Adult social workers need greater professional self-confidence and influence to weather the challenges of practising at a time of budget cuts, amid question marks over the role of practitioners.
That was the message from the chair of The College of Social Work’s adults faculty, Bernard Walker, who said practitioners were facing a “difficult time” because of the public spending climate, in an interview with Community Care.
The state of adult social work has been called into question in recent weeks. Practitioners in the North West raised concerns about their ability to deliver self-directed support at a time of cuts, in a report by personalisation charity In Control this month, and last month, a report by the Audit Commission urged councils to replace social workers with non-qualified staff in assessments to save money.
‘Difficult time’ for practitioners
“It’s a difficult time and I think social workers are consistently confronting the realities of the environment in which they work,” said Walker, whose 40-year career in local government culminated in a 14-year spell as social and then adult services director at Wigan Council.
He said there was a need to develop the “professional self-confidence of social workers”, so that practitioners could articulate their value to managers.
“It’s not about challenging managers for challenging managers’ sake, it’s about describing what produces better outcomes; and having the professional confidence to argue that and draw on examples,” he said.
Business case for social work
The College is developing a “business case” for employers to invest in adult social work by demonstrating the value for money practitioners provide. Walker said social workers’ value consisted both in the outcomes that service users achieved through their interventions, but also the improved experience for clients of working with professionals.
He stressed the health of adult social work varied from employer to employer, depending on factors such as organisational culture and the leadership of senior managers, such as directors.
Walker said the government’s recent social care White Paper had identified a role for social workers, “though not in a great deal of detail”, citing its proposals to appoint principal social workers for adults services within councils, following similar appointments in children’s services.
He said principal practitioners could increase social work’s influence in councils even if they “did not have as eat at the top table” of council management.
While the College was critical of the Audit Commission report, Walker pointed out that the study did stress that only social workers should be carrying out complex assessments.
“The headline was ‘let’s get rid of social workers’, but if you looked further into the document there were areas where it said we did need social workers.” He said the “danger” in the report was if council heads read the “headlines rather than the substance” to justify reductions in social worker posts.
He also endorsed the Audit Commission’s view that social workers should be focusing on more skilled work, adding: “It really frustrates social workers when they are doing things that they haven’t been trained to do and doing mundane roles.”
Social work perspective
However, he said any future such report about the profession needed to be informed by the perspectives of social workers themselves and the College, unlike the Audit Commission study.
“We would want to get to a position that if any report that covered social work didn’t have a contribution from the College or where the College wasn’t consulted it would lack credibility,” he added.
The faculty is one of three set up by the College to provide forums for discussion and networking between professionals in specialist areas of social work. Like the chairs of the children’s and mental health faculties, Walker, appointed in February, has been selected as a transitional chair for an initial 12 months, and currently, he is the only person with a defined role in the faculty.
However, he said he wanted to make way for others to come forward to lead the College’s work in adults’ services, particularly frontline practitioners.
‘Must not be haven for directors’
“[The College] has got to speak to their day-to-day activity. It’s not meant to be a haven for retired directors. I’m doing this because I think it’s important but the intention is to set up the faculty and then let events take its course.”
Walker said he wanted employers to allow social workers in adult services the time to take leadership roles in the College, citing provisions in the Social Work Reform Board’s standards for employers for organisations to enable practitioners to work with the College and other professional bodies to develop good practice.
So far the faculty has held one meeting, in June, as well as two practice debates on the College’s online forum, on supporting older people’s moves between services and on end-of-life care. Walker said the faculty would continue to place an emphasis on online networking in order not to exclude people unable to attend meetings.