Continuity makes all the difference to children and families
Published Wed 28th Sep, 2022

Liz Stenton, Head of Children & Family Social Care, Barnsley Council

Liz is the Head of Service for Children & Family Social Care at Barnsley Council. Her role involves supporting and managing a wide range of safeguarding social work teams in the local authority. Liz’s extensive career in social work has involved working for several authorities across Yorkshire & the Humber on both permanent and temporary contracts, as well as some time spent practicing social work in Australia.

As Head of Service, Liz is responsible for making decisions at a strategic level as well as supporting a wide range of operational social work teams, covering areas of practice that include screening, assessments, child exploitation, children with disabilities, children in need, child protection and looked after young people. She sees her role as supporting and promoting good outcomes for children and young people in all parts of the service.

As well as ensuring children and young people are safeguarded, another major focus for Liz at the moment is on poverty and inequality, especially due to the impact of the pandemic on many families and communities in Barnsley.

Liz’s journey into social work began when she started working as a teaching assistant at her children’s school, and the head teacher suggested returning to college to study teaching:

“My first thoughts were, I’ve got four young children, there’s no way I could go and study at university and work! However, staff at the school encouraged me to believe that I could do it and this turned out to be the start of my social work journey.”

Liz studied a BA in combined studies – psychology and sociology at night school and one of the modules got her interested in social work. After completing this course Liz was successful in her application to Huddersfield University for a place on the Diploma in Social Work and BSc Honours in Social Work. It was a real challenge for Liz as she had young children so financially it was a struggle. At this point she decided to work in a children’s residential home alongside her studies to supplement the family income. Making a difference to children’s lives in residential care really cemented her desire to go into children’s social work.

“I saw first-hand the difference you could make to those children, just by investing the time to listen to them and understand their story. I worked alongside their social workers in formulating plans, and I knew then that I wanted to work in children’s social work and that’s where I’d go when I qualified.”

Liz’s switch to interim social work came about via a move to Australia. In 2009, whilst working as a Team Manager in a local authority, she was attracted to the idea of spending some time practicing social work in another country on a temporary contract, but her employer wasn’t able to offer a career break at that point, and Liz didn’t want to miss the opportunity.

However, after only a few months, she felt the move wasn’t right for her and opted to return to the UK. At the time, agency work offered a much quicker route back to practicing in the UK due to the extra paperwork and checks involved in joining a permanent team, and Liz was able to find herself an interim Team Leader role in Sheffield soon after returning.

“I’d gone over to live the dream in Australia, and it didn’t quite work out for me. I came back with not a lot really, so I needed to find work quickly.”

As an interim manager in social work, Liz often found that opportunities were easier to take advantage of, with time spent in temporary posts allowing her to demonstrate suitability for a role through a short interview rather than a longer application process. Working across a range of interim roles proved to be a good way to build up experience and focussed innovation project work. In 2019, having started as an interim Head of Service in Barnsley whilst the permanent position was being recruited to, Liz found herself really enjoying working there. She felt there were good partnerships and a real sense of team and community. This was a real draw for Liz, so she decided to apply for the permanent post and was successful:

“I enjoyed working for Barnsley Council. There’s a real sense of kinship and community spirit. I really liked the people, my teams and colleagues. To have a pension, paid holiday and sick pay should I ever need it are very reassuring to have and I think people sometimes underestimate what that security really means.”

Having spent time in both agency and permanent roles, Liz understands that both options have their advantages. While she found that working in agency roles was a good way to broaden her practical experience, opportunities for the formal side of professional development were much easier to come by in a permanent role.

“I got the practical experience as an interim, absolutely. In terms of formal development though, I had to source and pay for that myself – the only time an employer has invested in me has been when I was permanent.”

From a senior perspective as Head of Service, Liz also finds that her role in supporting her staff is easier with a permanent workforce.

“Many of my previous roles meant managing high numbers of interim posts, I’ve seen so much churn in the workforce in my teams along the way. It’s so difficult for families having to re-tell their stories and it’s difficult for managers having to continuously reallocate work. Having a stable workforce is just fantastic. I can really harness that and work to develop it even further.”

Above all else, Liz feels that the most important thing in social work practice will always be about building positive relationships – something which can be harder to achieve with a high turnover of staff. It can also be a challenge for families to understand why a different social worker might react differently or take a different approach upon hearing their story for the first time, which can undermine their trust in services.

“The continuity is absolutely priceless to families. It’s really not helpful for any of our children and young people at all having to re-live their traumas when they have to keep re-telling their stories.”

For Liz, children’s social work really does matter, the most rewarding thing about her job as Head of Service is being able to support her staff, give them opportunities to develop their knowledge and skills and ultimately to see the positive long-term results of their work with vulnerable children, young people and families.

“I’ve always said, Social Work is so much more than just a ‘job’, it really is about making a difference for the children and families, working to keep them together where possible and enabling young people to recognise their potential. 

“The day I don’t feel I’m making a difference I’ll hang my boots up. It’s a cliché, but I know that we really do make a difference. I encourage new and creative ideas, for social workers to work innovatively with families, I can see their enthusiasm and how proud they are when they have made a difference, it’s so much easier to do when you have a stable permanent workforce.”

“For me personally I identified what it was that I was passionate about and I followed the route it took me on. It has allowed me so many great opportunities along the way – social work is a demanding career, but such a rewarding one too. If you’re thinking about going into a career in social work, I’d say go for it, don’t miss out on a wonderful journey where you really can make a positive difference in people’s lives.”