​Stayin’ Alive While Getting Your First Job In Social Work

  • Do you remember your first interview for a qualified social work post? My guess is that you probably do. Having asked me my very first question on my very first interview for a social work post on the subject of why I had applied for the post, the chair of the recruitment panel inexplicably decided not to make eye contact with me but instead positioned his body so he could look out of the window to my left. I then remember him pulling the most bored expression I have ever seen from a non-teenager. I remember thinking, ‘at least give me a chance to bore you first before you look desperately disappointed in me, I promise I won’t let you down’.  By this point I was so purple in colour from neck to the top of my head that my cheeks hurt. The Matalan suit jacket that I had bought for my grandads funeral, doubling up for this momentous event, was glued to my shirt that was glued to my back. I spoke. Immediately all I could hear was my new voice, which reminded me of Barry Gibb doing the ‘ah, ah, ah, ahh’ bit on Stayin’ Alive from Saturday Night Fever. Where did that come from? It was high pitched enough to have brought all the dogs in the vicinity to the front door of the local social services office that I was holed up in. And the speed in which I spoke?! It broke the speed of sound! I described my journey into social work training and the need for this particular post in a way that would have rivalled legendary horse racing commentator Peter O’Sullivan articulate the last furlong of a particularly close Grand National. Anti-oppressive and anti-discriminatory practice, both thoroughbreds, were clearly neck and neck and could only be separated by a photo finish at the end. 

I was exceptionally lucky at the interview. On the right of the panel I found a really kind pair of eyes. I focused on them. They seemed encouraging, they seemed to get my predicament. I focused all my answers on them. Every time I seemingly said the right thing the kind eyes lit up and then the person nodded their approval. This was soon to become my first ever social work manager and had the most profound effect on my career ever. As I say, I was very lucky. 

It was clear working alongside other social workers that our experiences were similar. I heard horror stories of people that I had studied with unable to get a social work post due to poor interview experiences for some considerable time. I remember one friend I had studied with getting some feedback from an interview where she had failed miserably which said ‘the candidate should have focused on relevant legislation and not just The Childrens Act 1989… Could have mentioned Social Services Act 1970’. It was 2001. Social workers applying for posts can only do so much, we as interview panels and more experienced social workers and now managers will also need to step up our game.

So working with two brilliant social work managers who had similar experiences to me and having canvassed the opinions of social workers via twitter, we have tried to provide some top tips for our social work students in applying for social work posts. We think the tips are as relevant for interview panels as they are the candidates. Here’s just a selection of them;8

The Application Form – Well, firstly, there is a trade secret here which is really obvious if you know it but if you don’t you won’t even get an interview. You have to meet all the bits on the person spec, particularly those that are described as ‘essential’. So you have to write about how you meet these requirements. Sorry if you already know this and it seems patronising even mentioning it but its amazing how many exceptional candidates that will miss out on jobs because no-one has ever told them this!

Prior to the interview. If it says that you can speak to the Team Manager or arrange a visit then do so. Do some research into the job, the organisation and remember to take that knowledge with you. Recruitment panels are flattered by candidates who really know the job they’ve applied for and what the team/service is doing well. 

Prior to the interview. Make sure you are really clear where the interview is. Social work interviews can take place anyway! Check out the venue, parking, walking distance if its raining etc. On the day we advise getting to the interview venue at least a good 10/15 minutes before the interview is due to start so you can compose yourself.

Prior to the interview. Have examples of your practice ready. Panels love to hear you talk about what you have done and learnt as a social work student. Have a least 3 or 4 examples of people that you have worked with that demonstrate you at your best and show your social work values shining through.

At the interview. Your unique selling point is that you are new and enthusiastic and have strong values.  You aren’t expected to be the finished product (no-one in social work should ever think they are). But you are adaptable, willing to learn and you have examples of your practice to date which shows you put the person at the heart of your practice.

At the interview. Be as positive as you can be (without telling lies!). We can all have moments on the social work course when things don’t go well or placements may be difficult or the academic work is tricky. Try and reflect well on the positives where possible. When we are nervous we can often focus on the negatives. Try hard not to.

At the interview. This is a tough one. Because its an interview we can often find ourselves just talking about ourselves and our learning. However don’t lose focus in terms of actual social work. It’s all about the values. Bring the people we are here to serve to the forefront of your answers. How person centred are you? What did the person say about you? If you helped as a social worker what benefit did the person have?

