Any qualified social worker who is registered with Social Work England can become an Independent Social Worker (ISW), sometimes known as an expert social worker. However, as the name suggests, ISWs are often called upon as ‘experts’ and so it is more appropriate for social workers with extensive skills and experience to make the move to become an ISW. Certainly, at WillisPalmer, we would look for a social worker with significant experience, training and expertise to enable us to deliver the high-quality services that we promise. The majority of our professionals have more than 10 years’ experience in child protection or children’s services before becoming an independent social worker. As an ISW, you will be asked to provide specialist assessments and expert reports as well as give expert opinion to the courts. Therefore this role is better suited to social workers with more experience and knowledge that they can draw upon.
Independent Social Workers are self-employed and either take on cases or instructions directly from local authorities or they work with an organisation such as WillisPalmer which matches cases to ISWs on our books who have the correct knowledge and expertise for that particular case.
ISWs are not to be confused with locum social workers or agency workers. Although locum/agency social workers also tend to be self-employed, they usually sign up with a recruitment agency and take on short-term contracts through the agency for a local authority or organisation which has a backlog of cases which need working on, several staff vacancies due to staff members being on sick leave or maternity leave or for authorities who find it difficult to recruit and retain staff.
Frontline social worker, usually employed directly by a local authority, voluntary sector or private sector organisation and work with children in care, children at risk of going into care, families where there are child protection concerns and cases where children are experiencing neglect or abuse. The children’s social worker may be newly qualified (NQSW) or have several years’ experience. Often social workers like to work in frontline children’s services for a period during their early career to gain essential skills while having the backing of the organisation.
Locum social workers sign up to a recruitment agency where a recruitment consultant will interview them to ascertain their knowledge and experience as well as areas where they would like to gain knowledge and their ambitions for the future. The recruitment consultant then matches the locum worker to vacancies on their books which tend to be short to medium term contracts – although these can be extended - to cover a backlog in cases, cover staff vacancies or work on projects. Some NQSWs go straight into locum work however, many like to gain experience beforehand.
Typically self-employed, an Independent Social Worker takes on cases from local authorities or the children’s courts, carrying out specialist assessments or providing an expert opinion where one is required. ISWs generally have significant experience and knowledge. Some ISWs will work with an organisation like WillisPalmer where their skillset will be matched to cases coming in.
It is important to note that it is possible for a social worker to straddle two roles. For example, a children’s social worker may be employed by a local authority for two days per week and then spend the other three days of the week working as a locum social worker or an ISW. This is more common for children’s social workers who are tempted to become independent full-time but would like to ‘dip their toe in the water beforehand’ without leaving the authority completely. It also works for social workers who want the guaranteed income of working for a local authority but want to try new areas of social work as a locum worker without giving up their role completely. Other social workers like the variety that locum work or Independent Work offer and so split their time doing so many days per week at an authority and the rest of the other week on locum projects or independent social work.
Many of the Independent Social Workers who work with WillisPalmer are experts in a specific area whether that is in attachment, forensic risk, child abuse litigation, international assessments or PAMS assessments.
ISW Kelly Berkeley says that independent work enables her to work flexibly, taking on more cases when she can, while taking a break when she needs to and creating a much better work/life balance than working exclusively for a local authority.
“There is a high turnover of staff in frontline practice, it’s full of post-graduates getting their three years of frontline practice and then they move on. There are experienced social workers in frontline child protection jobs, but not enough. It’s not workable for social workers with families of their own. But being independent enables you to work around that.”
“For me, I love the flexibility and being able to decide which days I work, what hours I work in order to fit around family life. It keeps me on top of my game, provides me with a variety of cases so no two days are the same. I’m constantly engaging with children and access feedback from the quality assurance team at WillisPalmer which enables me to continually hone my skills,” said Kelly.
ISW Kelly added: “Working independently, no two days are the same, but being employed, you are on a treadmill of processes and procedures and every day is the same. I think many local authorities miss out on experienced workers because when you have a family yourself, you can’t be doing visits after school at 4pm and potentially not getting back until 10pm.
Many experienced social workers turn to independent work to have more control over their work/life balance and to become their own boss. Many ISWs have significant experience and may be frustrated with taking orders from someone less experienced than them. Having more control is a definite pull towards independent work and, as Kelly said, you can work the days/hours that suit you.
Furthermore, let’s face it there are always areas of our work that we enjoy more than others but working for an organisation you have to take the rough with the smooth. However as an ISW – you are your own boss and do not have to take on cases that you don’t enjoy as much as others and concentrate on the areas of work that you do enjoy. If you work for an organisation like WillisPalmer, we would ask you about your areas of strength and weakness and areas of work which you enjoy and would actively seek.
