Social work: How to make a difference in a child's life

As the Baby P case showed, there is adesperate need to attract high-quality staff into social work. Steve McCormack reports on a new recruitment campaign

In the aftermath of the revelations about Baby P's death, one group of people took the brunt of public scorn: the social workers who had, tragically, decided not to remove the baby from his violent and dysfunctional family. In the months that followed, it became clear that morale in the profession had taken a hit, with many councils finding it difficult to fill vacancies in the vital areas of child protection. Since then, however, a more measured view has acquired currency, one that recognises the unique importance of the job, and the need to do more to recruit high-quality people into the work. That need is embodied in a campaign to tempt a new wave of people into the profession.

"Children's social workers are society's unsung heroes," says Keith Brumfitt, of the Children's Workforce and Development Council, the government body responsible for recruitment in this area. "They are specially trained and highly qualified professionals supporting the most vulnerable in society, and motivated by a desire to make a difference to the lives of children, young people and families."

The campaign's clarion call to potential recruits is to "Be the Difference" in children's lives: the difference between a child leading a stable, happy existence, and enduring one marked by sadness and pain.

Charlotte Seeney, 39, who has been a social worker in Sheffield for the past decade, has found the job rewarding, even though it has taken her into people's lives at the most difficult times.

"I find it enormously satisfying, despite dealing with sad and upsetting periods in people's lives," she says. "But I'm very proud of what we do, from the big occasions when you know you have protected a child by removing them from the home and you know they are safe, to the small occasions when you succeed in giving an exhausted, lonely mother a bit of advice that helps her cope a little more easily."

Seeney works in a team of eight social workers responsible for children in one of nine areas in Sheffield. Working three days a week, she has a case load of 14 children, some occupying more of her time than others.

"The level of monitoring varies from case to case. It will be higher for a child who is still at home with child protection issues, where you will need to visit quite frequently, than for a child living with a foster family."

Stephanie Gavin-Brown, 31, who qualified five years ago, is a senior social worker and second in command of a team of about a dozen social workers and administrators in Bristol. Her experience belies the image, reflected in some critical accounts of the profession, that social workers spend too much time pushing paper around. "About 70 per cent of my day is spent with children and their families," she explains. "Ten or 20 per cent is working with other professionals, in discussions and meetings; and the rest is at my desk."

The children her team deals with are either those considered at risk of harm, or those with an element of instability in their lives that is jeopardising their education or home life. "These general concerns about a child might be because they are struggling to get to school for some reason; or if their mother is on her own and has come from an abusive relationship; or if the child is disabled in some way," she explains.

Gavin-Brown, who became a social worker after three years as a recruitment consultant, loves the variety of the job. "It's like nothing I've ever done before. No day is ever the same, and to improve outcomes for children is a really worthwhile thing to do."

Although both Seeney and Gavin-Brown work for local authorities in child-related social work (an area where, recently, 10 per cent of posts were vacant), there are numerous other employers and environments needing people with the same qualifications. For example, housing associations employ social workers to work with adult tenants who need support; and social workers are also employed in hospices, doctors' surgeries, schools and the courts service.

The common element is the training. Entry to the profession requires a degree in social work or two years' postgraduate qualification. Either way, your study will include at least 200 days of assessed practice in social work settings. Bursaries of up to £5,000 are available for students on these courses. Starting salaries are about £18,000 (more in London), rising to about £30,000 as you gain more experience and responsibility.

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