Celebrating rural social work: conference report

Published in Post-event summaries on 31 Aug 2020

About the event

On 11 March 2020, over 100 social workers came together in Dumfries to celebrate rural social work, share good practice and understand how it is distinct and different to practice in urban settings, as well as what it can offer others. It had very positive reactions: 94% rated the event ‘excellent or good’ overall.

We recognised that rural social work sits outside the mainstream and dominant discourse, and is ‘remote’ just like the areas it works in, often overlooked, under-researched or simply ‘missing’. As such, the day provided a rare and exciting opportunity for those working in rural contexts to come together. There were contributions from across Scotland, including Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles, and from our hosts in Dumfries and Galloway, as well as those who had travelled from England and Wales to be with us.

Others joined remotely, with UWS staff trialling the use of technology to enable others to attend from as far away as Alaska and North Carolina, as well as other parts of the UK. At the time of the conference, and only 12 days away from lockdown, we were unaware of the scale of the challenge COVID-19 was to present, and that using technology would be mainstreamed so quickly – though not without challenge- and become a much bigger part of our new normal.

Programme overview

The programme included a number of keynotes and more informal workshop sessions. This was to allow time for discussion, knowledge exchange, cross-fertilisation of ideas and new connections to be made. It was also about acknowledging everyone’s expertise in the room and drawing on this to help answer: what makes for effective rural social work practice going forward?

The day was chaired by Kerry Musselbrook from Iriss, and due to be opened by Iona Colvin, Chief Social Work Advisor for Scotland. However, due to the Coronavirus crisis that was emerging, Ion could, understandably, not be there. She sent this note of support instead.

This conference report aims to provide a summary of keynote speaker’s contributions, and a flavour of the parallel sessions on the following topics, with reflections written up on working with communities in a rural setting: minorities and marginalisation session.

Letting evidence from lived experience shape what we do

Professor Sarah Skerratt recently became Director of Programmes at the Royal Society for Edinburgh. Until January 2020, she was Director of Policy Engagement at Scotland’s Rural College. 

For 30+ years, Sarah has researched rural community resilience, empowerment, disempowerment, poverty and leadership. She has also focused on rural mental health, working with Support in Mind Scotland. Through her research, Sarah has enhanced rural and national policy while making a difference in rural communities. She has worked with Scottish Government task forces, Scottish Parliament, universities, private, public and third sectors, communities and development agencies in Scotland and internationally. Sarah also undertook a two-year secondment with Audit Scotland, bringing a 'rural lens' to their work.

In 2018, she completed the Recharging rural research for the Prince’s Countryside Fund, gathering evidence across rural UK as to what makes rural communities sustainable to 2030. In 2017, she was appointed a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) in recognition of her work in rural poverty and rural policy and in 2018, she was appointed as Scientific Director of the Scottish Consortium of Rural Research (SCRR). Sarah has been a non-Executive Board Member of SRUC, Rural Housing Scotland and Scotland’s Regeneration Forum (SURF). 

Sarah was unable to make the conference in person, however, this wonderful Youtube video of her presentation was shared.

Remote video URL

The key messages are summarised below.

Community resilience and lived experience

In the film, Sarah begins by asking what community resilience is, because it’s seen as a desirable quality and a route to sustainable rural development. She identifies that how the way we think about resilience has changed, and that how we think about it also changes ‘how we do it.’ 
In 1940-70s, ‘resilience’ was about ecological and physical systems in maths and physics, and based on ideas about forms bouncing back into shape after pressure is applied. Humans were absent from this narrative until the 2000s – when their part, for example, in replenishing fishing stocks, began to be thought about. However, it wasn’t until the last five years, that ‘human agency systems’ thinking, identified people as key drivers of change with the ability to dream, imagine and intentionally plan for different futures in what are recognised as constantly changing and unpredictable systems.
With this understanding of ‘resilience’ ‘we can bounce forward, not just bounce back... function in midst of crisis and collaborate with others.’ This is about making the best of people and place, of hard and soft infrastructures, which is where this all connects with resilient communities.
But resilience is not value free she cautions. Who decides what is good or desirable, because ‘resilience’ is relative to the desired outcomes articulated? How do we ensure that people’s experience of living in rural communities is central to this, and drives and informs policy and practice? How do we ensure that it captures complexity and diversity, and respects different peoples’ world views? We need to listen to people’s lived experience, is the answer.

What lived experience tells us

Sarah’s research has been committed to highlighting people’s lived experience. The audience were given a flavour of three studies she has been involved in which reveal what rural communities themselves think and want.

Common challenges are highlighted across these, which are important to understand, and not ‘park’, discount or sideline as a minority report, because they are not the default urban perspective on things.

