Lila Halliday asks if you can ever prepare for social work

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I went to university to study social work when everything was free and they were letting anyone in. There weren’t many social workers around back then and nationally social care was getting pretty desperate. There were schemes to draft social workers in from other countries, like Canada, and the sector was in chaos.

I was 18, still an out-of-control teenager myself, who wanted to shut my mum up by appearing to have some sort of direction in life. I didn’t have a passion for social work, no heart-wrenching sob story to be motivated by. Truth be told, I didn’t even know what social work was.

I bumbled through uni, barely attending, and just scraped through. I felt like I had learned nothing. I’m sure there were plenty of things to be learnt – I just wasn’t listening. Having never worked within the social care sector, nor did I have any statutory social work placements. I had no context for the knowledge that was being imparted. They would teach us things and I’d think, I bet I’ll never look at that again. It felt like learning algebra in high school. The thing is, you do use and need those things in practice – you just have no frame of reference to sort the wheat from the chaff.

There were many people on my degree course who had been working in social care for years and just needed the piece of paper for career progression. I should have appreciated these people more and seen them as the valuable resources they were. Of course I didn’t. I just found them irritating and superior. They were always arguing with the out-of-touch lecturers and saying things like “I think you’ll find it doesn’t work like that in practice”, while I sat at the back texting on my early noughties flip phone and rolling my eyes.

Very soon after uni I got a job and was let loose on the general public. I was terrified and out of my depth. All the theory and knowledge in the world will not prepare you for social work. Even the first class honours lot are not prepared for what is to come. No one at uni ever sits down with you and says: “I am going to teach how to manage constant fear.” That is what you need. Social work is scary!

My ridiculous meandering through higher education is not one to emulate. I crashed into social work inexperienced and lacking purpose or passion but I grew to love it. I’m lucky to have found my vocation completely by accident but I would have many more opportunities available to me had I worked harder at uni. Now I do a bit of lecturing at universities myself, I have students on placement and I manage quite a few newbie social workers. I try my best to prepare them for what is to come. You get your foundation at uni but the real learning starts in practice and it’s my job to teach as much as it is to manage. It’s a shame I don’t get all those holidays though.

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