Sunday, March 27, 2011

No beard and no sandals

Not a good look and no they're not my legs ...

I was a social worker for around 5 years during the 1980s. This wasn’t the fulfilment of a long held ambition, rather it was something I stumbled into almost by accident. I’d come out of university with a degree in German which would prove to have no value in finding a job for almost another decade (more of that another time), so I returned to live with my parents. Kicking around on the dole and getting nowhere with job applications, my father (who was Director of Social Services) got me working as a volunteer in a children’s home.  Staff shortages eventually led to me being taken on as a paid casual employee, something which displeased the Director greatly when he found out. He told me he couldn’t risk claims of nepotism, and if I didn’t find employment elsewhere he would sack me!
I got a job as a Social Work Assistant in a residential Family Centre in a neighbouring authority. The Family Centre was in effect a short stay Children’s Home, the idea being that the staff would work with families to get their kids back home again. Nice in theory but very difficult in practise. A lot of the kids came from backgrounds of physical and emotional neglect, sometimes downright abuse. And many of the older ones were remanded into care by the juvenile courts for a range of crimes, mostly burglary and joy riding.
It was a fascinating environment to work in, albeit stressful and sometimes physically challenging. I lost count of the number of fights I broke up, the number of times I had to deal with kids high on glue, the number of PACE interviews I sat in on at the police station. I’ve been attacked by kids with scissors and had to disarm a boy trying to knife another resident. Successes were few and far between and never acknowledged, failures were splashed across the local newspapers. It was supposedly a rewarding job, but the rewards were private indeed.  I could never tell people I met what I did. I would just say I worked for the council; to say I was a social worker would often invite ridicule and hilarious questions like “Where are your beard and sandals?”, which was marginally better than being referred to as a “do-gooder”, as if doing good were shameful.
I began to hate it; the stress and the shift work with its ‘sleep-in’ duties 2 or 3 times a week were taking their toll, I just couldn’t get into a proper pattern of sleep and I was drinking more than was good for me. It wasn’t the work itself, it was the environment – always tense, always explosive. And yet while I didn’t want to remain in residential social work, I would have happily transferred to field work.  I had been promoted (which allowed me to drop the term ‘Assistant’ from my job title), and the authority ran a secondment scheme to enable staff to obtain a post graduate qualification at a local university. A couple of my colleagues had taken this route, so I was confident I too could make a career for myself. I was mistaken; in a startling piece of discrimination in a work environment where we were all supposedly ‘right on’ and politically aware, I was told I could not be released on secondment because of a shortage of male staff in residential settings.
So I left.  I sat the civil service entrance exam to take a job in the MOD, and a 20% cut in salary.  My wife (who also worked in a children’s home) convinced me it would be for the best. I was still only in my 20s, but she said “You have to get out now. Can you still see yourself running around after teenagers when you’re in your 40s?”
I’m left with mixed feelings about my time as a social worker. In some ways it shaped me for the better, in others it damaged me. On balance I don’t entirely regret it but I’m glad I left when I did; it’s a tough, almost thankless job, and unfortunately someone really does have to do it. So next time you read some lazy journalism or hear some tired old stereotype about social workers, give them a break, eh?


  1. A super post Nick. You have captured the trials and tribulations that any social worker has to take on.

    I could not be a social worker, I know I don't have the 'tools' for that. I am glad that you had the experience but am happy that you knew when it was time to let go.....

    Lesley x