We spoke to a Specialist Practitioner with Kensington & Chelsea to find out how a career change to social work helped her find an ideal role, and how pursuing specialised training allows social workers to combine traditional practice with other areas of expertise.

Like many social workers, Jess didn’t begin her career in the field. Instead, after completing a degree in history, she spent four years working in finance in the City of London. However, she began to feel less engaged in the financial sector, which led her to consider whether a change of career might offer something more fulfilling:

"I was just not really feeling engaged with my work, I didn’t really value what I was doing in the City. So I started working with children. I think it’s one of those things I’d always enjoyed as a holiday job, doing summer camps for kids and things like that. I just hadn’t really switched on to how much I enjoyed working with children.'

Jess’s decision to switch to working with children and young people turned out to be an ideal fit, and she spent time as a nursery nurse and working in residential care before finding out about the Step Up to Social Work programme. Step Up to Social Work is a fast-track social work postgraduate programme which offers candidates a chance to earn a social work Masters, while working closely with real-life practitioners. The programme is particularly suited to people who are looking to change their career direction and become a social worker, and it allowed Jess to combine academic and practical learning over an intensive 14-month period:

"You get a bursary, you don’t have to pay any fees, and it allows you to do your learning while you’re embedded in a social work team, so you can pick up the academic stuff as you’re actually practicing social work."

After completing the course in 2015, Jess got her first social work role in one of Kensington & Chelsea’s Locality Teams. She spent her first four years in social work in this role, and the variety involved made it an ideal starting role for getting to grips with different areas of social work practice.

"There’s a number of benefits to locality work, like you get to see a case through, so you’re not working really intensely for three weeks and then passing it on to a long-term team. You get exposed to different elements of the work. I also think it benefits the families because they have one social worker for the whole journey instead of constantly being passed over."

For Jess, one of the most attractive aspects of working for Kensington & Chelsea is the way their organisational culture prioritises training, learning and opportunities for growth. In her case, an opportunity to further specialise came about through an initiative at Kensington & Chelsea called Focus on Practice, which looked at bringing in new models of social work practice by developing the skills of the borough’s workforce. One of these was systemic psychotherapy – which in practice meant that social workers in the borough were all given the opportunity to complete a foundation level in systemic and family therapy with a view to embedding this knowledge into their day-to-day interactions with families. Jess then took up the option to continue this learning and was supported to complete a Masters in Family and Systemic Therapy.

One of the major benefits of embedding systemic family therapy as part of social work practice is an increased understanding of the complex web of relationship and environmental factors which can impact on how a family responds to a crisis. As a result, Jess and her colleagues are better equipped to unpick complex situations and find a sustainable solution for the people they support. In practice, Jess’s hybrid role means she carries out the usual child protection or looked after children visits, but her additional training enables her to offer therapy to families or even couples depending on the challenges they’re dealing with.

"It’s a real privilege to go into someone’s home and witness their lives. There are very few roles where you get to have such a close, intense relationship with families and children. When you are able to join with them and work out a collaborative solution to make sure they don’t need you anymore, or to make sure that child is safe and happier, that is really rewarding."

Another highlight of working in a central London borough is the walkable nature of the community, which helps social workers to build up a sense of connection to the place and people they work with:

"You really feel like you get an understanding of the area you work in, because the streets become your office a bit when you’re going from one visit to the next. There’s something about belonging more to the place – you just really get to know working in Central London."

As someone who has made a switch to the social work profession and found a niche she enjoys, Jess had some advice for anyone else considering a similar change – in her view it’s well worth speaking with social workers or university course advisors to understand what the job is like and see if it’s right for you.

"I’ve found it a hugely rewarding career, and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I know that I’m working in the sector and the role that feels absolutely right for me. I’d want people to know that the job and the qualification route can be demanding, but it can also be hugely rewarding."

As both social work and family therapy are frequently challenging and emotionally demanding, this means it’s essential to have the right people with the right skills to advocate and push for the best possible outcome. For Jess, it’s also important for social workers to recognise how impactful their work in the face of these challenges can be:

"I think social workers should take heart from doing a really tough job well. If you can acknowledge the pain and sadness that a lot of families experience without articulating it to you, have difficult conversations and make difficult choices for families, and do all of that respectfully, that’s something you can really hold on to."

Find out more about working in Kensington & Chelsea, and view their current opportunities here.