Class of ′78: Debbie Olley

By Debbie Olley

| 19 March 2019

On hearing of my application to Bradford University the headmistress at my very traditional school was horrified. She told me no one had ever done such a peculiar course and why on earth were two references required - other universities only required hers! 

I loved the course and the different approaches to social work (person-centred vs power and structural inequalities) we saw over the four years helped us all in managing the challenges and changes we would have to face during our careers. What I didn't expect quite so much was the gap between the theory and reality - I am not sure anything could have quite prepared us.

In 1978 plenty of jobs were available, even for the inexperienced - qualified social workers were hard to recruit and I spent the first few years as a generic social worker doing child protection and Mental Health Act assessments. People with disabilities and older people were on the caseloads of welfare assistants - many of whom were vastly more experienced than this newly qualified person quaking in her boots.

With a year's experience under my belt, I remember arriving on the first day to work in an inner city long-term team on a very deprived housing estate. On my desk were 10 family case files with 25 children on the "at risk" register and an expectation I would attend the High Court the next day for a Wardship Hearing regarding one of the families. I had 24 hours to prepare and the team manager was nowhere to be seen - to be fair I think he was out on an emergency! 

Child protection work was as challenging then as now - poor housing, poverty and domestic violence issues very much a part of the lives of families. Child protection conferences were held behind closed doors with little sharing of information, often without the family being included. Decisions were conveyed to the family afterwards - on one occasion I was assaulted at a house on informing (alone) the information that the baby would be removed if his weight didn't improve. It was only later that I realised this mother of six was being badly abused by her husband who had a history of assault - social services were not made aware.

Not only were systems and processes antiquated, but support to staff was often lacking from politicians. I remember during a major inquiry into a child death in the same area, a local councillor described the department's social workers as "wet behind the ears".

The introduction of the 1989 Children Act was welcomed with open arms. It provided much needed clarity, structure and transparency to child care work. 

None of this is to say pressures aren't still there for practitioner staff today. The recent austerity policies in local government and an even tighter tick-box approach to eligibility and case recording in both children and adult services have imposed other challenges. I have concerns these pressures and a tick-box approach will lead to social workers not thinking about what is really going on in a family and being constrained in the range of ways to support children and families.

One of the key skills the course taught me was the ability to establish rapport and maintain relationships with others, which helped significantly in the complex relationships with the Health Service. Integration and care closer to home is a national objective to provide more personalised and appropriate care (back to the person-centred approach!). As an assistant director of social care and latterly director of integrated care, these skills are essential to take this agenda forward and this skill is not necessarily part of the training in other professions. But there has never been a more urgent time than now for the need to establish good working relationships with our health colleagues to take forward this agenda - and those who are trained in social work are very good at it.

Social work has proved amazingly resilient over the last 100 or so years - long may it continue.

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