Who would be a social worker?

There is a national shortage of social workers, with 10% of posts unfilled and both recruitment and retention causing problems.

Yet university applications for social work courses have never been more numerous. At Birmingham University competition is high, with 15 applicants for every place.

Lara Box joined a three-year BA course straight from school. “When I was choosing my A-levels, I couldn’t decide between catering or health and social care.

“But now I’m on the course I love it and can’t imagine doing anything else.” Lara is hoping to work with adults with mental health problems.

Social work has been under immense scrutiny in recent years with a plethora of government-backed reviews into where the profession is going wrong.

Child protection failures such as the deaths of Baby Peter Connolly and Victoria Climbie have led experts to question whether the right people are entering the profession and how they could be better trained.

James Burn had both a prior degree and relevant experience of work in housing and adoption when he joined the Masters course in social work at Birmingham University.

“The degree has been really interesting,” he says. “The reasons why I decided to do this were about protecting children, but in the interim I’ve really come to think about the parents of those children and how they find themselves in those positions.

“No-one ever wakes up and thinks: ‘You know what, it will be a great laugh to have my kids removed and be a crap parent’.”

Hostile families

Despite their training, many students still leave university feeling unprepared for the realities of the job.

After graduating last year, James Burn got a job in the children’s services department of Birmingham City Council. He has found it tough learning how to ask awkward questions of hostile families.

“Looking around the house is the most intrusive bit – obvious things like kick marks, punch marks in the door,” says James.

“Sometimes if families know you’re coming, they’ll put a towel over the door to hide the marks. So you have to lift the towel back or feel a child’s bedding to see if it’s urine sodden. Or go and stare down someone’s toilet. But the consequences of getting it wrong are just immense.”

Lara Box also graduated last year and signed up with a social work agency to gain experience of different roles. She’s currently working in Solihull in the West Midlands, assessing the needs of vulnerable elderly people.

“I really wanted to be the most amazing social worker,” she says, “which I now know is unrealistic and I can only be the best that I can be. But I’m 110% ecstatic that I’ve done the social work course.”

Few remain as positive as Lara under the strain of heavy case loads, endless paperwork and the constant fear of getting it wrong.

Sleepless nights

David Ashford graduated in social work last year: “I left school at 16 and had had no formal education for 30 years when I started this,” he said.

A father in his early fifties, David was one of the oldest students on his course. He did not find it easy and many times questioned whether he would “see it through to the end”.

Like many students, David’s first real taste of social work came when he was sent out on placement with a social work team.

The settings can be anything from a school or hospital, to a child protection team, drug addiction service or homeless shelter.

It’s a chance to gain real hands-on experience, and David got more than most, immediately finding himself in difficult circumstances.

“On two separate occasions I’ve removed children from their parents. And the second time I did it I hadn’t met the family before the day I removed the children. So you’re actually on a placement but it becomes very real, very quickly.”

He has now got a job at Sandwell Council in the West Midlands, working with those same children who get taken into care, dealing with problems at school, with their foster parents or any other complex issues they may have.

He is finding it a big responsibility and five months in, he is already considering giving up.

“At university you are taught to reflect deeply. All the time you are supposed to be referring to evidence-based practice and the literature but the reality is there is no time for that and most of my reflection is done through sleepless nights.

“If something went wrong with a case and I knew I’d cut corners to achieve what needed to be achieved, I’d have a real problem with that. I am finding it a frightening experience.”

Lara, though, continues to find the work rewarding. She has had a real insight into the difficult role of families looking after relatives with dementia, or struggling to cope at home after a discharge from hospital.

She finds it satisfying to know she might have made their lives easier.

“I love being able to do things for people. Although it might not always be as much as I could do, I know its enough to make a slight difference.”

Who’d be a Social Worker? is on Radio 4 on Mondays at 1630BST from 2 May or afterwards at this link.