Social workers must not be afraid to challenge managers

A newly qualified social worker reflects on the debates at Community Care Live and what they mean for her own practice

Sharon Shoesmith
Photo credit: Rex Features

By a newly qualified social worker

Last week I attended Community Care Children and Families Live, an event brimming with social work practitioners, managers and students. For me, the most memorable part of the event was hearing Sharon Shoesmith and Professor Ray Jones speak about the response to Peter Connolly’s death and the resulting culture of fear and blame in child protection.

As a newly qualified social worker (NQSW), it took me some time to adjust  to the constant fear of something going wrong. The threat of failing an Ofsted inspection drives  a ‘culture of compliance’ and there have been times when I  felt paralysed by the pressure of timescales and targets.

I’m not suggesting targets and timescales are a social work evil – I know that I’m at my most productive when under pressure. But  there have been times when I have felt overwhelmed by all those red tasks in my Integrated Children’s System (ICS) tray. I end up working late most nights so I can get administrative tasks done and still spend time with families. It feels like targets compete with time spent with families and creates a conflict with social work values.

I was struck, by another speaker at CC Live Camila Batmanghelidjh, who challenged  social workers to resist what she  termed the ‘vanilla moment’- when it’s easier to go along with the status quo than make waves by challenging colleagues- and to stand up for what they believe to be in a child’s best interests.

This discussion mirrored a Twitter chat I took part in earlier in the week which focused on dissent. Social workers  and students discussed their experiences of challenging decisions made higher up. It was acknowledged that a supportive and approachable manager was an important factor in being able to do this. However, some felt  the pressures and processes imposed from above  meant they were  unable to discuss issues with their manager and, at times, their decision-making left their values compromised.

Sharon Shoesmith ended her keynote speech by warning social workers not to be ‘lame ducks’ and to make their voices heard.

The conversations and attendance at this event confirmed that there is a passionate, committed and experienced workforce of social workers . There are also inspirational students and NQSWs who, in Professor Jones’ words, are ‘fired up’ and joining the ranks each year. The voice of social work is growing louder, but perhaps before we can truly challenge the public and media perception of social work, we need to overcome the difficulties within the profession itself.

How can we overcome such negativity when social workers feel afraid to constructively challenge their employers? When we have social workers leaving the profession due to overwhelming caseloads and the constant fear they might be the next subject of a media witch hunt. We need a culture which allows the creativity and passion of the workforce to flourish rather than be extinguished. We need a collective, not a fragmented and hierarchical approach.

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One Response to Social workers must not be afraid to challenge managers

  1. philip December 1, 2014 at 11:47 am #

    Sadly in the real world of a social worker working in Local Govt, the Vanila moment is not realistic one, because I have have suffered the experience of challenging management and quite frankly suffered for it.
    Therefore its a super concept for your essay, theorising need to challenge, in the real world I found sadly to my detriment it has an adverse affect .