a very tough row to hoe.

What they don’t tell you is how much you will learn just from sitting around and chatting to the other students in between lectures and seminars. Between us, we have a vast amount of experience in social care with multiple client groups and at many levels — we have some people who were paid carers, others who were managers, and others whose experience is from the voluntary sector (like me). The masters in social work requires students to already hold a first degree and even there, we have a wide range of backgrounds. Some did their first degrees in relevant subjects like Psychology, others from widely different fields, not to mention a few higher degrees scattered around the field. And there’s also a wide mix of ethnic backgrounds represented as well — far moreso than among my usual group of friends (and that’s probably true for everyone else also). So when we discuss social capital (for example) people chip in with examples from communities as far afield as Nigeria, Bangladesh, South Africa, and council estates in Leeds.

Studying social policy and social work theory has had an effect on all of us even after 5 weeks — people have commented frequently that they have started to read the news more critically, to be more aware of power imbalances in society, and to appraise what effects the recently announced cuts package might have on people they know or have worked with in the past.

And although I sense that there’s some expectation from the lecturers that if students are not radical, they have somehow failed in their duty, I’m not sure if that is the prevailing mood. There’s dissatisfaction and great willingness to criticise the current system, yes. But this is too big a burden for us to bear on our own. And, radicalism worked so well when we were protesting about getting rid of student grants, didn’t it?

At the moment, we’re finding out where we are likely to be on placement in the new year. It’s a nervous time. When you haven’t heard yet, everyone else’s placement sounds brilliant. All I can say is that when I do find out, I’ll see who else on the course has previous experience in that area and have them on speed dial!

I thought I’d share some hard won tips for other students:

1. TALK TO THE OTHER STUDENTS ON YOUR COURSE. I cannot imagine doing this course in a distance learning environment; when I say I’ve learned so much from just chatting to the other students I’m probably understating things, if anything.

2. When you get your book list, head straight to the library. Run, don’t walk. You see, not all library books are the same. Some are available on long loans and those are the ones which will go first. A lot of library related material will also be on computer these days (I feel old now!). Many of the books might be available in electronic copy  and many of the journals definitely will. If you have any library questions, ask a librarian. They’re really nice, and are also experts in how to actually locate information and use libraries.

3. Read. Whenever you aren’t doing anything else, have something to read. When you finish one book, find another one. Scan the library shelves around the books on your book list. If something grabs your eye, pick it up.

4. Make good use of the staff. It’s perfectly OK to ask a personal tutor or course tutor if they can give you some feedback on your essay plan.

5. If your college offers any courses on essay writing, library use, or study skills then take them up on it.Do it sooner rather than later.

6. You will get essay questions and be expected to pick one (don’t laugh, this is radical stuff to someone with a science background). There are several strategies to picking an essay title. I have already experimented with:

a) Pick one that looks easiest. Some essay titles will be very explicit about what you are expected to do. If you’re asked to describe a theory and critically analyse the strengths and weaknesses, it’s likely more straightforwards than writing a fully fledged argument as to whether student social workers should be radical. Similarly you might find an essay title that lets you draw on something you already know.

b) Pick one that looks interesting. Maybe you were really engaged by the lecture where this subject was discussed and want to know more.

c) Pick one that looks useful. Maybe you already know which client group you want to work with, so writing an essay about some related aspect will give you a good excuse to read up and do some research in the area.

d) Pick one that looks challenging. Maybe you’ve never written a formal essay to argue a point before (again, science background!), so you could pick the most classic ‘argument’ essay title in the list on the basis that this is the best way to learn how to do it. After all, what’s the worst that can happen?

e) Pick one your friends are doing. That way you can all discuss it together. Just beware of plagiarism.

7. Look at the marking criteria when you are writing an essay. Aim high. Don’t give them a chance to mark you down by forgetting to include something that they specifically told you was part of the schema.

8. If you do have any issues that come up in your personal or family life, let the college know as soon as possible. No one wants you to fail. And there will probably also be a student counselling/ advice service available as well as extra support in the department if you need it.

9. Work. But don’t flog yourself,  this is a marathon not a sprint.

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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Failing Students

This week, Community Care prints an article about pressures on universities to pass students who might not ‘meet the grade’.

This has always been a concern of mine as there is an incentive on universities to ensure students graduate rather than ensure that high quality social workers are pumped out into the ‘system’. The needs are conflicting as a student can be very able academically (or not.. )  and that does not necessarily imply good practice but for as long as the degree in itself is the gateway to qualified status, the decisions are left in the hands of the universities.

Practice placements exist to ensure that it is not only on academic levels that students are assessed however there are well-documented difficulties with placement and there is not necessarily an equality of experiences between students at the same university and the way they have experiences and assessments on placement.

This is particularly heavy on my mind at the moment as I will imminently be taking a student from one of the local universities into my work place and have turned my thoughts to preparation for this.

I know from a colleague’s experience how difficult it has been to try and ‘fail’ students who have not met the standards expected to practice on a final placement and the practice assessors who have been in my team, have been leaned on heavily to keep giving more and more chances to students they felt were not achieving well enough.

I’m all for second chances  but some people are not cut out for the profession and trying to force too leeway into the framework of assessment does noone any favours.

The article presented in Community Care draws parallels with the Teacher Training programmes where

‘The Training and Development Agency for Schools, which funds teacher training, has chosen to remove any incentives universities might have for retaining students who were not likely to pass the course or become competent teachers … this should be the same for social work.’

Personally, I think the proposed year following qualification in which newly graduated social workers will have to practice will help in this area. I think that the universities have not been able to be trusted with the process of training social workers – especially as concerns about appropriate placements have grown. If social work students cannot spend substantial time with social workers ‘on the job’ during their courses, then they must be compelled to subsequently.

Noone wins with a dilution of the quality of entrance to the profession and as well as rigorous academic standards, a certain amount of confidence, assertiveness and thoughtfulness is required.

If there is anything that will raise the status of the profession – something which the Task Force seems to be particularly focussed on – it is a good quality, effective workforce who are able not only to advocate on behalf of service users but also able to advocate on behalf of themselves and their profession when they see poor systems in place.