Barriers in rural settings

  • Poor broadband and mobile phone coverage
  • Poor transport, roads and infrastructure – ‘you need a car’; we’re dependent on ferries; flights ‘are a lifeline, not a luxury’ to reduce isolation, allow for business and employment opportunities and keep us on the cultural map!
  • Poor employment opportunities with little scope for progression or seasonal work
  • Youth out-migration and further decline – with underinvestment, lack of affordable housing, rural poverty, isolation and poor employment opportunities all feeding into this
  • Centralisation and reduction of services, not helped by austerity
  • Mental ill-health - a very significant issue in rural communities

In her research, people spoke about feeling ‘disabled’ by this, with all of these things combining to make life more challenging. Sarah also spoke about there being ‘a layering of personal and geographical factors’, so you might be isolated on a map, but you might be isolated as an individual, economically and socially, or as a result of your physical or mental health. People spoke about remoteness ‘happening to them… something they could do nothing about.’ 'So, I become more remote because of changes happening around me’ – such as the centralisation or reduction of services ‘so I become remote even though I’ve changed nothing!’ 
On mental health, we might be mindful of the fact that Support in Mind helps over 1,500 people a week, of which, over 80% are in rural Scotland. Sarah’s research with Support in Mind also revealed that most respondents were in employment (which took them by surprise) and that when asked if they could be open about their mental health problems, double those who said ‘yes’ said ‘no’. So, while communities can be supportive, people also spoke about nosy neighbours, of stigma, of feeling embarrassed, of parochialism and fear of being judged, of a lack of privacy and everyone knowing your business. They were very clear on what they needed – low level support, available locally and in non-clinical settings, pre-crisis and before things escalated. They wanted help to be close to hand, including mobile services and outreach (especially to the islands). They wanted mental health to be given parity with physical health, mainstreamed within the NHS, waiting times reduced, and for there also to be a focus on the needs of children and young people.

Why lived experience matters

It keeps it authentic

Currently, when we look across annual programmes and economic strategies, we see a whole language around communities that is only positive. So communities are:

  • Huge reservoirs of talent
  • Doing it for themselves
  • Leading change
  • Strong, resilient and supportive
  • Living together in peace
  • Cohesive; support social justice
  • Delivering growth
  • Enjoyable and sustainable places to live

 ‘Wow!’ says Sarah. But, if you experience community as oppressive - as we know can be the case from the lived experience data – where do you find yourself in these narratives? Also, she asks, in celebrating communities in the press who are digging their own broadband trenches, are we really expecting others to do the same? (She thinks that we shouldn’t.) 

Her point is that not all communities are the same or can take the same path. For example, not all can take advantage of community empowerment frameworks or draw down funding from the EU LEADER programme[1]. While some communities have been able to use the system to their advantage, others haven’t, because they don’t have the resources, skills or support mechanisms and networks. In addition, if ‘inclusion’ of people in locality planning is framed as guidance, rather than legislation, there is no mandate or requirement to do it!

It makes the invisible visible

At the moment, statistical data remains far more trusted than lived experience data, particularly when it comes to shaping policy. In fact, lived experience or qualitative data by some categorisations is heralded as ‘suspect data!’ (More so, explains Sarah, if it comes from people with mental ill-health).
There are also particular challenges when trying to show rural complexity. The Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation, for example, tells us that there are no deprived data zones in Orkney, Shetland or the Western Isles. However, we know there are people experiencing deprivation there (and in non-rural areas.) But ‘what do we do about that?' It isn’t good enough just to note it. The answer she offers, is as follows: 

“We have to be assertive about lived experience data… It becomes all the more important in rural settings because rural will never will on big numbers or big data. We have fewer people spread over a larger land mass. We have 18% of the population over 92%.

So, ultimately, we need to challenge the current hierarchy of evidence that policy makers use, and be vocal in championing the lived experience of people.

What is rural social work? 

“Landscapes can be deceptive. Sometimes a landscape seems to be less a setting for the life of its inhabitants than a curtain behind which their struggles, achievements and accidents take place.
For those who, with the inhabitants are behind the curtain, landmarks are no longer only geographic but also biographical and personal.” John Berger 1967 ‘A Fortunate Man: the story of a country doctor.

Colin Turbett

Colin Turbett
Colin Turbett

Colin was a frontline local authority social worker in the West of Scotland for nearly forty years, latterly as a children and family team manager. He has published writing on social work matters since 2004, including two books: Rural social work practice in Scotland (2011) and Doing radical social work (2014). In recent years he has written for Iriss on Gypsy Traveller issues, community social work and rural social work (Insight 47). He has past and recent involvement with UNISON Scotland on published guidance for social work with migrants and asylum seekers, and workload management. Last year, for SASW, he wrote a comparative guide on legislation across the four jurisdictions of the United Kingdom. He retains an interest in children and family social work through his voluntary involvement as a Panel Practice Advisor for Children’s Hearings Scotland. Email: ctur282388@aol.com