At the interview. Have some legislation and theory ready and relate it to examples of your practice to date. 

At the interview. Know the 5 principles of the Mental Capacity Act!

At the interview. If the interview is going well the panel tend to write a lot of information down. If after answering a question for 20 minutes non-stop you look up and the panel are staring back at you and have all out their pens down and have stopped writing then it’s probably time to stop talking. Don’t worry, we all do it, but try and keep things concise.

At the interview. Having some good questions at the end for the panel is important. Surely as NQSWs you will want to know about the ASYE offer etc? Even if you only have one question for the panel at the end of the interview try and ensure that it isn’t just ‘when will I find out if I have got the job?’

Good luck to all the social work students who will find themselves applying form posts over the next few months. From one social worker to another, thank you sincerely for choosing to the join the profession. You have made a brilliant decision and this is truly the best job in the world. 

Prepare yourself. Take a deep breath. And then come and knock our socks off. We promise we will give you every bit of encouragement and we know that the Barry Gibb falsetto voice doesn’t really belong to you. 


 The Liberty Safeguards – the door is open for better social work

liberty or death.png

On the 13th March 2017, the Law Commission published their report on Mental Capacity and the Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards.  The overdue report finally arrived a week after news broke of the death of Rusi Stanev, aged 61.  The ruling on Stanev v Bulgaria by the European Court of Human Rights in 2012 was a catalyst for change.  Just two years later Lady Hale referenced his case in setting the acid test for determination of what constituted a deprivation of liberty in her summary of the landmark Supreme Court ruling which has come to be known as Cheshire West.

The Cheshire West ruling was a large boulder thrown into the relatively tranquil sea of adult social work.  The waves which it has generated continue to disperse and rebound across the profession, disrupting the comfortable care management function which has defined adult social work since the Community Care reforms of the 1990s.  Cheshire West was a wake up a call to adult social work, reminding the profession of its roots as an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people based on principles of social justice and human rights.  The role of Best Interest Assessor became a hugely desirable qualification for adult social workers who saw the opportunity to reconnect with their values as the person whose professional role was to uphold people’s human rights.

The widened the definition of deprivation of liberty in 2014 has, however, triggered unprecedented demand on Local Authorities. Almost overnight we experienced a 10 fold increase in the number of requests for the Safeguards to be authorised from hospitals and care homes where a deprivation of liberty was taking place.  In the last 18 months further pressure has mounted on adult social work services as deprivations of liberty are also being identified in supported living settings for adults with learning disabilities.   As social workers we are relearning report writing skills as we prepare to present cases to the courts, increasing our legal literacy with case law that references the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and reclaiming our sense of professional identity and pride in our profession.

So, we have approached the Law Commission Report with optimism and a sense of hope.  The report (which includes draft legislation) reflects 3 years of work on the part of the Law Commission to review how fit for purpose the current Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards scheme in light of the clarity given by the Supreme Court in 2014 on what constitutes a deprivation.  Their finding is that there is a compelling case for reform of what has become an overtly technical process which is subject to increasing managerial concerns about levels of demand and the cost which Local Government is baring in administrating the scheme.  They observe that the numbers of requests for authorisation have reached levels which make it impossible for Councils not to routinely breach statutory timescales for completing assessments and putting the safeguards into place. Their solution is to replace the DoLS with a new scheme which they are proposing is called the Liberty Protection Safeguards.

Here is where a first pause is required. As a proposed response to reduce the level of technical fog around the current DoLS – already the name of the new scheme is causing confusion with parent and carer groups questioning what the difference is between a protection and a safeguard.  Our view is that names matter hugely.  As symbols of intent which send signals across the system a name is a powerful object.  Our preference would be to simplify the name and set out as we intend from the start.  Let’s drop the protection bit and simply call the new scheme the Liberty Safeguards because that is what they are. We know what images the word protection conjures up in the post Care Act world of health and social care; where we challenge those who self-neglect, ignore the spirit of making safeguarding personal or give barely a passing nod to our responsibilities under Article 8. If we call anything in adult care ‘protection’, then really do expect the worst because there is a swathe of the public sector that think that protection means good old fashioned, ‘lock em up and love em as best you can’ care. The best protection is self protection or sponsored protection where people’s rights are upheld with the same vigour and singular desire as we ourselves feel when it comes to protecting ourselves and our loved ones. If public protection is genuinely such a concern that the word protection must explicitly feature in there (and having read the first few bars of the heart-sinking entitled proposed Vulnerable Adult Bill) let’s at least try and agree on what it is we are trying to protect.  Our role as social workers is to protect people’s right to liberty.  So if we can’t drop the word, let’s at least move it to call them the Protection of Liberty Safeguards.

