Current government recruitment adverts feature a graduate saying “I wanted to make a real difference with my degree teaching allowed me to do this”. Inspiring teachers, devoted nurses, committed social workers these are the cliches built on myths or a least an idealised past the reality as teachers, nurses and social workers know is different. These professions have had their status diminished, the very need for their existence questioned and their professionalism reduced to ticking boxes. They have in common the fact that the job has become more stressful, less rewarding and the hours more excessive. All three professions report widespread demoralised workforces, unwelcome changes to working arrangements and oppressive, bullying management. All three are in the middle of a recruitment crisis. All three have long serving experienced professionals who claim the role they are now required to perform is very different to the one they entered the profession to do, and they are not happy about that. Of all three social work is the most misunderstood and most criticised by press and public.
So students and trainee social workers may , “want to make a real difference” . But are they still right to think they can make a difference? Despite my earlier comments I still think social workers can make a difference and that it is a worthwhile job. It is certainly true that the role has changed a lot in the last 20 years. It is also true to say that student social workers are often frustrated and disappointed on placement to find the role involves a lot less face to face contact time than they expected. Student social workers also discover that there is an ever tightening eligibility criteria which means there are increasing numbers of people needing help who aren’t going to get it. In this they experience the same frustration as many of their long serving colleagues in adult social care.
A social worker’s involvement can improve an individual’s quality of life whether that is in organising practical help, increasing an individual’s self confidence ,feelings of self worth and independence or negotiating and speaking up for them. So yes a social worker can make a real difference. But I always say to social work students I started out in residential work with young children and adolescents, worked in a innovatory residential rehab unit for young people with a disability and after that a specialist dementia unit. It did my career no harm. When I look back it was the time I made a real difference as a practitioner.
If you want more face to face time to build up a relationship and do more than a tick box assessment for eligibility then opt for working in a rehab unit, supported accommodation for people with a learning disability or a day centre for people with mental heath issues, this is where you will get the intense one to one enabling relationship you will no longer find in field social work. Of course many students do have such a placement but then opt for field work on qualifying. Understandably the better pay, more convenient hours and higher status out way the opportunity for a more intense experience.
Blair McPherson former social worker ex director, author and blogger www.blairmcpherson.co.uk