Sukholuhle Tshuma – a Social Worker in one of Bexley’s Looked After Children Teams - spoke with us about her route into the profession and the importance of making every decision with a view to long-term quality of life for children and young people.

Sukholuhle’s role in the Looked After Children team focuses on supporting children who are under the care of the Borough. In this frontline social work role, a typical day for her includes attending Children’s Panel hearings, advocating for the needs of looked after children and young people, and supporting them towards the best possible outcome as these important decisions are made. While there is an element of routine to Looked After Children work, the nature of children’s social work means flexibility is a must:

“There can be strategy meetings which need to be carried out at the spur of the moment, or I might need to do an urgent home visit, but most of the time things are quite structured.”

Sukholuhle’s ethos as a practitioner focuses on making sure each decision is made with a view to improving the child’s quality of life. Often, the biggest rewards of the job can involve helping with things that might seem a small step for many people. However, it is also important not to lose sight of how important these small victories can be to the people she supports:

“I always want to see goals being reached…you can downplay something like applying for a passport for a child, but that’s a big thing for them. It speaks to the identity of that child, it’s an opportunity for them to actually travel, go places or go on holiday. For me, that is fulfilment, we’ve reached a goal.”

Another important consideration for Sukholuhle and the Looked After Children team is how best to support children and young people beyond their interactions with them and into adulthood. While social workers often find themselves helping young people and their families to solve immediate challenges, Sukholuhle believes it’s just as important to find ways of building and strengthening the support network around each young person so that they have people to count on as they develop into adulthood.

“I always think about the future, because a young person might be getting the care they need from the local authority right now, but what happens ten years later when they become an adult? They are going to need that wider family.”

Like many social workers, some of Sukholuhle’s experiences growing up played an important role in her decision to pursue a career in the profession. Growing up in Zimbabwe, Sukholuhle sadly lost her mother when she was four years old, and she was raised by her father and stepmother. When her father also passed away when she was seventeen, she found herself in an uncertain situation, with the legal status of her stepmother unclear. Despite these challenging circumstances, Sukholuhle found time to volunteer in addition to her studies at school. She joined a club that supported underprivileged children and visited orphanages, which was the first time she had encountered a social worker. Her experiences volunteering with others who had lost their parents, and seeing the difference that social work practice could make, made her realise that not every child was as fortunate as she had been in having a safety net of other family to help her to cope with the loss.

With Sukholuhle’s career aspirations very much focused towards helping children and young people, studying social work seemed an obvious choice, and she has never looked back from there:

“When I finished my A-levels, my first choice was to study social work, and I would say that’s the best decision I’ve ever made for fulfilment in life. I’ve been qualified for the past 14 years now, and I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.”

The next stage in Sukholuhle’s social work journey took her to South Africa, where she managed to juggle social work practice while pursuing a Master of Social Work in Healthcare degree. Including the healthcare specialism in her studies helped Sukholuhle to gain a more holistic understanding of the wider health and care system and how both physical health and wellbeing impact on people’s lives. Although demanding, studying while working provided a useful opportunity to put theory into practice.

“It took around four years to actually finish my Master’s because it was part-time, but I loved it. I really liked the idea that I was living what I was studying, I could identify the theory in real life scenarios. It’s always easier to study when you’ve worked in the actual social work space – practice can sometimes be quite different from what you see on paper.”

Sukholuhle worked across two different teams while working in South Africa: Looked After Children, and then in a role focusing on families affected by homelessness and substance misuse. Over this period, she kept in touch with colleagues who had made the move to the UK, and their positive experiences led her to do the same when she felt like it was time for a change of scene in late 2022.

As a new arrival, one aspect of the experience in London that immediately stood out to Sukholuhle was the support she received from management and her wider team. The sense of working with and being supported by a strong network of professionals made it easier to adapt to the differences in practice.

“In my experience the Looked After team here were so receptive… you pick up the phone and introduce yourself as the new social worker, but it was like they knew me already.”

After almost a year, Sukholuhle intends to stay within Bexley beyond her initial two-year period, as it is important to her to continue to build lasting positive relationships with her colleagues and with the community they serve:

“I always envision a space where social workers are retained in the borough for longer. Social work is about relationships, so I want to be able to build those relationships, sustain them and maintain them. I’ve got young people here who are banking on me as their social worker, so I want to be here for them.”

Find out more about working with Sukholuhle in Bexley, and view their current opportunities here.