I remember clearly having a heated debate with my then manager which unusually resulted in my issuing of an ultimatum, “If you don’t let me do the course, then I’ll be looking for another job!” Unusual in the sense that I’m not a confrontational or demanding person, and also I had up until this point avoided most forms of training with a reticent almost Bart Simpson-like approach. Looking back, I was more intuitive of my own needs than even I was aware of; I was becoming stale in my approach and needed somehow to move through this. I was 28 and had been working professionally with young people since 2001; some 6 years later I was a project worker in a resettlement unit for 16 – 25 year-olds experiencing homelessness and all its encompassing problems: drugs, alcohol, trauma, isolation. Three months after this conversation I started my Higher National Certificate (HNC) Social Care through the Scottish Institute of Residential Child Care (SIRCC) at Langside College, Glasgow, completing in the November of 2008.
Less than a year later I was walking through the doors of the Glasgow School of Social Work to start my BA Social Work full-time, funded and supported once again by SIRCC. This wasn’t due to the Willy Wonka golden ticket effect; I hadn’t been uniquely selected and given a free ticket. I am one of 24 students within a class of 54 who are undertaking the residential child care pathway on the BA. This offers the same professional social work qualification but allows placements and certain assignments to be focused on children and young people who are looked after and accommodated. Everyone on the course varies in age, experience, and outlook. I stated pretty quickly to my fellow classmates that I have no intention of joining them in the field but that I want to remain within residential child care. The responses varied from awe and wonder to “So why are you here then?”
I work part-time at Kibble not only to help financially but also because I am uniquely aware of my own need to avoid becoming too removed from the people that I am hoping this degree will benefit. So many former colleagues have said, “How do you manage it?” “I could never give up full-time!” “Take my hat off to you!” The same people are more than capable, and so I have wanted for some time to shed some light on the barriers to making that leap, and also reflect on what it was that transformed a reticent learner into a person now deeply rooted in the process of lifelong learning.
With the publication of Higher Aspirations Brighter Futures calling for all frontline workers in residential child care to be trained to degree level, I felt almost psychic and happily reassured. This report, however, awakened this niggling feeling I had that I had to look closer at the whole of my experiences these last couple of years from workplace, to HNC, to degree, hoping that I could determine what the factors were that shaped and supported my experience and that allowed this transition. Ultimately, if I could do this, then my responsibility would be to share this and hopefully others will benefit.
How did the HNC help me within the workplace?
All throughout my HNC I felt that I was becoming rejuvenated again within my role. Key work and care plans were becoming more dynamic and personalised. I felt I had a greater insight and understanding of my young people. The feeling of constantly fire-fighting diminished. We – the team, the young people, – were working on solutions. More importantly, I felt supported. I felt that there was this much bigger world of social care out there and that we could learn from each other and share in our practice. While day-to-day decisions could be affected by management, workers or young people, we were also supported by a developing and experienced field of social care.
Why was the HNC not enough?
The HNC was the catalyst. I didn’t become a person who started to prefer books to people but I liked the outlook that it gave me of the profession and the opportunities that were opening up. As the HNC had become the benchmark for all workers it seemed inevitable to push to the next level and continue. I also felt that I was a better worker because of the HNC and that the young people were benefiting just as much as I was.
Fabulous Fridays. (We were day release on a Friday)
“So why, with a workforce qualified to HNC level, are the doors of every school of social work not breaking under the pressure of residential child care workers fighting to get in? Did Langside put something in the water to inspire the class of 2008?”
These were the two questions I posed to some of my former classmates who also felt that the year we had together was an awakening with regards to their careers.
In attempting to analyse both my own thoughts and experiences alongside their comments I can narrow it down to two factors – shared experiences and teaching that is rooted in practice and facilitated with commitment.
We all very much agreed that the commitment of the workplaces to release us each Friday to an external provider was crucial. It was the ability to mix with people out with our own organisations and within similar disciplines and to share our experiences that opened up the learning to us.
Rooted in Practice
The vast majority of people within the field of residential child care, I believe, have not entered through an academic route. We are caring people and more often than not it is our patience, intuition and capacity to support and encourage others that has led us to the workplace. This does not make us naturally academic.
Within my HNC class the vast majority of us had not been in a classroom for at least 10 years and many did not enjoy the experience first time around. This is why the teaching style at Langside was crucial for us. This was rooted in actual experience and facilitated with a level of enthusiasm that at times, especially during the module on protection from harm and abuse, could best be described as passion. It was in my opinion contagious. All our assignments were linked to our own professional experiences both previous and current. This allowed us to put our theory into practice and also reflect on our practice.
While we would all happily wave the flag of the fan club of our former tutor, we very much recognise that it was the combination of her teaching style, understanding and experience of what real life was like for us and support and feedback throughout the course that resolved our fears.
Me, Myself & I
Personally, I developed from that reticent Bart Simpson-like learner into a worker with a professional hunger to continue learning. I have always underachieved and never lived up academically to expectations. At least four months into the course the tutor had made a comment about her own spelling while writing on the white board. The person sitting next to me said, “That’s because she’s dyslexic!”
I didn’t really think much about it at the time and it wasn’t until we got our feedback for our next assignment when I noticed the dyslexia and somehow that made me think more than the actual feedback to the assignment. For me this was the turning point in my learning experience. It really did blow me away.
