When Eileen Munro recommended that every local authority should have a principal social worker, the government was quick to accept the proposal. Almost a year on, how is the role working in practice? Tristan Donovan speaks to Medway council’s first ever principal social worker.
Things did not start well when Deborah Barlow began work as Medway council’s first principal social worker last October. “It was so hard, the first three months,” she recalls with a sigh.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In her review of child protection, professor Eileen Munro envisaged a new breed of social worker who would champion practice within a local authority. This principal social worker, she explained, would be “the voice of practice” in a profession where the voice of management has dominated.
But when Barlow began introducing herself to social work teams in Medway and asking how they operated, some felt uneasy. Who was she? Why was she here? What would she do with the things they told her? Some even wondered if she was a senior management spy tasked with catching them out.
One problem was that Barlow was unknown. Although she had worked in social services for years, including stints in Southampton and Nuneaton, she had never worked for Medway. The timing didn’t help either. A week before her arrival Medway received an ‘adequate’ rating from Ofsted, a result that disappointed many of the council’s social workers.
“I came a week after that and people were really affected by the inspection,” she says. “It was like ‘now you’re asking us to do this, why are you asking us to do this?’. It felt at first that I had come in straight after and maybe I was going to tell them what they could and couldn’t do.”
But Barton’s job is not about snooping. “They thought I was going to tell them what to do, but what they actually got was ‘you’re doing ok, there are just different ways of doing it’,” she says. It took time and effort to build trust, but as it became clear that she was there to fight for practice and search for ways to help social workers in their jobs, attitudes warmed.
Outside normal structures
Her role is unusual, however. She is in a senior manager position but sits outside the normal management structures. Instead of being based with one team she moves around. This week she is holed up with the court team. Last week she was covering for a team manager in referrals and assessments. She reports to the director of children’s services but spends most of her time with staff and managers on the frontline. She hunts down processes that are holding services back, offers advice and reassurance to frontline staff and helps make sure social workers’ concerns are heard at the highest level.
Much of her time is spent trying to remove obstructive red tape. “By culling the processes and bureaucracy we will give social workers more hours to build proper relationships with families and children, and to do that hands-on visiting and behaviour management,” she says. “It’s back to proper social work practice; that day-to-day help for parents and children.”
To get the ball rolling, Barlow met with senior managers to discover what was stopping them from achieving their best and developed an action plan to help remove those barriers. For some staff, her presence offers a chance to talk about difficult cases without needing to call on their managers.
“It gives them an opportunity for discussions on the job,” she says. “Yes, every social worker can ask their manager but it’s their manager and their manager has a million things to do. It might just be that they want to mull over a case with someone.”
Advise and reassure
Although she will advise and reassure staff, final decisions rest with the social worker and, ultimately, their line manager. “I don’t make case decisions, my job is about giving confidence back to social workers and their managers through coaching, training and modelling,” Barlow says.
This is necessary, she believes, because social work has become infected with a culture of blame. “Years of tragedies like Victoria Climbié and Baby P have made us believe that another piece of process or bureaucracy might keep a child safe,” she says. “But it doesn’t. Social workers can’t hold all the blame.
“We manage risk, we do not take it away, we can’t take it away. We have to learn and adjust, should things go wrong, but we can’t be there with every child 24 hours a day – that’s the parents’ job.”
The mix of strategic senior management tasks and frontline operations was a key reason she signed up to become a principal social worker. “It’s nice to do operations and I’ve always slipped up and down between that and management,” she says. “When I’ve been a manager I’ve always had times when I would cover for members of my team so I never really left operations. I loved doing that even though I found it a pressure to do both.”
But the role can also be isolating. “I have to hold confidence at all levels: social worker, manager and senior manager,” she says. “I can’t spill out anywhere as there are no other principal social workers here. If you’ve got peers you can have a coffee and a moan and it doesn’t mean anything – it’s just letting off steam – but because I’m the only person in this role there isn’t someone else.”
It’s an issue the Children’s Workforce Development Council is trying to address with a new online forum for the small, but growing, band of principal social workers across the country.
Being an outsider does have advantages. “It’s helpful to have a fresh eye because when you’re working in a system and you’ve done it for a number of years you get used to it,” she says. “I’m almost consultancy in the way that I’m not in any line management structure. I don’t belong forever to Medway and I have nothing to gain or lose except my reputation.”
In fact, a fresh eye is so crucial for the role that she feels her year-long contract is the right length. “You need a fresh eye on an ongoing basis,” she explains. “I think that if I got into their system I would just end up rubbing along with them instead of challenging them.”
(Pic: Image Source/Rex Features)