Henry Smith – Supporting Social Work Students During COVID-19: Stories from (the) Frontline

Hello, my name is Henry Smith, and I’m a Principal Practice Tutor for an organisation called Frontline. Frontline is a social work charity that trains students in social work practice a qualified route into social work. We mainly focus on children and family social work. And I support units of students based in children’s services departments.

So the changes that came as a result of COVID-19 happened very quickly for our students and for me. When Boris Johnson announced a lockdown, we suddenly went from seeing families face to face, and me meeting them face to face, to everything being remote. We had to adapt very quickly to a lot of new technology, and suddenly I was meeting participants via apps like Zoom and Skype. And a lot of our participants, the students on the programme would be, would have relocated for the programme and many were living in shared houses, and would be really working from their bedrooms, particularly a small number of participants who were isolating and wanted to continue with the programme. So we felt enormous duty of care in terms of supporting them through this very difficult time and, and helping them progress with the course that they wished to continue.

So I think for the participants on the programme, there was a sort of, lots of mixed emotions, there was a kind of fear for themselves due to the impact of COVID and that they might catch it, for the families that they were supporting and for their own families, but also a fear of what might happen to the programme, would they be able to complete their social work programme. They were nine months through their qualifying year when this struck, and there were lots of uncertainties, uncertainties that we couldn’t initially provide solutions for and we had to have a number of conversations around trying to sit with this anxiety of not knowing while we worked with social work England and the local authorities they were placed in to work out how we could get them to qualify.

And a couple of practitioners, the practice educators who worked with the students reflected to me that it was actually very hard for them in terms of they were worried about families and their, they would want to help families and that’s a lot of their professional self as a family, as a social worker would be to help families and to support them, but they could no longer do this because of being isolated in the lockdown. And they were reduced to contacting families via phone and feeling a little bit inept, and I think they found this very difficult and big challenge to their professional selves.

So how do we react to this, both me as a practice tutor, tutoring the students, and as an organisation? Well, very much the attitude was the show must go on. We are the largest qualifying routing to social work and to reduce that flow of social workers into the system at such a crucial time, when we are probably going to need more social workers, would have been very counterproductive. And the participants were very keen to proceed as well. So I had weekly meetings with my participants, particularly as some were so isolated, and were really, as I say, in bedrooms and in shared houses with people they didn’t know that well, unable to see the families. We made some social events, we did quizzes, I upped my pastoral support, we did some extra teaching, sticky stuff around the Black Lives Matter movement that was happening at the same time. We took time to share the technology we were using with families, programmes like Jamboard and TikTok, my participants were doing some fantastic work with families around that and making sure we weren’t breaching any data protection.

So what we saw was some great creative work and actually many of the families that had been due to close to the children and family social work teams actually requested that they, their families were kept open in order to provide extra support through COVID, and what I saw was social work students helping families make sense of some of the confusion and advice around COVID-19, supporting families with routines now that school is not in place, and particularly for parents who hadn’t had a good experience at school and didn’t feel very comfortable teaching their children, helping them, sending them educational resources and supporting them with how to manage that.

As well, these families who were still open, there were risks involved and there were concerns about the family’s welfare and just making sure we weren’t getting false positives from online visits and talking with children over digital platforms in terms of their wellbeing. But happy to say that the programme is close to completing and all the participants have passed the programme and I’ve seen some great social work along the way. Thanks for listening.

Henry Smith is a Principle Practice Tutor with Frontline. Henry discusses how Frontline have supported social work students during the pandemic, and the way students and colleagues creatively adapted to new ways of working.