My First Social Work Job

Czytelnia Humanistyczna BUR

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I can’t quite remember my first day in my first job as a qualified social worker. I’m trying to think back. I remember a few things though and as university courses come to their ends and thoughts turn to employment, I considered thinking back to that time when I was pushed forward from my training into the world of ‘real’ social work.

Finding employment hadn’t been an issue. At that time, we had kind of mini-careers fairs and events in the university where employers mainly neighbouring local authorities and agencies would try to tempt us to join them. Some offered golden handshakes in cash terms and others endless support.

Later, in a different job at a different time, one of our managers remarked how at that point, all you had to do was sit on a street corner with your DipSW (or MA or BA) in Social Work and you would have people come up to you and offer you a job. Perhaps it wasn’t as much of an overstatement as we thought.

I went with a social work agency. My closest friends from the course – in fact, the only ones I’m still in touch with now – both took local authority jobs in neighbouring (different) boroughs – one in a Child Protection team and the other in a Leaving Care team. I knew I wanted to work in adults’ services. I’d known from before the course started. I wasn’t so anchored as to which part of adult services I worked in. I was open to anything.

I met with the agency consultant and we spoke about what I wanted in a job and how far I’d be willing to travel. About a week later, he came back with two posts available and both were in older adults services. As that had been where my ‘statutory’ placement was, I was more than happy as I felt I had a little understanding and experience in that area. I interviewed at both places and chose the borough which was nearer to me with the added bonus that I knew a few people in the team already as they had been seconded onto the same social work course as me as ‘workplace based students’. Even one or two familiar faces in a large office was enough of a draw.

It was a large office and I had no experience apart from my placement, in a social services department. In some ways, I felt more than a little out of my depth but the team was kind and friendly. It also seemed to be staffed by about 50% of agency workers. I had heard rumours of prejudices against agency staff due to the differentials in the salaries  but honestly, I never really experienced that. I didn’t pretend to be anything I wasn’t.

If anything, I noticed more of a tension between ‘qualified’ and ‘unqualified’ staff than ‘agency’ and ‘permanent’ because a lot of the care management work we did was generic and especially when I was starting out, I was taking cases with less complexity than the more experienced ‘unqualified’ staff who would be getting stuck in.

In general though the unity of experience was greater than the division of types and salaries. The team as a whole could not have been friendlier or more welcoming. I was able to attend all the training courses provided, despite being ‘agency’. There was no differentiation in the type of supervision I received nor the inclusiveness I felt. Looking back, I realise that perhaps I was lucky but I worked with and among many people that I had and have the utmost respect for.

I would be afraid, at times, to ask the stupid questions. Where do I find this form? How do I find this file? How do I contact about this? What do I do when subjected to a hearty rant? Can I help this person get this service?

It seems like a different world now. Before FACS. Before any kind of charging policies. When we still met needs that would later be classified as ‘low’.

We didn’t type much. I shared a PC with the person next to me and we had to take it in turns to write reports or arrange visits with each other so we weren’t in at the same time – both wanting to use a computer. Along with our carefully designed care schedules, we had to provide costings for every service provided ourselves on spreadsheets either completed by hand or for the more techno-friendly, on PC.  Later it all got fed into central databases and spreadsheets so the figures would automatically be adjusted but there wasn’t a desk at that time, without a big desk calculator on it.

I think my memories have been shaded with a little rose tinge at times. I remember a lot of anxieties about covering duty and wondering what would turn up. This was before the single access points and call centre type offices existed to ‘screen’ calls or distribute them appropriately so we had calls from everything about loose dogs on the streets to people who hadn’t seen their elderly neighbours for a few days and were worried. Some entirely appropriate and some.. more creative.

I don’t miss those days though. It was a different way of working and a good base. There were some very good people I worked with. It was an ‘older’ team. I was immediately the youngest qualified worker in the team when I joined. I think that made it easier for me to ask questions. I learnt that the most important thing is to ask and not assume and that old chestnut about there being no such thing as a stupid question never felt more true.

Did the university prepare me for the work I was doing? A little but it was the start and  not the end. I have never stopped learning since then and I have a long, long way to go.

I realised that the lecturers at the time were teaching us about a social work system that had existed when they had been practitioners, about 10 years previously. I realised that the time pressures between being a student on placement and a qualified member of staff employed and paid were exponentially different.

There were problems and difficulties. I still remember some of the distress I felt when the first service user that I had worked with extensively, died. I remember the fear of my first manager and some of the bullying tactics she employed on the staff under her.

I had dreams at that point (I still do now, but very different ones). I wanted to travel the world. I felt I had a lot still to do. I vowed to myself I didn’t want to turn into the older staff that I’d seen there, plugging away after 10, 20, 30 years in the same post and becoming insular and self-absorbed.

Those thoughts pushed me to save up and leave after a year. I did go off and see the world and do many different things. I realised I missed the work, mostly I missed working in social care and I missed, well, I missed home.

I came back to the UK, a couple of years later, I was lucky enough to still be able to walk into a social work job and I knew it was exactly where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do for the rest of my career.

Things have changed a whole lot and some things are a lot better.

