Schools embrace student social worker program

A program giving university students first-hand experience as social workers is having a positive impact in NSW public schools.

The Social Workers in Schools program run in conjunction with the University of New England has been kicking goals in NSW public schools.

A total of 29 students were placed in schools, community colleges and flexible learning centres across NSW and Tasmania last year to support staff and student wellbeing. Most worked in rural, regional or remote areas.

The Social Workers in Schools (SWiS) program began placing social work students in schools in 2015.

“SWiS students have worked hard to provide individual support, design and facilitate group programs and build relationships with community agencies to further resource the school community,” Carrie Maclure, University of New England (UNE) SWiS project manager, said.

“For the first time, we placed two social work students together in a high school in Walgett and they moved out to the town for their placement, living in the community, building relationships and immersing themselves in local life.”

Hunter Sports High, in Newcastle, and Martins Gully Public, in Armidale, are two of the schools that have joined the program.

UNE student Tunde Ojikutu had a “phenomenal” experience at Martins Gully Public School, introducing wellbeing programs and standardising processes.

He also ran a self-awareness program for older students and another for Year 3 girls that focused on developing social skills.

“I was also able to help connect the school and families with support services around Armidale, including the NDIS and New England Family Support Service, because the health of a family affects a child’s wellbeing at school,” Tunde said.

“It was my first hands-on experience as a social worker, using most of the modalities and theories I had learnt at UNE, and helped me to consider situations and challenges through a social worker lens.

“My office was the playground. I would do handstands with the kids and became a handball and soccer champion, which helped enormously with student engagement.”

Martins Gully Public School relieving principal Felicity Pennington said Tunde demonstrated capacity to build and sustain positive relationships with students, families and staff across the school community.

“He quickly established trust due to his open communication, understanding of an individual’s needs and he deeply values all people, so they actively sought his advice,” she said.

“In a short time, Tunde became a valuable school team member, and made a genuine and lasting impression. Thanks to our positive and rewarding experience with Tunde, we are continuing with the program and hosting another SWiS student in 2023.”

When she embarked on her SWiS placement at Hunter Sports High School last year, Natasha MacNeill was intent on a future role in mental health.

“Now I have completely changed my perspective on where I want to work after completing my degree,” she said.

“I can see the huge value in early intervention in the school setting, where a social worker is accessible to students and can pick up on what wellbeing support families need.”

At Hunter Sports High, Natasha joined a larger school wellbeing team.

“There are increasing mental health concerns among students and the community, some of which can be attributed to COVID but also to influences such as social media,” she said.

“Within a school, students come to know and trust you, and we have the ability to see what’s going on day-to-day. It’s a unique position.

“There can be limitations to families accessing professional wellbeing support outside school due to financial and logistical constraints and service availability, and it felt like I could make a huge difference in the school supporting students, their families and school staff.”

As part of a multi-disciplinary team, Natasha helped students with wellbeing concerns and co-facilitated a series of targeted programs.

Natasha also helped develop a wellbeing session for a vulnerable students’ transition to high school program and a highly successful physical team challenge to accompany relationships education.

“I was able to co-facilitate lots of group work and activities aimed at building relationships and encouraging students to seek support regarding their wellbeing, relationships, and safety in the playground,” she said.

“I saw my role as being a voice for students and advocate for their needs, to keep them engaged with their learning, which is a potential game-changer for their future.”

Student Support Officer Keira Taggart said Natasha was a key contributor to the wellbeing teams at Hunter Sports High School and the nearby Warners Bay High School.

“As part of her placement, Natasha participated in local Youth Network of Practice meetings, SSO network days and staff meetings,” Ms Taggart said.

“Throughout her placement, Natasha demonstrated an excellent ability to link her practice to relevant research and theory, particularly trauma-informed care, attachment and systems theory. 

“She utilised her knowledge of theories when designing programs and interventions with young people and impressed us with her enthusiasm, communication and natural rapport with young people and staff.” 

 Dr Jim White, Coordinator of the HEPPP-funded program that supports the SWiS initiative, said demand for social work placements from schools, particularly primary schools, was increasing.

“Principals have heard about the success of SWiS from their colleagues and they are keen to host students,” he said.

“An extra person with social work experience in a school adds to the overall support for children, particularly after COVID and the impact it has had on their lives.”

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