The school social worker: 'For some children, just getting to the school gates is an achievement'


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Thomas was referred to me as he was refusing to attend school. The report that came through said it was a sudden decision: one day he simply decided it was "too hard" and from that point on he stayed in bed all day, every day. Family, friends, teachers – they had no impact.

The family was obviously concerned, as was the school. When I arrived, they all looked at me as if suddenly everything was going to be alright: the social worker was here, he’ll be back at school in no time if she does her job "properly". It’s a look I get a lot.

Mum and dad had separated and Thomas was living with his father. It was clear from the first time we met that he had issues surrounding his relationship with his mum. He would engage with me sometimes and at other times he was not willing to engage in anything. I could see that he was struggling and depressed. I had made a Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services referral, but he refused to engage and this was closed.

After several months, Thomas was still completely refusing to attend school. We had tried everything within our power. It was incredibly upsetting that we had not got him back into the classroom.

The attendance officer called a meeting. They were angry and I was the cause. Why, after several months, had this child not returned to school if they had been working with me? Why had I not done my job?

The first time you hear this sort of comment, it hurts. A lot. But you get used to it. You begin to expect it. You begin to understand it.

When I initially meet a young person, I do not anticipate that by the end of that session everything will be okay and they will be back to "normal". Some problems can take time to improve. Sometimes, unfortunately, things do not change, which has been hard for me to admit in this job. This lack of change can be frustrating for school staff, particularly when there is not a clear, understandable reason and the young person is not meeting their full potential in school.

But as a social worker working in schools, I can only do so much. I do not have a magic wand. I don’t have a cape or superpowers. I cannot see into the future. I do not have the ability to read people’s minds. I am not able to solve every young person’s problems in five minutes. Some young people have extremely difficult childhoods and issues, and these cannot be solved overnight. They can be very deep rooted.

I could not force Thomas to return to school. His problems needed longer-term work. I was working on parenting with his dad so he could understand power, control and attention. I worked with Thomas on relationships, anxiety and self-esteem. It takes time.

We have recently made some progress. Thomas now goes into school on a part-time basis. He is not back in lessons and teachers are struggling to understand why, but for this young person, just making the step to come into school is a huge improvement and something he should be extremely proud of. And I am proud of him, too.

All names and some details of the story have been changed to protect the identities of those involved. This is the third blog by the school social worker; the other blogs can be found in the related links below. 

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