Colin's presentation slides

For his presentation, Colin chose to begin with reference to John Berger’s book about life as a country doctor, ‘because it summed up to me the essence of working in a rural area.’ It describes a holistic approach, with the doctor developing relationships with his patients and their families over a number of years, while developing his own practice wisdom. Colin fits this bill himself, having lived and worked as a social worker on Arran for 23 years, where he and his wife (also a social worker) brought up their two children. 
He makes the point, as does Berger, that ‘it’s not all about the landscapes’ – beautiful as they may be. These can clearly distract others (including professionals from the mainland) from seeing the issues and problems that those living and working in rural areas experience. ‘And, of course, (there’s the perception that) real social work ...is done (only) in the cities!’ 
Nor does rural living necessarily fit all the clichés portrayed in newspapers, film and tv, albeit these contain elements of truth. People are more likely to know each other’s business, and attitudes can be intolerant to people who are different believes Colin. But we have to be careful, he thinks, of accepting (and celebrating) notions that rural people can look after themselves – like running the public toilets on Arran for example, which locals have felt forced to do after cuts by the council. These echo the same concerns of Sarah Skerratt.
Colin is also critical of the shift to an assessment driven culture in social work that took place in the 1980s and 1990s – and which cuts across the relationship-based approach, especially critical in rural practice. He believes this was driven by attempts to match rising ‘needs’ and shrinking budgets in relation to older people’s care. In relation to children’s care, ‘the same thing happened but for different reasons ...mistakes made where children suffered or died because of a perception that social workers hadn’t done their job properly, so assessments were the answer!'
However, Colin is keen to stress the key strengths of rural social work practice, as well as some of the barriers. 'So the first thing is that we do get the opportunity to cross boundaries and practice in what I would call a generalist way – sometimes described as ecological.' But what does this look like?

“In rural areas we practice across disciplines …we tend to know our police officers and teachers and other people in health by their first names-  we network with them regularly, we meet with them regularly. And these are all things that don’t necessarily happen in cities; very rarely do. So we are not faceless to the rural community and that kind of networking leads to, I think, really good outcomes for people, because for starters it leads to more upstream practice, it leads to early identification, it leads to sharing of information – with consent-  that can be used to the benefit of people with disadvantages.”

He also believes that rural social workers tend to stay put, allowing them to develop local knowledge and practice wisdom over the years – built on positive and trusted relationships, knowing how to handle ‘dual relationships’ and confidentiality, and built on a social worker’s good name and reputation. He talks about social workers having  ‘an ear to the ground’, so for example, social workers will know that there’s increased cocaine use on the island, or that supplies are coming in via jiffy bags in the post rather than through dealers coming off the boat. ‘It’s a pity you can’t bottle it’ he says ‘because it’s so valuable in social work now’ (with the intimation that retention, turnover, and (lack of) career longevity are problems that beset the profession more generally.)
He also talks about understanding community norms and customs, providing culturally sensitive services, and appreciating that rural communities are not homogenous, and are changing/changed – more multi-cultural and increasingly populated by people who were not necessarily born and bred there. 
But there are real barriers to good rural social work practice:

  • Lack of recognition in policy 
  • Social work education that doesn’t teach people to work in generalist/ecological ways or appreciate what is distinct to rural social work practice
  • A lack of local services, and it’s fit with specialist service delivery
  • Increasing centralisation of services, driven by austerity, where local knowledge is lost 
  • Managerialism and top-down ownership and control of partnership working - rather than empowering frontline social workers and bottom-up approaches
  • Ill thought out or tokenistic solutions to partnership working, such as co-location of workers
  • Agile working and high statutory caseloads can also be a challenge for effective supervision and team support, and opportunities for learning and development 

So, what is rural social work? Colin ends by offering the audience this summation of what he thinks it is:

  • The use of particular skills and knowledge to meet the needs of rural communities 
  • A practice that builds on the assets typically found in rural communities: place, familiarity and shared knowledge; a small population; and a tradition of mutual aid 
  • A practice that addresses issues of disadvantage: remoteness, distance and transport difficulties; lack of choice over services with an absence of specialist ones; and hidden poverty – often in the midst of beauty and wealth 
  • A practice based on generalist and ecological styles of practice; this includes strong networking based on local knowledge; continuity and trust; and working with dual relationships

Jane Pye

Jane is a Senior Teaching Associate in Social Work in the Department of Sociology at Lancaster University. Prior to this role, Jane worked for 12 years in statutory social work and then spent a short period working in a children’s charity. Jane has long had an interest in rural social work and, through her work with the Cumbria-Lancaster Social Work Teaching Partnership, was able to lead a small exploratory project in 2018-19 exploring the experiences of social workers working in rural settings. This has led to further work in rurality, more recently with a focus on how to practically support social workers’ adjustment to working in rural and remote settings. Jane remains a registered social worker and continually seeks out opportunities to remain close to social work practice. Jane’s email address is j.pye4@lancaster.ac.uk.

Jane Pye
Jane Pye

You may be surprised to learn that while there exists some global literature on issues pertinent to rural social work, there has been no UK empirical research giving voice to rural social workers experiences - until now! 

While Jane is keen to stress the modest scale of her and colleague’s study – involving interviews with 12 social workers from Cumbria – she highlights the importance of getting that definite evidence base from the UK.

Interestingly, of the 12 social workers who selected to be part of the project, all had lived in Cumbria for a long time and all been social workers for a long time. [What we can’t say is how representative that is of a typical rural social worker. It also reminds us that this is an under-researched area more generally.]

Six themes emerged from the research, the first of which highlights the extensive travel involved in doing the job!  ‘It’s one of those details of social work practice that is very much overlooked’ says Jane, and ‘because it’s part of the fabric of the day to day experiences of people working in rural settings…we almost forget to acknowledge how impactful travel can be.’ It clearly eats up a huge amount of social worker’s time, and leaves them less time to be with people – what many consider ‘proper social work.’ There are also issues around personal safety – roads which become impassable or dangerous because of rain, snow or ice; or travelling to very remote settings can leave workers vulnerable, because the lack of mobile phone coverage, means they can’t call for back up if needed.Linked to that, social workers felt that they had to manage travel – related risks themselves, with personal financial implications. Some had bought four-wheel drive vehicles, which they wouldn’t otherwise have done; others paid for their own snowshoes and willies. And to be clear, travel was about driving because poor public transport necessitated a car. However, there were benefits – those who enjoyed driving, enjoyed the beauty of the natural landscape, generating a sense of wellbeing, with it also providing them time for reflection about the job.