Often ISWs tell us that they are frustrated doing the same thing day in, day out in their permanent role and therefore turn to independent work for variety. ISWs can choose the work they want to take on and many report that while one day they will be travelling to interview someone for an assessment, the next they are giving evidence in court whereas the next week they may be writing an expert report at home.
You can also match the work you take on to your availability and circumstances. If you want to take a month off, you can factor that into your work schedule which would be more difficult while working full-time for an organisation.
ISW Sylvia McKenzie was carrying out independent work for WillisPalmer, but as she was awaiting an operation on her knee, she found lengthy driving difficult. Sylvia spoke to the head of our Child Abuse Litigation Service and explained her predicament. As a result, it was recommended that Sylvia take on more cases for our CALS work which is largely based at home, sorting case files, organising chronologies in cases of non-recent abuse cases, writing preliminary or full expert reports which took the pressure away from her having to drive for her work.
Many of us shy away from talking about money and this is often the case with social workers as it is not a key driver in their choice of work. Most social workers would say they went into the job to help people or they had themselves or a friend or family member who had experienced the care system and they want to make a difference. But people who go into independent work are typically highly skilled social workers with a wealth of experience and you will get paid more/earn more as an ISW than working for a local authority. Naturally, as with anyone self-employed, you do not have a guaranteed income but, the potential is there, depending on how many cases you want to take on. For example, some people use independent social work once they retire to top up their pension so would take on less work. But working in a full- time capacity, the earning potential is there given your position as an expert in the social work field.
To become an Independent Social Worker, you are, in effect, running your own business and therefore you need to register as self-employed with HMRC. You then need to decide whether you want to contact organisations directly or be matched with cases through an organisation such as WillisPalmer. Either way, you should update your CV, outlining your strengths, experience, training, career history and areas of expertise.
The more experience you have, the more desirable you become as an Independent Social Worker. Those commissioning you will look for a good grounding in frontline child protection or children’s services and significant experience after that. For example, at WillisPalmer, we provide a wide range of assessments including parenting, PAMS, SGO, adoption, Connected Person’s, international and forensic risk assessments. The more experience you have in these areas, the more work you can be offered than if you have expertise in one area of assessment. If you worked directly with local authorities or the courts, you would stand out more if you can offer a range of skills.
An area of expertise for example attachment, assessments, forensic risk, child abuse litigation can help you stand out and fill knowledge gaps in organisations. Lyndon Herring is a forensic risk assessor and his very specialist knowledge makes him stand out from other social workers.
ISWs are considered experts in the field and, as such, you will be required to have an understanding of relevant legislation such as The Mental Health Act 1983 and The Children Act 1989 as well as key government guidance such as ‘Working Together to Safeguard Children’. Legislation and guidance will need to be referenced in your expert reports appropriately to ensure that they are evidence-based.
Up to date training in relevant children’s services issues such as Child Sexual Exploitation, county lines, modern slavery, Female Genital Mutilation demonstrates that you are on top of your game and striving to achieve knowledge in the latest children’s social work issues and that you are committed to improving your social work skills.
Strong references from relevant previous employers will reiterate what your CV states from an employer’s perspective and reiterate your skills and experience.
As an independent social worker, you will be required to work autonomously. You will be self-employed and be able to manage your own time effectively and meet deadlines. If you are working directly for organisations such as local authorities or the courts, autonomous working is paramount. At WillisPalmer our CSW Lucy is on hand to provide peer supervision if needed, discuss difficult and complex cases and act as a coach and mentor. You also have our robust Quality Assurance System behind you which ensures that all expert reports are subjected to scrutiny from incredibly experienced professionals which ensues that your reports meet the requirements outlined in the instructions and are written to meet our high standards.
Working autonomously as an expert, you need to have complete faith in your abilities, your strengths and knowledge. Here at WillisPalmer, we provide you with access to support, but you still need to be confident in your role as an expert.
Working on your own means you need to be adept at motivating yourself, managing your time, meeting deadlines and thinking outside the box. For example, recently, with the COVID-19 pandemic, our ISWs have thought creatively and carried out assessments remotely where possible. As a result of this, we have since launched our Remote Assessment Service in line with our public health responsibilities.
As an independent social worker, excellent written skills and grammar are imperative and if you are working directly for a local authority or the courts, strong report writing skills will still be essential.
As an Independent Social Worker, you are, in effect, running your own business and therefore you’ll need to go out and find your own cases to work. You may wish to proactively reach out to organisations such as local authorities and the courts yourself to offer your services, or advertise what you do and wait for people to contact you. Alternatively, you can apply to work with an organisation such as WillisPalmer, which will match your skillset to cases they have coming in without having to proactively reach out to organisations.
