I joined the social work profession I was 19 years old. I was very naive at the time as to what actual ‘social work’ consists of in this generation. I applied for the social work course because I simply wanted to help others. For anyone who is a social worker, needless to say, social work is not that simple.
This desire to ‘help people’ is innate for me. I have never liked to see people in distress to put it simply and wanted to make a difference. I, therefore, don’t think I stumbled across social work, but rather social work stumbled across me (I know how cheesy that sounds). When I was 16 years old I was one of 40 people chosen in my school as part of a focus group to do a test that is designed to help students discover a profession that is conducive to their skills and capabilities, upon graduating. This is quite helpful for those of us who felt burdened by such a huge responsibility and had no idea what we wanted to do in the future. I am not sure if the test still exists, as I believe it was being trialled out, but social work came up as the number one suggested career for me.
I did not give social work much thought at the time. I was really focused on pursuing a career in performing arts. I had just applied for a BTEC in performing arts at sixth form prior to finishing school. That plan didn’t exactly work out. The sixth form made a last-minute decision to stop the BTEC course (for reasons I can’t remember) and requested we chose other subjects urgently. Among the subjects I chose was sociology, which was my favourite. For anyone who has studied sociology, you will be familiar with theories on Marxism, Feminism, and Functionalism; and the lists goes on. As dull as it sounds (or as dull as I make it sound) I was truly captivated by learning about sociological theories that seek to explain human behaviour. I am quite a curious person.
During my sixth form years, my stepmother got me some work experience with ‘Action for Children’. I was working on a ‘pinnacle project’ during the summer period. This was completely voluntary and I am smiling as I write this, because I am quite proud that I gave up my free time to commit myself to the project. I applied for self-development purposes. I knew that work experience would be helpful whilst applying to Universities. At this point in time, I was considering a career in social work but I was not 100% sure. The project was designed to support young boys from BME communities who had absent fathers. Being un-trained I did not have too much direct involvement with the boys but I did get to see first-hand some of the great work the project delivered. The most vivid memory I have is escorting the boys to the theatre to see ‘We Will Rock You’. I was informed by one of the support workers that none of the boys had been to the theatre before. Needless to say, they absolutely loved it, and were grinning from ear to ear.
Following this experience, and with some input from my stepmother – I chose a career in social work and therefore applied to do the course at University. When I started University I really struggled with the written word. I had poor critical thinking skills, and I had no idea how to do a proper plan for an assignment. It took me almost two years to develop these skills. Also, if I’m honest I was more focused on the social aspect of ‘uni life’, and my dedication to the course was lacking as a consequence. When my grandmother passed away during my second year at University it gave me a fresh perspective on what was important to me and graduating from University with a good degree was one of them. From that point onwards I channelled much of my energy into succeeding.
During my first year at University, I thought I would pursue a career in social work working with children and families. As a child of divorce, something I really struggled with personally, I believed that this would be an area of social work that would be most suited to me because it would help me to empathise with others (perhaps?). I quickly changed my mind. I have the utmost respect for anyone working with children and families, but at the time I was aware of the bad media coverage social workers received when I came across case studies such as the Baby P case. I immediately felt burdened by the enormity of pressure social workers face in front line practise working with children and families that I didn’t believe I would be able to handle.
My social work placements whilst at University ranged from working for The Prince’s Trust with young people not in education, employment or training (NEET); as well as a third sector drug and alcohol service (that lost its funding); working with young asylum seekers fleeing war-torn countries; and finally, in mental health, the forensic hospital where I worked with women on medium and low secure units. That was my final placement and in all honesty, the one I learned from and enjoyed the most.
When I graduated, I graduated with a 2:1 degree. Considering I was getting all D’S and C’S in my first and second year, and then getting A’s and B’s, I was proud of my achievements. When I graduated I embarked on a Balloon Kenya voyage (so to speak) now known as Balloon Ventures. My University gave scholarships to those of us who were lucky enough to get picked, to get involved in the 6-week social enterprise in Kenya that entailed helping to develop micro-businesses. 9/10 of the participants I worked with received funding to expand their business.
When I returned I found it impossible to get a job as a newly qualified social worker. Employers were looking for people with at least 1-2 years’ work experience. Whenever I was declined by an employer or agency I would think to myself – how the hell am I supposed to get work experience if you won’t give me any?
Eventually, I took an internship to try and get my foot in the door. The internship paid a basic wage but was designed to help graduates get positive work experience. I found myself working for a commissioner across a Tri-Borough in transition services for people between the ages of 16-25 with learning difficulties (LD). My employer was fantastic. I did not know much about transition services nor LD, but she wholeheartedly trusted me to get on with the work delegated to me and gave me plenty of learning opportunities. This helped me to develop my self-confidence and independence as a practitioner. It also demonstrated to me the importance of having a leader who has faith in their employees.
During this period of time, the Government were making changes to the Children and Families Act 2014 and also introduced the Care Act 2014. My role included helping Manager’s across transitional services in Education, Health and Social Care to implement the Legislation within the practice. When the internship (12 months) was drawing a close I had a wealth of knowledge on the Care Act 2014, which was shaping social work practice across the Country. Jobs were suddenly not hard to come across because of the expertise I had to offer, and social work was changing for everyone in the profession no matter how long you had been in the field for. I went for an interview with a Council (I won’t name) and got the job that same day. I was working in a community team that entailed complex casework and safeguarding adults.
What did I learn?
Social work is HARD!!!! and reliant on partnership working. People’s lives are complex and people have varying needs. Social workers have to shift their approach depending on the circumstances, and rigid practice that sometimes comes with policies, procedures, and budgets can be crippling. Having a good supervisor for support makes the world of difference. I have been really lucky to date that all of my supervisors have been approachable and taken the time to listen to me. I also had an AMAZING team. I say ‘had’ as I moved on to a different council after roughly 18 months where I now safeguard the elderly and review their care across residential and nursing homes. However, having a team ethic makes the world of difference, particularly when you feel like you are on the verge of a breakdown or suffering a panic attack – such as in my case. However, I have also learnt to be resilient, and I know that I have made a genuinely positive difference to the lives of others through care and grit. I have been fortunate that in the short span I have worked as a social worker I have been given the opportunity to submit a case study for the Social Care Institute for Excellence and provide training opportunities for my colleagues. I am also incredibly fortunate that I have met unbelievable people who share the same goal as me – to help others – and are doing so every day.
Written By: Eloise Cromwell