"The second theme which came out very strongly … was an absolute lack of services to support the work that the social workers were doing. And this created a sense of real frustration for social workers, a sense of not being able to complete their role to any kind of satisfactory level. They kind of felt disappointed in what they were able to offer to the people they felt they were there to serve."

Consequently, social workers were often reliant on non-traditional support mechanisms or non-traditional carers, creating problems around reliability and suitability in some cases. However, the lack of service provision meant workers could feel that they had permission to be more creative, and find solutions based on what already existed in rural and remote communities. This provided a sense of satisfaction and personal effectiveness. 
A theme around the complexity of working in local and small communities also came out strongly. This includes the issue of ‘dual relationships, and how we protect privacy and confidentiality for both social workers and service users. There was also a strong sense that working in small communities meant that relationships were often very strong and cemented, explained Jane. And social workers could themselves find a way to become part of that local place based identity –with communities regarding some social workers as real allies (even if they didn’t live in the communities they served.)

Working across a large geographical area in dispersed teams was another theme. Agile working created opportunities for autonomy and being able to work in a flexible way, and ‘escape the office politics!’ ‘So, If I’m out and about working agilely all the time, I can enjoy myself and get on with my role and be effective in how I use my time and travelling time.'

But there were some significant challenges around working in dispersed teams, particularly around lack of support if social workers were working individually or independently. How do you check your thinking with colleagues? And this was felt more strongly by newly-qualified social workers or social workers with lots of experience, but who had come to work in a rural setting for the first time. 

The final two themes were very positive about the benefits of being a rural social worker. For those contributing to the study, living in Cumbria was an extremely important aspect of their personal and professional identity. They talked about how much they appreciated living in a beautiful and wonderful place and the lifestyle it afforded them, with this mitigating against some of the challenges. ‘The importance of place shouldn’t be underestimated.’

And the sixth theme was even more positive. Jane talked about being moved by the passion of the social workers she spoke with in the study.

"They used the word ‘love ‘a lot when they talked about their role, so social work had continued to be intrinsically rewarding for this group of social workers, working in a rural setting. And they particularly talked about how fabulous it was to be able to hear about success stories and people’s positive life events as things moved forward for all the people that they have worked with. And how that enabled them to feel kind of satisfied with their role, and continue their journey of professional and personal development."

Ultimately, this was a reminder that rural social work can be a force for positive change in very rural and remote communities, and a very rewarding job. 

The full research report has been published.

The Welsh experience

Alison Hulmes

Alison Hulmes – Cultural, socio-economic, legal and policy framework

Alison has been National Director for BASW Wales since March 2019. She has worked for BASW since 2016 as a professional officer and acting director. Allison has a 20-year social work career spent, for the most part, in adult safeguarding and deprivation of liberties, leading complex cases and developing policy, guidance and training. Her last direct social work post before joining BASW, was as a consultant social worker. This was a new role created in 2010 to keep social work expertise in practice. 50% of the role involved direct therapeutic work with children and families and 50% involved supporting the workforce through delivery of reflective consultation, training, mentoring /coaching and strategic influence. Alison continues to guest lecture on social work programmes in Wales mostly on social work law, strengths-based practice and the history of social work activism.

Alison's presentation slides.

Life in Wales

Did you know that out of a total population of 3.1. million, Wales has a significant rural population - as high as 1 in 3, depending on the classifications used? Of the 22 local authorities, half are rural.
Alison stresses that Wales is a great place to live, but it has the highest proportion of people with lower financial means than the other nations of the UK. It also has high levels of poverty (710,00 people are affected). And there are 200,000 children (one in three) living in poverty, with a further 90,000 in severe poverty. It is the only country in the UK to see a rise in child poverty in the last year (pre-COVID-19). Furthermore, the poverty rate for disabled people in Wales, at 39%, is also the highest in the UK.

This has contributed to a 38% increase over the last 10 tears in the number of looked after children, and highlights the scale of the challenge. The last five years has also seen a 43% increase in food bank usage, directly linked to the UK government’s welfare reform programme. 

Wales, like Scotland, also has devolved powers. Through the 1998 Government of Wales Act, Social Services, Health and Hosing are devolved to Wales, while benefits and criminal justice are not. And unlike the other nations of the UK, Wales has two official and equal languages. In Wales, services must be offered in people’s language of choice – and over 30% of the population are Welsh speakers, and growing.

