In today’s blog post, Backstop’s Managing Director, Dr Andrew Thorne, answers questions about his career in social work, how he got started, and advice he can give to others who are starting out in a career in the youth justice field.
In part one Andrew will tell us more about how he became a social worker and what he would advise to people who are interested in working in the field!
What drew you to a career in social work and how did you get started?
I actually drifted into it really! As I got older I gradually became aware of inequality and wanted to do something to help others who were less fortunate.
I started working with Fairbridge, which has now been taken over by the Prince's Trust. It was a great program which took young people from London out to Wales, where they did climbing, abseiling, caving, camping and canoeing - the full gambit!
But what I didn’t like about the Fairbridge approach was that young people were going away and having a great time in Wales, learning new things about themselves, but then being dumped back in their original environment. I realised you needed to help these young people make long term changes so they could process what they were going through and set up long term plans for their return.
How did you apply for your job as a residential social worker in the UK? Did you need any qualifications?
No, none at all! I just needed experience. I think it’s one of the travesties of the system, that in order to work in a statutory office you have to be qualified, but actually the people who have the most face-to-face contact with young people are the residential social workers.
What did you study at university?
Nothing to do with social work! My degree was in American Studies. The reason I chose that was so I could study in America, so it had very little to do with social work. I worked with Fairbridge for quite a long time, and then worked in the US for VisionQuest, which worked with young people as an alternative to incarceration, who had been sentenced for fairly serious offences like drugs and violence. Then I came back and worked in residential social work in the UK and worked in a secure unit. Then I thought if I wanted to progress up the social work ladder I would have to take the qualification, which I did.
Generally, social work and probation students undertake qualifications such as a BA in Social Work or a Diploma in Probation Studies. But in your opinion, are there any other qualifications that could lend themselves to a career in social work, youth offending, or probation?
Youth work is certainly one way in. But there can be a problem because gaining a degree in criminology doesn’t mean you are automatically qualified to start work in the criminal justice system. A degree in criminology means you have the academic credentials to analyse the criminal justice system, but there’s no professional qualification. Universities need to be clearer around the fact that studying criminology is quite different to getting a professional qualification.
What advice would you give to someone starting out in a career in social work or youth offending?
First of all, make sure you really want to do it. Make sure you volunteer helping young people in whatever way you can, or get some casual work. Get plenty of experience working with young people, old people, or whatever kind of work you want to do. If you’re sure that’s what you want to do, get yourself qualified, because that’s the way forward.
Then apply for permanent positions and get your first couple of years post-qualification under your belt. The best way to do this is to approach boroughs or youth justice organisations directly. Once you have two years of post-qualification experience, you will be able to work through an agency. Most agency roles require candidates with two years of experience, as they are looking for candidates who can hit the ground running with minimal training.
Being a locum is quite a good idea because it gives you the chance to try different things. It means you can do six month placements and get a good feel for the office you’re working at.
Can you tell us about the ongoing training or other qualifications did you undertake while you were working, for example the requirements for the HCPC?
Back in those days there was no register of social workers at all. Once you did your degree or your diploma in social work, that was that. I think that was a big weakness. People got very stuck. You could always tell people who trained in the 70s, 80s, or 90s, because of the social work theories they got stuck on. I think it’s really good that practitioners now have to keep updated in their practice.