School Social Workers Being ‘Stretched Thin’

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Increased workload pressures at times triggers thoughts of a career change for passionate school social worker Lisa Hudson.

But the AEU member and Northern Tasmania senior social worker said her love of supporting students drives her passion for the job.

“I love working with children because the earlier we can provide support, the better the outcomes can be,” Ms Hudson said.

Having been in her role for 13 years, Ms Hudson said working conditions in 2022 had expanded to the highest she’d she seen.

She said Priority 1 and 2 cases – such as incidents of self-harm, suicide ideation, family violence, child safety issues, serious behavioural issues and homelessness risk – were now the majority of cases school social workers were tackling.

“When I started, the position was almost more of a generalist counselling service and it’s now moved from that to dealing with significant crises,” she said.

“In a lot of schools, it’s almost a crisis intervention service – there are a lot more issues.”

“As a manager, I worry about my team of school social workers. They are continually asked to take on more complex cases and are stretched so thin on the ground as it is, with most of them working across several schools”.

AEU member and Tasmanian school social worker Lisa Hudson.

Ms Hudson said a range of societal factors, as well as more teacher referrals for student mental health support, contributed to caseloads rising in recent years.

The Australian Association of Social Workers recommends a 1:500 school social worker to student ratio, but disappointingly, Tasmania experiences a ratio of about 1:1000.

“We desperately need to achieve that recommended ratio, but we won’t be able to until we see working conditions improve,” Ms Hudson said.

“Unless we see major change, I would look at other [career] options, and I have been approached by other agencies [about work], but I love working with children.”

Too many qualified social workers are now looking beyond the unappealing pay and work conditions offered through school-based social work, Ms Hudson said.

“We’ve seen multiple positions turned down, even from inexperienced graduates, because of other attractive offers in the community,” she said.

“It’s a real struggle and we’re now experiencing issues that we never used to have.”

Ms Hudson said paying school social workers adequately – such as in-line with school psychologists – was one simple solution to addressing Tasmania’s school social worker shortage.

“This is a key focus in our upcoming bargaining negotiations and something we’ve identified as a real need to address,” she said.

“If we had a pay and leave parity with school psychologists, I think we would have a lot more people interested in the work.”

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