The rural challenge

So, how does this all intersect with rural life and social work practice? There are clearly significant challenges in accessing and providing health and social care in rural areas:

  • Rural areas have lower levels of social housing, lower levels of residential care and day care.
  • Those needing care and support living in rural communities often face longer travelling times to access the services they need.
  • Many people may not have access to their own vehicle, this creates even greater problems, and additional pressure on carers/families.
  • Public transport services also face challenging workforce and financial pressures. In addition to poor public transport, there can be poor broadband connectivity.
  • Social service provision and delivery challenges are accentuated in rural areas due to increased social isolation and population dispersal.
  • There are increased costs in providing services for a large, sparsely-populated area as it is more difficult to achieve economies of scale.
  • Some social care services in rural areas need to be provided across several different sites to reduce lengthy travel times, whereas in more populated areas, the service can be provided in one location. So, you need more staff!
  • Remote locations make it more difficult to recruit and retain the workforce required to provide and deliver services.
  • Rural areas have a higher proportion of first language Welsh speakers, particularly in the north and west. There is a high demand for services in the Welsh language, with pressure on local authorities to recruit and train Welsh speaking staff.

Recruitment and retention

And what about recruitment and retention of staff, which Alison describes as in ‘a bit of a crisis’? She highlights that there are currently around 6,000 social workers in Wales, over 5,000 of whom are women, with an average age of 46. The profession needs to attract new blood as well as ensure the wellbeing of its existing workforce, which might be described as part of the ‘the sandwich generation’ – with caring responsibilities for elderly parents, children in school, or older kids returning from college or university and finding it hard to get a job or set up their own homes. 
Also, if you need more staff to deliver in rural areas across wide areas, how do you square that circle? Wales has a major recruitment campaign right now, called ‘WeCare'. One of the things it promotes are the positive benefits of living and working in a beautiful location and outdoor life – a key benefit identified in Jane’s research.

Future directions

Alison also talks about some of the legislative and policy drivers that can be harnessed to drive positive culture change. ‘In 2014 we passed our first primary health and social care legislation in Wales’ – she says - representing a shift away from the dominant position established in the 1990s, with social workers regarded as resource allocators, operating in managerialist cultures. The new legislation focuses on people’s choice and control, genuine co-production, and on partnership and prevention. However, it still needs to be fully implemented, and changes in perspective realised. ‘We have just had our first social work cohort trained under the new legislation’ she says, but they have gone out into practice where the dominant model is still about managerialism and resource allocation. The continuation of austerity policies, will only add to this challenge.

Andrew Pennington – a day in the life of a social worker in Powys! (Or 'More sheep than people')

Andrew has 25 years’ experience working in both adult care and children’s service. He worked as a support worker, progressing to senior care officer for a residential home, supporting adults with mental health and learning disabilities before transferring to the local authority — firstly as a Senior Care Office (Children’s) managing a small team of support workers, supporting children with a diagnosis of Autism/ADHD before moving back into adult social care as a care manager for the Learning Disability Team. Andrew qualified as a Social Work eight years ago and is currently a Senior Practitioner for the Adult Disabilities Team. Andrew is a Wales Cymru Committee member and actively promotes BASW within Powys. 

Andrew is a Senior Social work Practitioner in Powys, managing a social work team of six social workers and two reviewing officers. The issues and challenges in Wales, he thinks, are very similar to those in Scotland. He jokes that, only having lived in Powys for 35 years, he is an incomer, so not totally accepted.

Andrew's presentation slides.

But what is life in Powys like?

'Did you know, it has more sheep than people, an estimated 20 sheep for every man, woman and child?'  

It's approximately a third of the landmass of Wales, covering an area of around 2,000 square miles as the largest authority in Wales. It also includes three historic counties, and has boundaries and borders with Welsh authorities to the north, west and south, and the English counties of Shropshire and Herefordshire to the east. This creates unique issues and experiences.

‘So, within Wales we have no District General Hospital, and no plans to build one’ says Andrew. That means most of the hospitals in Wales cover minor injuries only. If you have major injuries, you will have an hour or hour and a half travel to an A&E department.’  Andrew also explains that they are reliant on air ambulance and first responders, mostly run by St John’s Ambulance or the local fire brigade. In Newtown alone, Powy’s largest town with a population of 11,000, they have two full-time ambulances on call 24 hours a day.

In Powys, they also have thousands of miles of ‘squiggly roads’ – some owned by farmers - but only around 10 miles of dual carriage way, and no motorway. It takes just under three hours to drive from the north of Powys to the south of Powys Andrew explains. This can mean a day can be filled attending one multi-disciplinary team meeting (MDT) in the north in the morning, and another in the south in the afternoon– with time for a snatched lunch in between.

Powys also has a total population of around 132,000 people, a quarter that of Wales. Of those, approximately 35,000 are over the age of 65 (and increasing,) and 32,000 are under 25 (and decreasing). ‘We are losing a younger population who are not staying’ he explains, which cause us issues with recruitment and retention of social workers, but also community practice social work and care support workers.

Lack of service provision and capacity

'In Powys we employ 7,000 staff in social services, that's adults, children's services, occupational therapy, speech and language'

says Andrew. His team deals with learning and physical disabilities. 

'But we don’t have a drug and alcohol intervention team in Powys, we have a drug and alcohol service that we link in with', he explains. It’s very under-funded and under-resourced and is causing major issues. And, what goes hand in hand with drug and alcohol issues are mental health problems. ‘We deal very closely with our mental health team’ says Andrew ‘for me, that’s something we deal with on a daily basis.’

