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I'm just doing a job I love, says England Social Worker of the Year

Louise Pashley who led a turn around Rotherham's leaving care service at a time of intense media focus...

England Social Worker of the Year Awards Louise Pashley Rotherham BASW
From left, awards chair Peter Hay, awards creator Beverely Williams, Louise Pashley, host Lorraine Pascale and James Rook from Sanctuary Personnel

Professional Social Work magazine - 5 December 2019

Louise Pashley is a little embarrassed by all the attention she’s getting. Last week she was named overall winner of England’s Social Worker of the Year Awards and children’s team leader of the year.

The fact that she has led a turnaround of Rotherham’s leaving care team while the town was at the centre of a child sexual exploitation scandal makes it all the more significant.

But for Louise, it’s business as usual. “Everyone directing all this attention to me but it is not what I am in the job for. I am getting people contacting me and I am saying this is just my job. I have had enough photos taken, now I just need to get on with my job.”

Instead of seeping up the civic praise, her top priority the first day back at work after the award ceremony has been to sort out a Christmas dinner for care leavers.

“That is more important than anything,” she says. “I’m not a fairy godmother, but it just that drive to do a job I love.”

Louise, who describes herself as a “Rotherham girl”, has worked in the leaving care team for more than two decades. In 2012 she took over as team manager, the same year the horrific grooming of girls by gang members was exposed.

An independent inquiry led by Alexis Jay went on to reveal at least 1,400 young people had been sexually abused in the town and agencies including the local authority had failed to act.

Against a resultant backdrop of intense criticism and media scrutiny, Louise and her team succeeded in transforming leaving care from an ‘inadequate’ service in 2014 to ‘outstanding’ four years later.

Award judges described Louise as a manager “who leads by example” and “always demands the best for care leavers”.

She says the support of senior managers at the authority was crucial to the turn around.

“They were saying ‘what is it Louise you know you can do to make the service better?’ When we had commissioners in, they did actually listen. And then it was about having that shared vision with team members here being on the same page as me and wanting the best for the care leavers.”

Following police investigations, 20 members of a gang of child sex groomers have been convicted for preying on vulnerable girls in Rotherham. Agencies were criticised by Alexis Jay for failing to take child sexual exploitation seriously enough.

“When the Jay report came through I don’t think we were doing anything different to anyone else at that time,” says Louise.

“The indicators and triggers were there to support young people through these processes, but we were never as honest in the words.

“Now we say child sexual exploitation when a while ago it was ‘they may be at risk of going out with older males’. But that was a countrywide thing. We say it as it is on the tin now rather than jargon.

“The work we do with young people leaving care is real, honest and open. That is the only way it can be to build the relationships we have with young people.”

Louise constantly emphasises the importance of building relationships with young people – both before they leave care and after.

“If you don’t have that relationship you won’t be able to have that honest dialogue. When we allocate a personal adviser we can bond and build that relationship and be open and honest before we sign up to all the statutory stuff.

“We are working with kids leaving care, starting to develop their own life, balance their books, run a tenancy and go out there and try and find a job at 17 or 18. We sometimes forget the basics first, that this person needs to be listened to, someone that does care for them first.”

She would like to see social workers work in a more generic way so that they understand all stages of someone’s life from childhood to adulthood.

“It is that journey. When you talk about looked after children there is a journey for that person. It is going to lead somewhere. Especially for long term looked after children, it is important we have that vision for a young person at 13, 14 of where they are going to be at 18, 19 and 20 and not just in the now.

“I think we need to be more generic about what the future holds for these young people.”

Louise hopes the attention gained by her award helps raise the profile of leaving care work, both within Rotherham and nationally. She believes the role of personal advisers who prepare care leavers to live independently needs to be more recognised and clearly defined with career progression options.

“I don’t think we celebrate that role enough and we don’t give personal advisers opportunities to have additional training,” she says.

Judges praised Louise for being a “tenacious” and “committed” leader. A colleague said of her: “She took the team from a place of darkness to a place of light.”

Louise is more humble. “I am who I am,” she says. “I have time for workers to come to me and talk through any worries they have got. I ensure supervision is on time and I have read it so I can listen to concerns.

“But a lot of it is about guidance and coaching, not necessarily having the answers but enabling people to think something through.

“They work closely with these children and know better than I what will work.”

Louise admits she’s not perfect and that she does “scream and shout sometimes”.

“It is not all easy going. But I have had very little change of staff. I do get a lot of support from them but I am not their mates, I don’t see anyone outside work. They know what my threshold will be. If I am not happy the way a plan is going for a young person I will sit down and dissect why. It is that open and honest dialogue. We say what we mean. We don’t use language that will confuse people and waste time.”

Louise agrees the balance in social work needs to shift away from paperwork to time spent with service users, something BASW England’s 80-20 campaign is promoting. However, she does recognise the necessity for social workers to record what they do.

“The only way we can see it is meaningful time spent and show positive outcomes is by recording it.

“I remember when you spent all your time with a young person and recorded two lines about what you had done that day. But we have to be able to prove what we do and show how it is working out.”

So what would this social worker of the year want to see for the future of social work? If she had one request from an incoming government it would be to give social workers more space and time to do their job.

“Throwing money at things doesn’t always make better outcomes, but more time and space would achieve that. That gap would have to be funded.”

This article is published by Professional Social work magazine which provides a platform for a range of perspectives across the social work sector. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the British Association of Social Workers