In this continuing 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.
Here he gives an insight into the difference between working as a social worker and starting his own criminal justice recruitment company.
Can you describe what your day was like as a residential social worker?
We were looking after young people, aged nine to seventeen, in a children’s home in Bristol. We were acting as parents for the young people and were trying to instil routine into their lives, to get them up, get them to school, make sure they ate properly, washed, all the basic stuff.
What were the main challenges you faced?
The children’s home was in a pretty rough area of Bristol so the challenge was more from outside. Groups of young people would gather outside the house and would throw stones at the windows and encourage the young people to come out. It was a very rough area and it was quite frightening being there sometimes.
What did you enjoy most about working in the field of social work?
What I enjoyed most was the contact with the young people, and it’s so varied. Before I was qualified there was much more face-to-face contact with the young people. When I was qualified I was sitting in a youth justice office, which is different.
I particularly enjoyed my time working with young offenders in the US. It was at a wilderness camp, and based around Native American philosophy. We worked with young people and it was quite intense, and a great challenge. I learned a huge amount about myself and about how I responded to difficult situations. I think I was able to teach the young people I was with quite a lot as well.
After working in the field you founded Backstop. What were your main reasons behind wanting to set up the agency?
The idea came from working in an area which in those days had problems with recruitment. I was pretty horrified with the quality of the staff sent by agencies who had no idea what youth justice was. I thought there should be a specialist youth justice agency.
In the beginning I had no idea of recruitment at all. In fact when I made my first placement I had to phone my wife, who had much more knowledge than me, and ask her what I should do next. She suggested I should write a letter to the client and the person who was placed explaining their pay rate and when they were going to start, which shows how little I knew about that! I set it up as a social worker, with social work values. It was very idealistic in those days, and it didn’t necessarily mean it was very professional, but it was very idealistic.
How do you find running the agency compares to working in the field as a social worker?
It’s completely different! I miss the contact with young people and the rough and tumble of it. It’s a very enlivening sort of experience because you are dealing with people’s raw issues and you feel you can make a difference. But the values that underpin my work in social work also underpin Backstop as well.
You completed your PhD while you were working at Backstop. What led you to that decision?
I’m very interested in youth justice, and I wanted to to knit my experience in the field back to academic frameworks. I really enjoyed studying towards my Diploma in Social Work and I wanted to do more of the same thing. I also wasn’t happy with business frameworks like the Taylorist methodology, which places a high value on target setting, being transferred over to the public sector. This framework is completely inappropriate for the public sector.
My thesis explored alternative theories which involve the end user part of the solution. These theories involve the expression ‘value co-creation’, where service users are drawn into and become part of the result. This is what I thought could work in the public sector, and it’s beginning to happen.
There has been a lot of discussion in the media recently about plans to replace some probation officers with a kiosk system. How do you feel now that Michael Gove has taken over from Chris Grayling as Justice Secretary?
I don’t know enough about Michael Gove, although he was certainly controversial in the education field. The advantage he has over Grayling is that he has brains and is clearly an intelligent man. But I doubt whether that will translate into something more sensible in policy terms. Politicians like to set targets which are pretty much irrelevant in many ways to what service users and practitioners are going through. The kiosk system, where some offenders will report in at electronic ATM-style kiosks, instead of seeing a probation officer, is one example of this. Quite how that’s meant to work, I have no idea. I imagine Gove will go along with most things that have been done and will probably pull back on some of the more controversial ideas.
Do you think agencies can do anything to support workers who are going through those changes and may be working in offices with low morale?
We can always provide alternatives. So if people are working in offices where they feel completely threatened and intimidated, if they are being bullied and harassed, there are always better places to work. As a specialist agency, we do really understand what’s going on, so we can give a supportive framework, although we can’t guarantee that locums will always get the right job. But we can help if locums feel they want to get out of where they are. We listen and provide an alternative.
Can you think of any other advice to help candidates who are starting their career, or who are in the middle of their career and thinking of moving?
I think the key thing at the start of your career is to try any social work job you can get, even for six months. By trying it, you’ll open up new avenues. Even if you hate it, at least you will know what you don’t like. If someone is at the middle or end of their career, they should only do the parts of social work that really make them want to get out of bed in the morning.