As for domiciliary care, they don’t have enough of that either! In 2018-19, around 11,000 hours of domiciliary care were delivered per week in Powys alone. However, due to financial pressures ‘providers have had to hand hours back, because basically they have gone out of business’ As a social worker, that is clearly problematic: ‘It’s very difficult for me as a practitioner to develop a service for somebody when I know that service is not available’ says Andrew. ‘And while there’s been an announcement that health boards are set to receive a financial increase to support continuing care – and I think that’s wonderful – if we don’t get the same increase to care providers, this won’t make a real difference. …If you don’t have the provision, you can’t put in place packages of care for people leaving hospital.’ 

As for the average caseload of social workers in Powys, across adults and children's services, official figures are 28. However, Andrew thinks that’s an understatement. ‘ I think you can put another 10 on top of that. It's not unheard of social workers in Powys to have 50 plus cases, sadly. ‘That’s what we have to do. But as a line manager and a practitioner, I’m very aware we can’t keep doing this, loading more and more cases onto people.‘
Also, the local buses don’t run anymore, with huge difficulties in getting people to appointments, or them accessing services. 

"What that is doing, when we come back to the topic of capacity, is putting the onus on social workers. So we are finding now that we are (personally) supporting people more and more to go to appointments because they physically can’t get there. So when we are looking at providing a service, that’s us, that’s what we come into. That’s what we are doing on a daily basis!”

Remote video URL

Going forward

So, what are we doing in Poyws going forward? Andrew is keen to stress that what is happening ‘is not rocket science’ and ‘nothing new.’ ‘We are going back 15-20 years ago, when I first started in social care. We are looking at strength-based working – so within children’s services they are looking at Signs of Safety. The Social Services and Wellbeing (Wales) Act 2014 has been major legislation and a real boost! What we are looking at is having ‘what matters’ conversations with individuals and actually getting out the office more.’ 
Andrew also refers to the survey BASW did around wellbeing. One of the key things it revealed was a 20/80 split, with social workers only spending 20% of their time visiting individuals and 80% on administrative and process driven activities. BASW are running their 80-20 campaignto reverse this, and uphold relationship-based practice. And in Powys, says Andrew ‘We are bucking that trend. We are getting rid of that. We are getting out of the office. We are seeing more individuals. We are asking what matters? We are looking at what’s important to people? What outcomes they’ve got? How can we do that? How can they do it?’ Ultimately this is about conversations and relationship-based work. But Andrew concedes, that while It’s working in some areas, it’s not working in others because of a focus on assessments and on limited or no resources. ‘It’s a vicious circle.’

The other thing that they are doing is embracing assisted technology. Andrew illustrates this with a little video they made based on a true story.

Remote video URL

It tells how they worked with a lady with dementia and her son and daughter, who emigrated to live in Australia. ‘(The technology) means they can monitor mum on the other side of the world, and have people they can ring 24 hours a day, who can go and check on mum.’ This also reduces her reliance on other services, and enables her to stay at home.

But it’s not all plain sailing. As we know there are internet black spots, and the reality of this is beautifully illustrated by Andrew. In one area, there are 15 farms he explains, and none of those farms are on mains electricity, but are reliant on generators and use satellite technologies. They do not get a mobile signal. They have no internet. And this isn’t unique, he explains. There are still houses in Powys with no electricity, and the big mobile phone companies are less inclined to build mobile phone masts in rural areas, because they don’t get the high level of usage or profit they would in non-urban areas. As for Andrew himself, he doesn’t get a mobile phone signal where he lives, and ‘the internet is a bit hit or miss. It depends if the local water treatment plant turns their internet off, which cuts my internet off!’  Diolch Yn Fawr/Thank you!

A walk down the high street – what rural social work needs to flourish

Rural high street illustration
Rural high street mockup, illustrations by Josie Vallely, Iriss

The aim of the final session was to hear from social workers about how they felt about rural social work, and what they hoped for its future? The ambition was to try and capture what would help it flourish!
To support this, we created a mockup rural high street with eight stops to visit: post office, bank, grocers, library, doctor's surgery, pub, community council, sweet shop and beauty salon. Each stop has an activity to complete. For example, at the post office we asked them to write a postcard from the future of social work. Imagine you are 20 years in the future – what does rural social work look like? 

The Post Office – Wish you were here: What the future of rural social work (should) look like?

Rural Social Work (RSW) has its own recognised practice

RSW is recognised and spoken about, meaning we work on developing our responses to better support rural communities

A vision for what RSW looks like:

  • We use a community-based model of practice rather than a case management one.
  • We are connected to the community and allowed time to explore their issues so initiatives are relevant; empowered communities work together with social work to improve and sustain improvements.
  • The management hierarchy has been replaced by teams of professional social workers across the region, known to their communities, and who lead and provide relationship-based services.
  • Services are decentralised- we have community teams in small patches. Professionals are multi-skilled.
  • The future is bright. We have gone back to basics. Relationships and networks are key. Social work is funded and valued.
  • We are connected to others and supported to maintain our identity.

We have good transport links, are connected, resourced and use our time well

  • We work from home with excellent public transport links, good broadband, creative, person-centred practice and regular team lunches.
  • The buses are running again! J
  • Technology has finally caught up with the rest of the UK and we can now keep in touch with the services we require.
  • We have motorways/better roads. Extra funding. Time to travel. More staff – making things easier!
  • There’s been an increase in care providers who cover rural areas, and good use of assistive technology.
  • We have support, manageable caseloads, agile working, services, transport, wifi, and doctors.
  • We have smaller caseloads! More time with vulnerable service users. Less paperwork (shorter assessments).

