Being part of Bridgend Borough County Council for 18 years, Karen has seen a lot of change within the organisation. But her love of family support and education has seen her flourish and she now works as a Senior Directorate Support Officer.
She told us more about her new role, how things changed with Covid and what it was like studying with Sue...
Hi Karen! Could you tell us a bit about yourself?
My job title is Senior Directorate Support Officer. I’ve been in this role for about 13 months – it was a new role, and it was part of a restructure. I’ve been in the Directorate for about 12 years and in the council for 18 years.
This was the first apprenticeship I experienced through the council – I'd only done e-learning and day courses before.
I completed the ILM Level 4 apprenticeship in Management which was 18 months long and I finished it a few weeks ago!
Huge congratulations! Tell us what a typical working day looks like for you...
It's really varied. I oversee the Complaints Team for the Education & Family Support Directorate. We cover any education queries and work closely with the schools.
On the Family Support Services side, we offer a wide variety of support for families, children and young people. We also look after Youth Justice, children with special educational needs, and any vulnerable groups, like children with care experience, and minority groups.
We’ve had a lot of new tasks that have come in due to Covid, such as vouchers we’ve had to issue for free school meals. We had to close the schools and reopen them as childcare hubs, to provide childcare for the emergency services workers too.
On a typical day, I’ll check the mailboxes, check in with staff, check for any urgent tasks, and redeploy staff if anyone’s off sick. At the moment, with the staffing situation and Covid, it can be difficult. But we are just trying to muddle through, and make sure all our urgent tasks and statuaries are met.
It’s not a standard office job – it's very varied.
What led to you taking the apprenticeship with us?
I started it in my previous role. There had been talk of an imminent restructure, but it had been on the cards for years, so we didn’t know if it was going to happen.
As part of that, you never really know what’s coming – whether there’ll be redundancies or redeployments. And also, my team was getting bigger, so it felt like the opportune time to get a qualification.
I was able to secure my last role with my experience and knowledge. But I thought, ‘what if there’s another role that does require that NVQ qualification?’
I had a chat with my manager at the time and I was going to do Business Admin, but he felt that L&M would give me more transferable skills. Being in an admin role for 16 years at that point, he said, ‘you’re teaching a lot of people what you know. You’re better off learning something different.’
Did you enjoy the apprenticeship with us?
It was difficult because of capacity and workload. I would have enjoyed it more had I not been under so much pressure work-wise. I like learning new things, I love the academic side of things, but because I was working extra hours in the evenings as well, and trying to do the qualification, that did make it a bit more difficult.
On the whole, I did really enjoy it. I enjoyed the workshops – I thought they were really useful because you get to meet colleagues from different organisations. Case studies and examples people gave were really interesting in that.
I enjoyed the theory. A lot of the time, we do things in a certain way, but we don’t know why, so having the theory behind it as to why we do it that way was really useful.
What appealed to you about your new role and working for the council?
My background was in Family Support and I knew that inside out. I was there when they set up all the new services so I’ve been there since the inception of the new family support.
When Covid hit, I needed to redeploy and then I became involved in Emergency Childcare. That role gave me a much closer working relationship with schools, particularly headteachers. I was working with schools to see who they could accommodate because their staff numbers were dwindling by the day.
It gave me an insight into the work schools do, and it piqued my interest in the education side of things.
The restructure came into play in November 2021 and my job went. This was a promotional opportunity on the education side so it gave me the confidence to think ‘maybe I can do it’. I’d already been a year into my course then, and doing the skills gap analysis, I thought ‘there are quite a lot of things I know about in that area. What have I got to lose?’ I applied and I secured it.
When I was completing the application form, the qualification was another thing I could put on my CV to show my Continuous Professional Development and dedication to my learning.
Has the apprenticeship improved how you do your job?
I think so, yes. It allows me to self-reflect a lot on my practice, especially in relation to skills gap analysis and staff feedback. That was quite positive because the feedback I’ve got from staff was around areas that I’d also identified for self-improvement. That was quite reassuring to think I have got quite good self-reflection skills.
It’s given me confidence as a manager to know that in different situations, you have got to use different management styles.
It’s also given me food for thought around stakeholder engagement and communication, about how I liaise with the team, especially overseeing a complaints service. That all links quite nicely together.
It’s affected a lot of the aspects of my role.
Could you tell me a little bit more about the Prentis-iaith?
