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Terence Simmons on his time at WillisPalmer ahead of his retirement

My working life began at just turned 14 and 56 years later I have decided to call it a day. Like many people I’m not entirely sure how I finished up in social work but 1980 saw me entering the fray. One thing I discovered quite quickly was that I am not an organisation person but it was not until 1995 I moved to independent social work and being an old-style self-employed guardian. 2000 saw me moving from Bath to Kent to be with the love of my life, becoming estranged from an increasingly micro-managing CAFCASS and finding more than sufficient assessment and training work to keep the wolf from the door. I began to hear of WillisPalmer in 2008 and thought I would try and get on their books. I had a reasonable body of work to point to, a decent reputation for providing work on time, numerous anonymised reports and a deal of self-belief. I was interviewed by Mark and André, met the stalwarts Sarah and Steve and was immediately taken with Mark’s positive attitude towards social work and the task of assessment. Also, Mark and I seemed to share the characteristic of seeing complexity as being as much a state of mind as a fact. We also share a respect for practitioners and the struggles they face as well as concern for the people we assess, while never losing sight of the welfare of the child. Having each decided we would give it a go, my first four years saw me undertaking 20 or so assessments and being paid for all of them in six weeks instead of the endless chasing that goes with taking instructions from solicitors. This fiscal bliss is one of WillisPalmer’s very attractive features.

I like to think that what I call attention to detail (others call it pedantry) and the ability to analyse critically (others call it nit-picking) caught the eye and in 2012 I moved closer to the organisation when I began quality assuring reports. As well as being a hugely satisfying task of helping contractors shape their arguments, and ensuring that WillisPalmer’s safeguarding requirements are met, it has helped keep me on my intellectual toes and been an opportunity to learn from the experience of others. My biggest QA regret, though, is that over the course of reading more than 1200 reports, I largely failed in my quest to stop Over-Capitalising.
Contractors just won’t have it that it’s social worker, not Social Worker, and local authority, not Local Authority. It has been a continuing struggle but as Carroll O’Connor said, “the wages of pedantry is pain”.

WillisPalmer has also offered me the opportunity for a variety of interesting assessment interventions. For example, Extended Community-Based Assessments as an alternative to expensive residential assessments.

However, one of the most enjoyable and rewarding interventions was mentoring in Redbridge and Southwark from 2012. The chance to be around over-busy practitioners, offering them the opportunity of time to reflect, analyse, complain, weep and wail and put the world to rights was a real privilege and forged professional relationships which continue to this day. Time to reflect is so important in social work. If ‘reclaiming’ social work means having the time to discuss cases with colleagues and spend adequate time with families to understand how they function then it is to be welcomed as the antidote to form-filling, visiting for visiting’s sake and fire-fighting. However, I suspect that the Covid and post-Covid eras will see the pressure to do taking precedence over allowing the time to think properly about doing.

The biggest change I would like to see in social work practice, though, is the end of ‘start-again syndrome’. In my view, too many children experience neglect (and a variety of forms of abuse) because of the reluctance in social work to pull up the drawbridge and acknowledge that 10 years of neglect almost certainly means 10 more years of neglect unless the cycle is broken. QA has been my best opportunity to ask practitioners whether they are really recommending the wheel is allowed to turn again, and training for WillisPalmer has been another great opportunity to give practitioners the tools and confidence to be able to say enough-is-enough.

My first training course ran in 2014 and my ‘Parenting Assessment’ course has been popular ever since with the worst criticism I can recall being that the biscuits were ‘rubbish’. As it happens, I agreed; custard creams are an imposter biscuit. That notwithstanding, I am handing on all my training materials in the hope someone can pick them up and run with them.

If I had to pick a defining characteristic of WillisPalmer it would be the concept of behaviour being either above or below ‘the line’. Being above the line means taking responsibility for actions and being prepared to do what’s right, to put things right. As a practitioner it involves not taking short-cuts, avoiding bias as much as possible and being honest about limitations. That can be difficult in a world that seeks scapegoats, but it is a key expectation of WillisPalmer and is, ultimately, liberating.

So, what next? Well, I have a shed that would induce ‘shed-envy’ in most people; I have a piano, a drum kit and a person I adore and am looking forward to spending all my time with. Beyond that, my only plan is to have two holidays a year: one from January to June and one from July to December.

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