And maybe...

  • Thanks to super vehicles, we can be there in seconds or link via teleport!

We enjoy our work and are valued

  • We are having a great time linking with people in the community and having equal support from services.
  • We adopt the adage of ‘it takes a village to raise a child.’ We support each other rather than bring each other down.
  • We are valued, and have a strong sense of professional identity. We have permission to use our professional judgement. We are part of our community and not compromised by this.
  • Social work has achieved equal parity with health and we are working effectively to support people.
  • Our local authority is the best place to work for. We have strong leadership and receive good supervision. We have time for reflective practice. We have good resources and most important, enough time to build relationships with our clients. Things have moved on!!
  • Communities are thriving with people who are receiving personalised services and the most vulnerable are protected.

We continue the good fight and do what we do well

Dear future, keep fighting austerity and making a difference. People need our support more than ever. All the best. Xx

Group of practitioners at the 'Post Office' activity

The celebration sweet shop – what makes rural social work sweet? 

Social workers identified a number of common things that made rural social work sweet, from enjoying the beauty of the landscape and rural living, to getting to know people and connect with communities, growing relationships and uncovering history- individual and the communal. It was also about being part of the community, positive multi-agency working, and being able to see the differences and positive changes they contributed to in people’s lives. This kept the job interesting, creative, purposeful and satisfying. Others spoke about the travelling involved providing them time to think, and opportunities for self-care and reflection.

The Drs Surgery – what hurts and helps? (Prescriptions for rural social work)

What hurts? What would help?
The lack of understanding and acknowledgement of the reality of rural practice

An acknowledgement.

Educate and inform people.

A lack of education/training in rural-specific social work issues

Create elective modules in university courses so students can learn about issues relevant to rural practice.
Not enough relationship-based practice

More quality time with people, less cases, more staff.

Less bureaucracy.

Difficulty accessing services

Clearer signposting to available services and how to access them.

Better transport links to enable access to services.

Lack of/insufficient services and resources; austerity

People left with needs unmet 

"There comes a point where we can't keep being creative in the face of cuts."

Greater funding and investment in physical and human infrastructure, for example:

  • new/investment in public services
  • affordable housing
  • transport links/infrastructure
  • higher wages & opportunities for careers development/promotion


  • investment in evidence base- to require more resources (to be allocated) founded on knowledge of what it is communities want and need; recognition of unmet need.

Carers capacity


Lack of capacity in care agencies to support people in their own homes.

We need more care workers to meet demand

Care jobs need to offer better working conditions and pay to attract and keep people in the sector.

Social workers and care-co-ordinators need to be better able to support unpaid carers; we need more respite opportunities and creative ways to help service users and carers.

Isolation and social exclusion
  • Better internet access
  • Ipads/technology training by volunteers to help isolated people get in touch with relatives (albeit internet dependent)
  • Better rural network/s
  • Befriending projects
  • Integrated community groups.
Lack of variety of resources

Shared best thinking amongst workforce to enable creativity and utilise individual knowledge and experience regardless of roller position.

Working with health professionals and NHS-led partnerships

Other professions being 'able to withdraw'

Better joint working with access to each others' systems

Health colleagues to understand social work better and recognise their professional status and skills (different to a medical model)

Practices that bring health and others professions to the table with social work.

Stress and fatigue, caseload pressure and lack of adequate support

Feeling unsure about who it is 'safe' to ask for help

Not being involved when things change

  • More staff and effective recruitment of them
  • Strong management and leadership
  • Ensure people are taken along on any journey of change
  • Feeling able to speak out with cultures where open communication is encouraged and valued
  • Better understanding from managers of why social workers are asking for funding to support service users and trust in our assessment and recommendations
  • Good supervision
  • Self-care and healthy coping strategies...avoiding unhealthy ones, such as too much alcohol. 

The community council – what type of leadership is needed?

When asked what kind of leadership rural social work needs, most identified recognisable leadership skills and attributes, few that we might regard as specific or unique to working in a rural setting. A good leader was described as someone who is:

  • Approachable and willing to give time to people
  • Interested in and values bottom up expertise from the front line/ and knowledgeable of lived experience- they listen/hear/respond to this
  • Visible and accountable
  • Sets out a clear vision
  • Supportive, encouraging, and invest in staff
  • Empowering of staff, encouraging of leadership in others
  • Compassionate, kind, inclusive and fair, empathetic and who challenges inequality & injustice
  • A good role model who leads by example & acts with integrity and honesty
  • Well-networked, knowledgeable & resourceful
  • Open minded and responsive to new ideas, and supportive of creative and forward thinking in a safe environment

A few specified that they also wanted a leader with ‘knowledge and experience of what actually works in a rural setting’ or someone with a ‘good sense of community and is involved in their community ie lives there, understands culture need; knows the people and how to support (them).’ They should also be ‘good at involving community and workers in decision making.’ Another identified them as ‘a pillar of the community’- so someone who is prominent and is known to their community.

The bank – what needs greater investment?

