Improving the media portrayal – and by extension the public image – of social work was never going to be an easy task. British newspapers are fiercely political and many people have long given up hope of changing the way the right-leaning press reports on a profession so closely aligned with the welfare state.
But not so Annie Hudson. The Bristol director, who last year allowed the BBC unprecedented access to the council’s child protection social workers and their service users for the Protecting our Children documentary series, firmly believes that the general public perception of social work can change. And this will be one of her top priorities when she takes over at the helm of the College of Social Work this summer.
Inspirational social work
Protecting our Children was so successful, Hudson says, because it told people’s stories. “Social work is an alien and unknown world for many people,” she says. “The only way to communicate the complexities of the judgements we make is through stories. In Protecting our Children you could see what our social workers were doing, but you also heard them reflecting on what they had seen and heard, and the risks. It showed how positive outcomes can be reached.”
Hudson was particularly inspired by the way her social workers dealt with the media attention surrounding the series; going on breakfast TV, for example, and explaining what they do. “They were all articulate, eloquent ambassadors for the profession.” And she says many social workers outside of Bristol expressed an enormous sense of gratitude and relief that there was, at last, an accurate media portrayal of the profession. “One social worker said: ‘It was the first time I could say to my friends, that’s what I do.’ She said her friends were shocked.”
So how will this experience inform Hudson’s time as chief executive of the College of Social Work? Part of the College’s remit is to provide a strong, collective voice for the profession. Hudson mentions a recent storyline on medical drama Casualty about female genital mutilation, for which the BBC apparently spoke to social workers as part of the research process. “For me, the College must take on that [educational] role,” she says. “I bring a real commitment to support social workers and team managers to talk to the public, social commentators and politicians, at a local and national level, about what they do.“
Hudson comes from a social work background and has been a director for the last eight years, first in adult social care and then in children’s services. She also spent some years as a social work lecturer. “I think that will be quite useful experience; when doing training, you need to reflect on what makes good social work practice.”
She is full of praise for Bristol council and her current role (as strategic director for children, young people and skills), but says she was attracted to the College job because it will give her an opportunity to support social workers at a national level. “In turn, I hope I will bring a good, sound knowledge of the profession and its challenges and enormous contribution, alongside leadership skills and an ability to work with the myriad stakeholders the College will be working with, including the government, service users and employers.”
The College as an ‘engine room’
Hudson feels it is important that the College reaches out to social workers in all manner of settings, whether they work in adult, children’s or mental health services, in local authorities or the private, voluntary and independent sectors. She is particularly keen to make sure adult social work gets as much attention and support as children’s.
“[The recent reform programme] has concentrated on children’s services, but we need to look at whether we need a renaissance in adult social work, too. It hasn’t had the same profile. Children’s social work gets into the public domain because of things going wrong, the tragedies, but as a result people have more of an understanding of the job, even if it can be critical. Having worked as a director of adult care, I understand that feeling of being the poor relation. I’d like to identify and support the unique contribution adult social workers make.” This could include building upon a project the College has already started, looking at the “business case” for adult social work.
On the wider reform programme, including Eileen Munro’s review of child protection, changes to social work education and training and, of course, the creation of the College, Hudson echoes the opinions of many: that some progress has been made, but much more needs to be done. “The College’s role is going to be pivotal. I see it as being an engine room; making sure best practice is being rolled out, speaking to the government about what social work contributes, but not being defensive. It’s about everybody – social workers, employers, other stakeholder organisations and the government – getting behind the reforms and making sure they are developed.”
Her long-term ambition is to ensure social workers have a stronger and more positive national voice and profile, through a strong, well-respected College. “I want them to see it as their College, that supports them, engages them, challenges them at times and connects them together. I want the College to have credibility, and that will come about by contributing to policy development, but also challenging policy proposals when they don’t seem to be what they should. And I want us to get to point where, if The Independent or The Sun was doing a story on social workers, they would consult the College; and through that we would increase public awareness of the complexity of social work.
“I want the public to see the benefits, the good outcomes, that social workers can bring about for people.”