Going back to the detail of the scheme, our Liberty Safeguards would apply in much wider contexts including hospitals, care homes, supported living, shared lives and private and domestic settings. The new scheme will cover any situation where Article 5(1)(e) is potentially engaged. The specific arrangements that may be authorised are:

  • arrangements that a person is to reside in one or more particular places;
  • arrangements that a person is to receive care or treatment at one or more particular places; and
  • arrangements about the means by which and the manner in which a person can be transported to a particular place or between particular places.

Interestingly, the Law Commission also propose that whereas the DoLS scheme only applied to adults over the age of 18, the new Liberty Safeguards would apply for 16 and 17 years olds. This is a sensible change which reflects best social work practice in preparing young people for their transition into adulthood.

It is also proposed that the role of Local Authorities as the Supervisory Body be revised and replaced with a new Responsible Body requirement.  In a pragmatic nod to the drive towards integration the Responsible Body duties would be shared across health and social care depending on where the deprivation of liberty is taking place with hospital trusts and CCGs taking responsibility for their cases.

There are other significant changes which it is worth finding out more about from the various commentators who have written about the report.  However, our personal favourite is the blog written by Mark Neary.  The ruling on the unlawfulness of his son Steven Neary’s deprivation of liberty in 2011 is one of the most significant cases in adult social work in that it made the connection between Article 5 and Article 8 ECHR, the right to a private and family life.  If Article 5 is the technical aspect of the current DoLS scheme, Article 8 is the heart and soul made manifest in Mark and Steven’s relationship. If you ever get chance to hear Mark speak, please take the opportunity.

Whilst, we recognise and welcome the requirement to make explicit the relationship between the proposed Liberty Safeguards and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities by upholding people’s wishes, feelings and beliefs when authorising the Safeguards, we are underwhelmed by the missed opportunity to emphasise the significance of Article 8 rights.  It makes us wonder whether the current obsession with interference with Article 8 rights to justify disproportionate responses to so called self-neglect has leaked into the thinking of those working on the report.

The Law Commission also recommend that the role of Approved Mental Capacity Professional be introduced building on the current Best Interest Assessor role.  As a long term advocate of the AMCP role we remain convinced that role is a lifeline being thrown to the adult social work profession and it should be grabbed with both hands. It is a role most naturally suited to social workers with adults because since 2014 we have rapidly embraced and consolidated our expertise, knowledge of and passion for human rights and the Mental Capacity Act (2005). AMCPs as the safeguard of people’s rights and well being. What greater opportunity can there be for all those social workers who came into the profession saying at their interview to get on the course that they wanted to make a difference?

So do the Liberty Safeguards provide a last chance saloon challenge to adult social workers?  We think they do.  But we also think that if better social work is to become our reality, social workers will need to be really brave. In embracing the social work role as the Law Commission envisage it, and making the most of the potential to elevate our professional by leading on human rights through social work, we may need to be prepared to cast off other roles that we have had bestowed on to us that don’t suit us, or that we don’t do well or moreover where the person themselves needs to be the only voices heard.  At the beginning of the Law Commissions consultation process we asked ‘Are We Human or Are We Care Manager?’ and questioned where social work sits, nearly 30 years on from NHS & Community Care Act. By the end of the consultation we think that yes, we can see the door which is open to us.  This 3 year process has generated overwhelming evidence that the answer to the question is that social work is human rights and that it is ready for the challenges of ensure that Article 5 loophole is dealt with. However, social work is not the answer on its own and can only wish to be a small part of the solution. As Mark Harvey said in his blog describing a new Bohemian social work movement:

 ‘we are not the custodians of society, we need to learn to be part of it, in fact we need to ask humbly if we can come and play again. Then and only then on an equal footing can we work alongside people and create opportunity, not risk averse application that does unto’.

To truly step up to the plate and play the role the new proposals need us to, we need to really ask ourselves – what sort of social worker are we?  Are we really ready to step away from the trappings of care management, which was a role no one else wanted but we ended up with in the post Community Care scramble of 1990. Our role as all things to everyone, assessor, support planner, broker, discharge facilitator are perhaps best rested with the individuals we support, the communities that they come from and families that are best suited to help deliver real meaningful outcomes because of their love for the person. Social workers, put down your RASs (they never worked anyway), step up to the challenge of the Liberty Safeguards and deliver human rights based social work and maybe not all the other things between.

