The ‘social’ in social work

By Ollie Mills, Social Work student

The Education and Social Work trip to Rotterdam was fascinating and enjoyable from beginning to end. That being said, as a social work student, I have to say that day three was my personal favourite. This was the day that two students of Childhood and Youth Studies and I had the opportunity to shadow a social worker in her office and district (something like a London Borough) and later visited a school to see the integration of social work in an educational setting.

We were introduced to Mariam and she kindly gave us a tour of the office and a rundown of her time in social work. Mariam is a part time student, balancing her studies with a demanding social work role and very real responsibilities. Her remit is quite specific as she works in a youth team, primarily with parents/children who have mild/moderate intellectual disabilities. Within her office, there are many professionals, all bringing specialised skills/backgrounds with them – this is relatively new format in Holland but the potential advantages are undeniable…If a social worker needs to speak with a psychologist? No problem, someone is but a few desks away. Concerns around housing/benefits? Again, a colleague practically beside you can fill you in. The capacity for collaboration and information sharing as advocated in so much literature seems to be the driving force behind this current set-up. While in it’s early stages, Mariam was optimistic about its implementation and as students, we were very impressed.

Our conversations turned to the reputation of social work in the Netherlands. In Mariam’s opinion, the portrayal of social work in the media is overwhelmingly negative- comparable to the situation in the UK perhaps.
Social work does intervene in people’s lives when they are potentially in very difficult and challenging situations. Mariam was honest about the emotionally demanding aspects of her work. Yet, she felt it was worth it.
She introduced us to some colleagues and guest speakers who shared her passion for the work they do. A youth worker who runs a mentoring scheme for kids in the community shared his experiences with us and we were enthused. After Mariam showed us her distract on a map, we went out to see more.


Mariam explained that, to do her job properly, she needs to spend the majority of her time out and about in the community in which she works. The idea, is that she is seen and known. Fitting, that a “social worker” should be “social” in this way…I wonder whether social workers in the UK would describe this as part of their remit? We visited two organisations which further emphasised the community aspects of Mariam’s work: a clothing bank (wonderfully organised and presented) which aims to provide clothes free of charge for parents and children in financially difficult circumstances and a community centre with aspirations to change the way that youth and race is perceived locally. They were genuinely inspirational and Mariam worked closely alongside both projects. It would have been interesting to see an example of case-work, but the thing that struck me most, was that social work in Holland seems inherently concerned with the community; the collective as well the individual. This made me reflect upon how far this is true in the UK.

In the afternoon we visited a school, designed specifically to educate students to work in the trading/shipping industry (education in Holland, can vary greatly to the British system). It is beautifully designed and the architecture mimics the theme of the school; it also offers state of the art facilities in the form of simulator rooms. What’s more, the school has a social worker. A whole team dedicated to welfare in fact, as is legally necessary in Holland. We spent time with a man from this team who talked us through the challenges the school faces (ie. Significant expansion in recent years alongside the diversity and integration of students from many different cultures) and how they are trying to work to best protect the wellbeing of pupils. We visited a separate unit in which two teachers work permanently with especially challenging pupils…however, they do not just work on a behavioural level, they try to work holistically with their students. Social work is very much integrated into schools here!!  Interestingly, it is becoming more and more common for social workers to be placed in British schools so there are clear parallels across our borders.

At the end of the day, we all came together to share our stories. It was fascinating to see Social Work outside of the UK context, I am thankful for the experience and recommend as many students as possible take up this opportunity next year!


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