Sue said it was on offer, so I thought I’d take that opportunity.
Our Directorate has English schools, and Welsh medium schools. We’re always ensuring that everything is fair and equitable. We have to ensure everything we send out is bilingual, so I was well aware of the importance of the Welsh language.
But it was good to go back and realise how much Welsh I did know. It gave me confidence that my Welsh knowledge was more than I would have put it at. It was also good to revisit the days of the week, months of the year, general business Welsh. It’s surprising how much you cover in those six short sessions.
When I’m liaising with our translators, or our Welsh schools, even just feeling confident to start the email in Welsh, they do appreciate when we try, and they give us compliments on our Welsh skills.
Let’s talk about your Training Advisor, Sue...
She’s been brilliant. We’ve got a good relationship. We’ve had some honest conversations where she’s had to say, ‘here’s what you need to do.’ But on the flipside of that, she’s very approachable. Sue’s understood my workload, and we’ve revisited the goals. As a person, she’s really knowledgeable, even when I’m looking to get some guidance about what to put in each section.
Sue seems to know every assignment, every workbook, every aspect and criteria off the top of her head. Her knowledge and skills have been invaluable to me.
At the start, I wasn’t used to using Teams, I wasn’t keen to have discussions. But now, I love a discussion!
She’s met my needs – there was one time I said, ‘Sue, I haven’t done the work. Shall we cancel?’ and she said, ‘no. We’ll meet, go through some things, and gather evidence.’ In that hour, I made so much progress from just doing things a bit differently. She’s quite creative like that and really good at guiding you through the qualification. She’s very personable too.
She’s fab, nothing bad to say about Sue.
Did you feel like part of a community when you were learning?
Sue ran some workshops. There were some of my colleagues from BCBC there and people from other agencies.
We all did the workshop together, and when we were doing the exercises, there was that sense of community learning. We were all in the classroom together, sharing ideas and experiences. Some people had examples of certain case studies.
It was useful to see what’s in place in other organisations, and what works well and what doesn’t.
How does your employer support you?
They’ve been good with me. They’ve allowed me study time and the time to meet Sue. I had a couple of supported study days at TSW. With evidence as well, my manager and members of my team have given witness statements.
Nikki Flower, in our HR department is very good as well. She supports all the qualifications, ensures everyone is on track with their times and reviews are signed off.
From my point of view, I’ve also got two apprentices on my team. I’ve got one learner enrolled with [TSW Training Advisor] Michele Maylin and I’ve got one enrolled with [TSW Training Advisor] Vicky Hooper. I was signing off their reviews while my manager was signing off mine, so I was seeing it from both aspects which was quite useful.
What motivates you to learn?
Developing knowledge and skills. I’ve always liked learning. I didn’t go to university because I just wanted to start work, so I’ve learnt on the job really.
About the first five or six years of my working life, I went to college in the evening, doing additional qualifications. I did all my RSA word and text processing qualifications. I also did an A Level and an AS Level in Law – I don’t know anybody else who does a night course in Law, just because they find it interesting!
It keeps things interesting. Learning that’s related to your job, just makes it easier. I’ve been with the council for 18 years and sometimes, you don’t think outside the council box. It’s that ‘we’ve always done it this way, so we’ll carry on doing it this way.’ It just gives you that fresh thought process to see if there are any other ways of doing things.
Do you think taking an apprenticeship has changed your life in any way?
It’s given me the confidence because a lot of the things I learnt just compounded the knowledge and skills I already had.
That was quite reassuring and increased my confidence.
It’s nice to have a management qualification under my belt.
What advice would you give to anyone thinking of taking an apprenticeship?
Do it. I struggle to find a disadvantage, to be honest; you’ve got the flexibility with remote learning, you don’t have to give up a massive part of your time. Especially with the NVQ, you’re doing it as you’re going along so you just need to gather the evidence which isn’t a huge task.
All qualifications are useful, they look good on the CV. They show people are willing to develop.
When I do interviews and I meet someone who has studied in their own time and dedicated their own time to it or pursued an apprenticeship to better themselves, they’re the type of people you want in your team – the ones who are going to continually strive to improve.
What are your career aspirations? Where will we see you in 10 years' time?
I’d like to do the Level 5 and progress up the current ladder I’m on.
I love my job, I love the variety and the change, I love working with people and the schools.
We’re sure you’ll go on to do wonderful things, Karen!