Clair Graham

Social Work BSc (Hons)

Clair left school with no qualifications and due to having criminal offences on her record, her journey wasn’t ever going to be an easy one. But after doing voluntary work and securing a role as a Social Work Assistant, Clair decided to return to education, choosing to study Social Work at BCU. Now, she is the Head of Service for Contextual Safeguarding at Birmingham Children’s Trust and continues to inspire the next generation of social workers with her extraordinary story.

“When I was 14, I was permanently excluded from school. I was finally placed in a new school a year later, but I rarely attended classes, and I left with no qualifications. I also had criminal offences on my record, making my journey after school even more challenging.

I completed some voluntary work with Birmingham Voluntary Service Council for a year, where I worked in a day centre with older adults, and from the experience I gained, I managed to secure a job in a residential care home for older adults, and I then went on to become a Social Work Assistant.

I thought I was there to assist the social workers, however, I found myself holding my own caseload, and supporting adults with care packages, placements in residential and nursing homes, and conducting assessments on my own. I soon felt like I should be paid as a Social Worker, which led me back into education.

As I left school with no qualifications, I had to retake Maths and English at college, as well as completing an Access to Social Sciences course. My Personal Tutor at the college saw my potential and encouraged me to apply for university. However, this was not my plan. At this point, I had three children and finances were tight. But when I visited BCU, I saw that it had a diverse staff team, and I felt at home, comfortable, and safe, and I also liked how there were people who looked like me. I chose to study at BCU, and never looked back.

I threw myself into my studies at BCU, but it didn’t come without its challenges. In my first year on the course, the work placement that I applied for refused to have me due to my previous criminal offences. My Personal Tutor, Dorothy Boatswain, fought hard for me and secured a placement for me in Walsall Children’s Services. I was then able to complete my three placements within Walsall Children and Adult Services throughout my degree.

Nowadays, I am the Head of Service for Contextual Safeguarding, based at Birmingham Children’s Trust. I have been in this role for three years so far. Before I arrived at the Trust, I worked for Birmingham City Council for almost 16 years, working my way up from a role as a Social Worker to a Team Manager.

A typical workday for me usually starts the night before, where I read the newspapers or look on social media at incidents that may have involved children. This prepares me for the discussions that my managers and staff need to have brought to their attention the next day.

Once I’m in the office, I respond to emails and get briefings ready to ensure that staff have arranged important meetings, and I have discussions around support for them arranging clinical supervisions. I also meet with the executive team to discuss planning and organising when there are serious incidents involving children, and I also often have higher level meetings with the Police to look at any community tensions and potential consequences for victims and suspects, and plans going forward.

My experience in my career so far has been a huge journey. I have learned so much and gained significant experience in child protection too. In fact, I now have experience in every part of the journey of a child through social work. This includes children in care, children in need of protection and in need of support, children and families who have no resources to public funds, and children leaving care, as well as some experience with adoption work too. I am also a trained facilitator and have managed projects and developed many practices and systems too,

But it has been a long and hard journey as a black woman trying to gain promotions and move up the career ladder. I have had to work harder than my counterparts, and at times, people have made me doubt my experience, skills, and knowledge.

However, I have always taken opportunities presented to me, and this has helped to assist me on my journey. I have also always challenged poor practice and oppression toward children and families. I aim to rise and lift those around me and enjoy providing mentoring and coaching to fellow staff on how to navigate the barriers faced in this industry.

It isn’t an easy job to have. I have experienced self-doubt, gaslighting, subtle racism, workplace bullying and even being stereotyped. Pressures and demands in terms of case work and the vicarious trauma brought on by some of the most disturbing experiences that children have had to endure can be incredibly tough.

However, at the other end, it has also been inspiring to see the children become young adults and positively contribute to society through the intervention and work that we have done with them. It can be incredibly rewarding. In my role, I have also experienced great leadership, which is important. Having that leadership has allowed me to grow and develop both my skills and knowledge, as well as allowing me to have autonomy, be creative and innovative, and make brave, courageous decisions.

My goal for the future is to become the first black woman Chief Executive at Birmingham Children’s Trust. I also want to continue to inspire and motivate others with my story of hope.

My time at BCU has really helped me in my career, in fact, out of all my achievements to date, I am most proud about graduating from university. At times, I can’t believe that I am where I am now, given where and how I started.

The relationship that I had with my Personal Tutor at BCU, as well as the teaching and learning on the course, has really supported me during my career. I have always stayed in touch with the teaching staff at BCU, and often return to campus to support current students. I even still ask for advice occasionally, and the teaching staff are very supportive to me.

My advice to current students is to not expect the journey to be easy. The Social Work course is a journey of self-reflection and discovery in many ways, and it changes you. There are things that you may discover about yourself and others that you may like or dislike, so embrace it as it will make you a more informed practitioner.

Being a student is the best time to explore different ways of working, getting things wrong and learning from them, and being innovative and creative, so use the time you have at BCU wisely.

But remember, you are not on your own. When you experience challenges, find your support network, and pull on them for help, guidance, and support. Make sure you have a committee of people around you that can be open and honest with you, challenge you, celebrate, support, and most importantly, guide you along your next steps.”

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