Experienced and knowledgeable social workers often want or need a challenge, but some do not want to go into management which would take them away from frontline practice. While they want a challenge, we are frequently told that they loathe to take a step away from “the bosom of the local authority” where they work. This is for a number of reasons.
Working for children’s services, a social worker will have a team manager/line manager/head of services who they can refer to on difficult and complex cases. They should have regular supervision with their line manager where they can discuss cases/caseloads and typically have peer supervision with colleagues. Working for a local authority, you have a large organisation behind you, backing you and there is a structure to your work. Many social workers fear that by going independent, they will miss out on a lot of these benefits, including a supportive team, and fear they will be lonely working independently.
ISW Kelly added: “To anyone thinking about going independent, I would say think about the logistics. Can you work from home, can you write a 40-page document in six weeks, have you got childcare cover for when you need to carry out visits? You need to have boundaries and be self-motivated. If you can work the logistics you can have a great work/life balance,” Kelly concluded.
Social workers often report fear as a reason for not going independent. They do not wish to leave the ‘safety net’ of a local authority.
Other social workers are concerned that they will not have enough work and this is a fear for most professionals becoming self-employed. While no one can be guaranteed any work, the more skills, training and expertise that you can bring to the role enhances your opportunities of more work.
Many self-employed people fear going independent because of the business administration that comes with it. Nervous? You can employ an accountant for a reasonable fee to carry out your tax returns for you to the HMRC. All you need to do is keep a record of work carried out, invoices and expenses and they do the rest.
The lack of a regular specified amount of wages each month can be off-putting for most, especially with mortgages and bills to pay. While we cannot guarantee what other organisations offer, WillisPalmer guarantees payment within 42 days from receipt of invoice and you won’t ever have to chase us.
At WillisPalmer we feel there is a wealth of expert, talented and highly-skilled social workers who are tempted to go independent but who are just nervous about taking that first step, understandably so, in a climate where we all have bills and mortgages to pay.
It is one of the reasons that we have employed two new Consultant Social Workers, one of whom, Lucy Hopkins, is tasked with recruiting new professionals to join our national network of Independent Social Workers and psychologists. A large part of Lucy’s role will be coaching and mentoring new ISWs to ensure that new independents still feel supported in their employment. New ISWs can talk through complex cases with Lucy or she can also offer support to enable new social workers in the independent field and reassure them that they are not working alone in a silo. In addition, we have 300 plus professionals across our national network which new ISWs can access. If you are taken on as a WillisPalmer Independent Social Worker, we will identify your strengths and match cases that we take on with your expertise.
Multi-disciplinary work underpins our ethos, and we provide a vast range of services to children in families. We also offer a range of multi-disciplinary services such as our innovative Multi-Disciplinary Family Assessment Service (MFA) which provides a number of expert professionals, led by an ISW, to work with families, improve parenting capacity and provide support in a bid to keep families together, safely.
Our expert services delivered by Independent Social Workers include assessments such as parenting assessments, Special Guardianship Assessments, International Assessments, adoption assessments or forensic risk assessments and given our public health responsibilities under COVID-19, we have introduced a remote assessment services to minimise face-to-face contact thus protecting children, families and social workers. WillisPalmer also provides a Child Abuse Litigation Service for people who have experienced non-recent child abuse or where children have been involved in recent care proceedings.
The Quality Assurance Team is another attribute of working for WillisPalmer. When we take on a case, it is assigned an ISW, a case manager – a member of the team at WillisPalmer – and Quality Assurance Consultant Social Worker. We have a team of highly experienced Consultant Social Workers (CSWs) who robustly quality assure each expert report that we submit to ensure that all instructions are answered in full and that each report adheres to the very high standards that we set. So all ISWs have the reassurance that their report will be subject to this process prior to its submission – and feedback from the CSWs will be provided to assist with your learning.
As a WillisPalmer contractor, you will receive discounted places on our training courses, allowing you to constantly refresh and hone your skillset. We currently offer training in Special Guardianship and Connected Persons Assessments, Fostering Form F Training and Attachment in Theory and Practice training.
In conclusion, becoming an independent social worker is a personal choice, affected by your amount of experience and knowledge as well as your personal circumstances and confidence. You need to weigh up the pros and cons of independent work such as being your own boss against less support behind you. But if you have a wealth of expertise in social work but are loathe to enter the social work management world, independent work could offer you a financially beneficial package with more autonomy and the flexibility to work around your family circumstances.
A service we provide at WillisPalmer is that you can contact us and have an honest discussion about independent working. Consultant Social Worker Lucy Hopkins is on hand to talk honestly about what the job entails and what will be expected of you. She can explain what type of person is suited to independent work and discuss the pros and cons of independent work as well as how we can support you.
If you are interested in working for WillisPalmer or finding out more about becoming an independent social worker, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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