In May 2013, Isabelle Trowler was appointed by the Department for Education as England’s first Chief Social Worker for Children and Families. In her role Isabelle is charged with overseeing the social work reform programme and both championing and challenging the social work profession.
Here, speaking exclusively to Frontline, Isabelle tells us about what first drew her to social work, her new role and why being a social worker ‘is just such a good career choice’.
Where it all began
“From the cradle I was raised with the ethos that you should find something constructive and honourable to do with your life, allowing you to give something back and use your privilege wisely. I always knew I wanted to work with people so, like lots of social workers, I started off by doing voluntary work. By working with drug users and young people with learning difficulties I got a real sense of the different types of social work. I then went on to apply to study at the London School of Economics, where I was a tutee of Professor Eileen Munro.
“On the first day of my training as a social worker I can remember clearly going to see Ken Loach’s film Ladybird Ladybird on child protection. I can see myself now, standing on the stairs at LSE after the film, turning to one of the other students and saying “I shall never work in child protection”. And, of course, I haven’t done anything else! After qualifying I took my first job as a Local Authority social worker in South London, and off I went.”
Working on the front line
“There have been many rewarding moments in my career as a social worker. One that stands out to me is managing to engage a family who had never before let a social worker across the threshold. The family was well-known in the local area and there were some very significant worries. I managed to build a really effective relationship with them, in particular helping one of the children involved in the criminal justice system get on a different track.
“Saying that, it’s important to remember that rewarding moments are not necessarily the big stories. The trick of feeling good about your work as a social worker is understanding that some of the changes you make are really small. Actually, it’s these small steps which in the end make a huge difference to a family’s wellbeing. We’re not there to fix people’s lives; we’re there to help people get back on their feet.”
Qualities of a social worker
“That’s why as a social worker you have to be able to relate to people. You need to be bright, you need to be full of energy, hope and creativity. You have to have the skill in any context to be able to build a rapport immediately, through your understanding or empathy of the family situation. You also have to be able to deal with the distress of other people.
“As social worker, it’s about recognising that what may come through as anger and aggression is often just fear and fury at one’s own lack of power. Other professions could learn from social workers in this respect. Social workers have the flexibility to work in any social context, to find ways around the different barriers and we also consider the wider picture when working with individuals. Critically, you also need a solid grounding in the knowledge base for social work and the necessary skills. So that’s not a tall order, is it?!”
My role as Chief Social Worker
“After several years working as an Assistant Director in Hackney, and then as a Director of Morning Lane Associates, I was appointed Chief Social Worker for Children and Families last year. It’s an exciting new role which typically involves three types of day.
“The first are days where I’m travelling a lot, for example a recent trip to Cambridgeshire where I worked alongside one of the social work units. I may go to a conference, a discussion group, or talk to frontline practitioners. Here I’m focused on making sure decision-making and frontline practice are connected. Keeping myself in contact with the front line is really important.
“The second type of day is a Department for Education day, where I meet with a range of people in back to back meetings, to help ensure that the direction of policy is moving in the right direction.
“The third type of day, which doesn’t happen so often, is when I have time to reflect on my own about what it is that I’m doing. I do lots of reading, lots of writing, and really think through the direction of travel. All of these days are entirely focused on my end game; to have a confident, highly skilled social work workforce, working in a system which understands their potential and how to maximise positive impact for families.”
A great career choice
“As I said this morning to three BA students who’d just completed their first year, social work is just such a good career choice. There are so many different things that you can do as a social worker, and the huge impact you can have is highly rewarding. Ultimately, if you are an effective social worker then you really do make a difference. If that’s what makes you tick then it’s fantastic.”
Words by Julia Dobson