We sat down with Dr Peter Yates, Programme Lead for Social Work at Edinburgh Napier University to chat about how Social Workers make a difference, the challenges they face and the rewards they get working in this field.
How do you think social workers make a difference in people’s lives?
The main way of finding out what help people need is getting to know them really, really well. To know and understand what challenges they face, what their hopes and aspirations are, what they want for their lives, and what their strengths and skills are that we can build on. It’s about thinking together with people around what’s going to make a difference for them.
Sometimes being a social worker means making big decisions around people’s lives, such as if they need protection from quite significant forms of harm. So that might mean admitting somebody to hospital against their wishes for example, or whether a child needs to be looked after by someone other than their parents. These all have major implications for people’s lives very long term. But other times it can be really simple, practical help, like supporting someone to make a phone call, filling out forms, or financial help to get them through a difficult patch. And often it involves making real connections with the other people in their lives, their friends and family, or other support people or community services. A social worker is a person who can really put the pieces of the jigsaw together and see a person as a whole.
Social workers will work with some of the most marginalised, excluded, some of the most vulnerable people. Not all practitioners will work with everyone, but social workers will work with everybody. We’re there to challenge social injustice, to uphold people’s rights, their human rights and their children’s rights.
Have you got any particularly rewarding experiences?
On one of my very first cases as a student I went to visit a mum and her little boy. There was concern around him not attending school along with other worries about the family. I chaired a meeting at his school involving the mum, the head teacher and other people working with the family. We agreed that the boy needed to go to a school for children with additional support needs, but I wanted to know what we were going to do to support him better in the months before he made the move.
When I spoke to the mum a few days afterwards she admitted that she hadn’t wanted a social worker and thought they were just interfering busybodies, but at the meeting she realised that I actually really cared about her boy. And she said that was the first time she had felt that any of the professionals involved in his life did really care about him. It was really touching that she got that sense that I wasn’t just doing a job or going through a procedure, but that I genuinely cared about him. And I did, I liked him. He was a great wee boy. And I got on with his Mum so much better after that.
But sometimes, as I say, it’s more practical help that’s needed. I worked very short term with a mum and I managed to get her a washing machine. Amidst all of the challenges in her life one of the major things was that she didn’t have an easy way of getting her kids’ clothes clean, sending her kids to school with clothes that weren’t clean and she’d spend hours trying to hand-wash clothes. But the washing machine – what a difference that made to her quality of life.
I heard an analogy once from Professor Kate Morris that really stuck with me. If you see somebody cycling uphill on a pushbike piled high with boxes and bags and parcels, and they’re teetering and weaving about all over the road, do you refer them for cycling proficiency lessons, or do you say, “How about I carry some of those things for you and relieve you of some of your burdens?” And for this mum it was the latter thing – I just managed to make life a little bit easier for her. She was a good mum, she loved her kids, and she had her challenges, but she didn’t need parenting classes. She just needed someone to help her out in that specific way.
What are some of the challenges that face newly qualified social workers?
It’s a busy job and can be a very demanding one. You need to be resilient. I think you really need to hold on to what you learned on your training and your core principles so that you can still, at root, really be genuinely there for people. Don’t get so caught up in the systems and the form-filling that you lose sight of really caring about people, which is probably what got you into social work in the first place.
How does it work working with people who don’t want to work with you, is that something you’ve experienced?
Loads, yes, lots. It is a challenge, even when you’re on placement as a student, that quite a lot of the time you can be working with people who would rather you not be there. Like the woman I mentioned earlier, whose son I was working with – she didn’t want me there at first. And it can be a real challenge to work with people who are not always immediately easy to like, either because they’ve done things that are difficult or because they don’t want you to be there.
But our job is about really respecting people and seeing them positively, wanting the best for them, and really genuinely, no matter who they are and what they’ve done. And it’s a skill, and you need support from colleagues and in supervision, but it also takes a lot of hard work to understand yourself,understand why you might find somebody difficult to like but then making an effort to find the parts in somebody that you can like and making the most of that.
You have to bring that quality of, what we might call ‘unconditional positive regard’ to everyone you’re working with, the service users, the families, the child you’re supporting, the parents who’ve abused them, and the other professionals who you’re working with, of course! And when you are able to make that connection, when you are able to help people in some way, it’s tremendously rewarding.
What are some things you wish you’d learned in your training?
It varies a lot from course to course but I think the training that I did was very theoretical – and the theory and research are really important. There’s no off-the-shelf theory for social work, you’ve always got to be really critical, aware, questioning all the time, and that’s a real challenge. But what it didn’t do was prepare me for the moment when you knock on somebody’s door, and they open the door and say “hello”… what do you actually then do? I would have liked more practical skills to learn how to translate that theory into the practice.
What are you most excited about with this new course?
One of the real strengths of the programme is that in all of the classes we will be discussing how each thing is relevant to what you’re actually going to be doing as a social work student, as a qualified social worker. It will really make the connection between the theory and the practice.
I’m really excited about the Simulation and Clinical Skills Centre. They’ve got fantastic resources, with the real hospital wards and the SHELTER (Simulated Home Environment for Learning, Teaching and Research) – it really is like a flat. It’s a flexible space so we can change it to make it really welcoming or really unwelcoming, and we can really practise knocking on somebody’s door, the door being answered - or not answered - and what you do next. Students can practise what it’s like to be welcomed into somebody’s living room, to be faced with all the sights and sounds and smells, what you do if they’ve left the television on and it’s really loud, how you go about deciding whether to chat in the living room or the kitchen, how you’re respectful of someone else’s home.
The other thing that I’m really excited about is the integrated nature of the programmes. There’s a huge drive in Scotland about how to have professionals working much more collaboratively with each other to try and develop much more responsive support services for people where they are really valued equal partners in the decision-making about what is best for them. A system where they don’t have to tell their story dozens of times to different people, where none of those people are talking to each other. That’s what health and social care integration is all about.
I think with the way we’ve developed things we’ve really got the potential to set the agenda for the education of these professions for the future and for practice. It’s really exciting.