I’ve worked in an education centre in the Lake District where every day I would facilitate sessions for up to 60 young people. It takes a lot of commitment to teach and you learn to play to your strengths. It takes an enormous amount of dedication to do this to your peers and always have a weakness open for public consumption. The fact that I didn’t notice for four months says more about the abilities of the tutor not only in turning a weakness into strength but in her commitment to professional development. (She is a qualified and experienced social worker, teacher and childcare worker.)
My Barriers to Higher Education
My tutor’s dyslexia gave me an understanding of my own learning experiences and my commitment (or lack of) towards my own development. I felt that the only thing holding me back was me. From that day I tried as much as possible to give 100% to the experience. I had never cared enough or been inspired to care enough academically about anything. I entered a brave new world where disappointment and failure were possibilities something that I had hidden from.
The main external barrier was financial and the fear of giving up full-time employment. Some people say I am fortunate, as I’m a young(ish) 30-something with no dependents. This may be a positive factor; at times it may not. Many of my new classmates at the Glasgow School of Social work talk often about how supported they feel to have a partner and families and another wage. They also talk of the difficulties they face when trying to study when the kids are sick or having to sacrifice a play-day to get an essay done on time. I do feel that there needs to be an increase in the availability of distance learning courses for front-line workers within the workplace as it appears to be mainly for managers at present.
In Scotland the Social Work degree is four years full-time and an HNC is viewed as being equivalent to having completed first year. So why did I not enter directly into second year? While elements of the course so far are similar and covering the same subjects, they are approached in an entirely different manner. The HNC in Social Care is not, nor should it ever be seen as, the poorer little sister of Social Work. The HNC has provided a backbone to a workforce striving for increased professionalism and to meet the evolving challenges. It equips you to work within a team, to harness all of your experience and knowledge and apply that to your workplace. To value the systems that are in place, understand and contribute to their development.
The Social Work degree, however, for a front-line worker is initially uncomfortable territory. Promoting autonomy, responsibility for acquiring your own knowledge and stating quite clearly, “Challenge everything. Do not accept anything as fact unless you have the knowledge that this is the case!” While as workers we might be told at various times to be more autonomous, taking increasing responsibility within our working environments, the context is still very much in my experience service-led. So far, my understanding of the degree course is that it is equipping me not only to work within the services but also, when necessary, challenge for change and facilitate the development.
Personally, this was a godsend, as I was not eligible for funding for fees, due to a previous botched attempt at learning some twelve years ago. This has saved me almost £8000. I would like to see the funding options widened and developed along the lines of the nursing degree with bursary. Specifically in relation to residential child care I feel that the only way to encourage more experienced workers to commit full-time to undertaking the degree is with increased financial backing.
Overcoming the financial barrier for me is ongoing. Part-time and relief work help, as does the student loan, but ideally I would like to get to a point where the loan doesn’t need to be an option. Summer for us is very long (four months) and, since registered workers in Scotland are like gold dust for agencies, it shouldn’t be too hard between my part-time post, my relief post and agency to work as much as I can.
Work- Life Balance
It is true that life at present is a constant juggling act, and the main sacrifices revolve around a reduced social life, being limited financially, ability to keep up with the soaps, and not being able to plan too far in advance in case an opportunity for an extra shift comes up. However, I’ve never been happier and surer that the sacrifices are worth making.
Residential child care has a purpose-driven need and desire for tacit learning. However, so much of what we do is part of the greater world of social care. Policies and practice within our own units have been shaped by events in the wider world, government policies, research and also by the voices of the young people in receipt of care and stakeholders. Our interventions and ability to offer personalised packages to our young people have been transformed by multi-disciplinary approaches to care.
All of this means there is now more of a need than ever to adapt, to holistically approach each day and draw on our experience but also to interpret our understanding of inequality, social policy, social sciences etc. in real life situations. How best to meet this challenge may not resonate with everybody. For me the challenge is being met through the degree course at the Glasgow School of Social work.
Within the field of residential child care there is among many people that intrinsic value of never giving up on our young people, so why do we limit ourselves as workers? We know our young people are worth this level of commitment, and we also have a duty to ourselves to aim higher, our workplaces have a responsibility to help us achieve those goals.
Nothing will ever guarantee positive outcomes for every child and young person but a qualified workforce committed to a process of lifelong learning will ensure we try.
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach then to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Kathleen Mulvey is a Residential Child Care Worker and Social Work Student
- SIRCC: Scottish Institute for Residential Childcare (www.sircc.org.uk)
- Langside College, Glasgow (www.langside.ac.uk)
- Glasgow School of Social Work: Joint School of Glasgow University and University of Strathclyde, to be run solely from University of Strathclyde from Autumn 2010 (www.strath.ac.uk/gssw)
- Kibble: Providing residential care to young boys aged 12 – 18 for the last 150 years. Secure, Open and Close support .(www.kibble.org)
- Higher Aspirations Brighter Futures: Document of the National Residential Child Care Initiative
- Changing Lives Review: Scottish 21st century review of Social Work.
- James Shield Project, Glasgow. Residential project for 37 young people aged 16 – 25 experiencing homelessness run by Quarriers.(www.quarriers.org.uk).