The milkmen of human kindness


Firstly, if you haven’t read Mark Nearys fantastic book ‘Where Have All the Milkmen Gone’ then we think that’s a good place to start. Mark totally gets it when it comes to social work for Steven. He doesn’t want someone who thinks they know Steven and Mark better than Steven and Mark know themselves. He doesn’t want an admin officer for a social worker or someone who can broker care (although he does want the awful bureaucracy removing!). Mark doesn’t want someone who can interpret other professionals jargon. Mark isn’t looking for a mate for him or Steven. Nor is he looking for someone to relay decisions made by the great and good at panels in locked away towers. Mark wants someone alongside Steven. Someone batting for him. Someone who when Mark isn’t there is absolutely going to advocate for his sons wishes, feelings values and beliefs in a way Mark knows Steven wants. Crucially, Mark and others, want someone on behalf of the state (Local Authorities  or NHS – it shouldn’t matter) who totally get and love the fact that Mark and Steven love each other. The thought of standing in the way of their relationship should be as abhorrent as the feelings generated when you hear Mark talk about those who separated Steven from his dad. Whether it’s the principles of the MCA, the Articles in the UNCRPD or the Well Being principle in the Care Act, the overriding ethos is that the state should not interfere with the family life. Our role is to promote it, protect it and if possible to enhance it… And then get out of the way very quickly!

However it still looks like we are a million miles away. More evidence is coming to light of the routinised institutional nature of human rights abuses which are taking place in the name of so called care and treatment.  #underlockandkey was the latest in a series of reports on what is becoming an all too familiar story of families heart breaking distress.  There is an ever expanding list which is compelling and which identifies consistent themes including:

So, we change the size of our institutions from big asylum to small group home, and the uniforms are all but gone but the practice is frozen in time.  We continue to debate about how it isn’t enough to just build new types of institutions  – and we agree that a bigger shift is needed in mindsets if learning disabled people are to genuinely experience their full range of their human rights. Medical training still appears to over emphasise that clinical autonomy is the more important in decision making than the views of the person.  This has to change. Social Work training is grounded in human rights and individual autonomySocoal Work could potentially be the challenge needed. Since the early 1980s we’ve been talking about Social Workers becoming a named person providing advice and advocacy for people.

So many people have a named social worker and have done for years. But what’s changed?

Whether we are named Social Workers or not we are in the heart of a culture which families who are brave enough to speak to the press about their experiences are telling us is immersed in the ways of the old institutions. We no longer chase the doctors coattails, walk along wards or dormitories in large Victorian buildings but are we still effectively perceived by people and their families as still prowling the corridors, ensuring compliance and often crushing the hope they have of a loving family life.

The  Department of Health’s vision for adult social work  is the most recent attempt t0 define a role for a Named Social Worker. 6 Local Authorities are piloting the role as describe here – https://lynromeo.blog.gov.uk/tag/named-social-workers/

Social Care Institute for Excellence are reporting here on the outcomes so far from the pilot http://www.scie.org.uk/social-work/named-social-worker.  It is still early days,  but from our involvement this feels like something important is being tested.

Social work is at a crossroads. What do we want the Named Social Worker to be? More importantly, what do people with a learning disability and their families and supporters want their Named Social Worker to be?

Self-advocates have told us that they want their Named Social Worker to be there for them. They didn’t see the social workers in the heroic role of fighting medics to prevent admission to an ATU. People with a learning disability that we support don’t know what an ATU is right up until the point where the options have been exhausted, the ‘risks’ seemingly too great and the door locks behind them. The people we spoke to wanted a social worker to be, well, a social worker. The kind of social workers we think social workers want to be; a really good one. One who can speak about love without feeling embarrassed.

For ‘Named Social Workers’ read ‘good Social Workers’ or moreover,  Social Workers who are legitimised to be exactly what they have trained to be compassionate, kind and on the person’s side. Social Work has a unique role and position within the system and it is designed to be the safeguard against people being marginalised. Social work is steeped in an education of social justice, empowerment, human rights and an unequivocal and unashamed approach to helping people to remain as independent as possible and close to the loving support of their families and friends. Ensuring that is our unique role. The only safeguard that is needed is to keep people safe from the system intervening into family life. Whether social workers are ‘named’ or not, they need to be really good social workers regardless.