We need to invest in people – jobs, education, training and professional development to deliver the services communities need and want.


  • Early years
  • Intensive family support services
  • Mental health services and support- including for children and young people
  • Home care services and social care staff
  • Care – in community and residential resources for under 65
  • Community groups and 3rd sector – with secure funding
  • Health Care
  • Local infrastructure
  • Travel and transport to make communities accessible and connected
  • New affordable housing stock
  • Community facilities – library/bank and local cash points/shops/youth centres etc.
  • Education, professional development and support

Formal education

  • Professional development and training – with some mentioning accredited training
  • Support practitioners and share positive practice – and develop new initiatives to encourage connectivity
  • Research infrastructure, to be inclusive of rural issues
  • Own personal time/care and supportive environments for staff
  • Things to support social workers do their job – technology, pool/hire cars, physical spaces to work, recognition and review of workload

Methods and approaches

  • Community social work – group activities and approaches
  • Invest in new structures to work closely with families and communities to identify their needs, and use community-assets and strengths based approaches to co-design and deliver services
  • Public services – bringing some of our services back in-house
  • Investment in early intervention- eg. ‘upstream’ to support vulnerable families before they reach ‘downstream’
  • Joined up working to bring about positive outcomes and solutions to the most vulnerable in our communities
  • Partnership working figuring out who is the right person to do the right work at the right time.

Increased recognition and value

  • Professional recognition by the Scottish Government
  • Investment in the social work profession
  • Recruiting social workers to rural areas- making job and place to live and work attractive

The grocers or general store – what are your essential ‘5 a day’?

These can be condensed and summarised as follows:

  • Recognition and respect: having your knowledge and expertise recognised and listened to; having mangers who listen and who share and communicate; being included and involved in any change.
  • Taking care of body and mind: good work-life balance with manageable workload; sleep and self-care; time to reflect; time to connect and receive support from others- through regular quality supervision; peer and team support; safe and nurturing environment.
  • Opportunities to develop and grow as a professional – through education, training or via networks and colleagues.
  • Being true to core values and purpose

The pub – how to stay networked/connected?

Team and/or peer support

  • Formal and informal meetings- with access to sufficient office space and desks sometimes a problem!
  • In-house staff developmental opportunities/days

Forums, networks and events

  • Meetings with other social workers in other localities
  • Developing small networks to share research, audit and practice experience reflections
  • Online forums, WhatsApp groups, virtual events/conferences to overcome geographical barriers and make new connections (recognising that the travel, time and expense involved in attending physical events can be a barrier).
  • Join in local community activities to support one another
  • Join membership organisations - eg Association of Child Protection Professionals or SASW
  • Cultivate and maintain professional relationships

The library – your wish list?

We also asked people to name the books they wish had been written for them as rural social workers. We’ve selected 12 of these, to provide a sense of the type of books they are looking for!

  1. Rural Social Work for Dummies – a comprehensive ‘how to’ guide
  2. Understanding challenges faced by rural social workers!
  3. Working effectively in social work whilst travelling long distances
  4. How to do case notes on a Cal Mac ferry
  5. 'No Wi-Fi’ - how to do rural social work
  6. How to be a rural social worker when there’s a lack of resources
  7. How to do social work with people you know
  8. The dedicated social worker: how to make time for yourself
  9. A guide to working collaboratively- from the individual to the whole town
  10. How to change the practice model to community based social work
  11. Connect the disconnect: H&SC Partnership
  12. Local links and caring connections, by JR Harley!

Feedback, response and next steps

Over 100 people attended the event on 11 March 2020 in Dumfries, with the event selling out fast. We had very positive reactions to the day: 94% rated it 'excellent or good' overall.

Great to see so many attendees at Dumfries celebration of rural social work! From Orkney to France to us here in the locality #ruralsocialwork. At the Celebrating Rural Social Work Conference in Dumfries.

Great to see so many rural local authorities staff attending to celebrate the work we do day in and day out #ruralsocialwork.

Yesterday's #ruralsocialwork conference in Dumfries was amazing- brought together over 100 mostly front line workers who don't get to do such things. We shared experiences and good social work practice- hidden but always there. Well done @irissorg @ScotsSW and others.

Discussions and plans are afoot to maintain and develop these networks, contingent on future funding and the opportunities and challenges around coming together face to face or through technology in 'normal' times and during COVID-19. Read John Sturgeon's (UWS) reflections on this.

In the meantime, we have got a new blog site up and running: Exploring rural social work: notes from the field which shares rural social work practitioner's experiences and responses to the pandemic as it unfolds. 

Further resources and links

Acknowledgements and thanks

The event was planned and supported by a range of partners who made the day such a success: Dumfries and Galloway Council, Iriss, Scottish Association of Social Work, Social Work Scotland, University of the West of Scotland and Lancaster University, UNISON. The event was sponsored by Iriss, University of Lancaster and UWS, with funding able to help support the travel expenses and costs of key contributors from remote and diverse rural communities. 

A heartfelt thanks to partners and to all the contributors on the day: keynote speakers, workshop leads, and every participant who came ready and willing to share their thoughts, ideas, and practice wisdom. 

Thanks also to University of Scotland for supporting the 'online version' of the conference, and to Dumfries Baptist Church for hosting us on the day.