I’ll continue with my story at another point when I got back to the UK to find new legislation, systems, agencies and.. everyone not only had their own PC but they were expected to use it!

To be continued..

Modern to Postmodern Social Work

There doesn’t seem to be much getting away from the fact that social work is a vaguely paternalistic profession. I touched on this previously and  its something that I’ve been dwelling on for a while. Even if the systems and functions have changed today, its roots were in any case. Charity from the state – the distinction between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor which was made in the Victorian era.

This is a profession that grew from industrialised society and the move to the cities and was very much based on the ideal of philanthropy. ‘Helping poor people’. A very female profession with its roots in the church – the middle classes raining beneficence on the deserving working classes.

So social work is a construct that is very much built within the modern era and by modern, read industrial.

And it seems like it has been trying to grow up for a good few decades.

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When I was studying,  I developed a  weakness for the post-modern approach as it made and continues to make the most sense to me as a way forward.

Some of the ‘helping hand’ constructs need to be broken down to reduce some of the power issues that are always present  but also built very much into the system. Using strengths-based models and user/carer led narratives to push away from the idea of the professional as expert and towards, at least from the social perspective, each person being their own expert. Where this is possible. There are situations that throw themselves up, like the role as ASW, that battle against these models – where do they fit in?

Of course, the overriding arch is ‘best interest’ . We are working in the ‘best interest’ of person x, y or z and therefore the means can justify the ends?  That has to be the case to a certain extent. I’d say above all, and possibly something that doesn’t come across in the manner of my writing, I’m a pragmatic worker. I like to ‘do things’ probably more than I like to ‘talk about doing things’.

I’d say its why I’m a social worker rather than a counsellor.

As adult social care moves into a new era of personalised budgets and services being provided not by professionals making decisions about what is best, but by users and carers deciding what needs they are prioritising themselves and choosing the services themselves it can seem that the basis of care management in social work, at any rate, might be on a precipice.

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I wonder sometimes if the personalisation agenda is the summation of a ‘post-modern’ approach to social work – coming only a good few decades behind the equivalent movement in the arts, literature, architectural world – but innovation in social policy is such a complicated matter and rarely edgy.

I have some doubts about personalisation – if it is to be a zero-cost ‘solution’ to the problems created by care-management, a lot more questions need to be answered than have been to date. I want it to work and am absolutely in favour of the axis of expertise being moved away from the professional or the state but I am not entirely convinced that that is the agenda of those who are pushing down this path. Until I see the proposals to make the service accessible to those who have primarily been excluded from direct payments, I will remain sceptical.

So no wonder documents and discussions are needed about the ‘role of the social worker’. A radical shift is needed. Is it happening though? And what are the reasons for the push?

I don’t have any answers  but a consideration of the question is something that, I feel, can strengthen the profession if the questions are asked at a grass-roots level and not focused on the ‘management’ or ‘director’ level. People who are answering these questions on our behalf – the academics who might have last practiced on the ‘cliff-face’  decades ago.

One of the links I added to the side bar was the Barefoot Social Worker site. It’s a site I’ve been vaguely aware of for a while but I was reading through it more thoroughly last week and I’ve found it relatively inspiring – from my background of qualifying and practising in the 2000s and onwards.

It presents a Marxist/Radical perspective of social work as far as I can tell, that I learnt about and studied when I was initially training. It was presented as one of the views of social work practice theoretically but had been presented to me as an approach based a few decades ago which no longer remained relevant.  I have to say the writing inspired me somewhat.

Searing writes that

Social work has always been ambivalent about its class position and its role in maintaining the social system as it is. State social workers are expected to use their professional relationship to keep people in line and this is often justified by wrapping everything up in the language of social inclusion which is often meaningless. Social workers cannot avoid the contradictory nature of their role but sometimes they need to take a stand and show which side they are on. In particular, they should be alert to increasing pressures on social workers to act more on behalf of the state than for the individual and strive to resist these pressures.

There are many ways this resonates. I do feel often like a pawn of the State and that my role is very much to act on behalf of the local authority, particularly in distributing resources.

We work from the inside to change and to effect change. For me, initially, I believed social work was very much concerned with social justice. It was the aspect of the job that appealed to me. I still believe it, but my perceptions have been changed by years of care management and being subjected to pen-pushing frustrations and seeing first hand some of the inequities of the system. I know I do some pieces of work differently to how my managers would like them to be done – particularly I might allot my time differently. But ultimately, although I answer to my management, I answer more immediately to my conscience.

Why does that choice have to be made?

Would my role be more effective from without the statutory sector?

What role does class have on the work I do?

My perception is that Social Work is possibly an aspirant middle class profession in that a lot of its roots are in the middle classes but it has a good proportion of practitioners who have a variety of personal backgrounds and experiences.

Social Work should not try to be Law or Accountancy. It has a different role to play in society.

I don’t know, I still don’t know.

And reflection. Reflection  helps. In my own little way, I hope that the awareness of these issues and my reflection on them helps to temper some of the excesses that they might create. But it can’t eradicate them all as I have been reminded.

Saying that though, if it wasn’t me it would be someone else. Is that my own attempt to justify the role that I am playing? Possibly. I still have a way to go to reconcile these thoughts to a more coherent response.