It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
When Eileen Munro first proposed the creation of principal social workers in her 2011 review of child protection, she envisaged them as champions of social work practice within local authorities.
But today Tony Stanley, deputy chair of the national network of principal social workers, is doubtful about the role’s future.
“Regionally and nationally I think we’ve been really under successful,” Stanley says. “The role is at risk and I don’t think there’s a strong case to make that it will continue.”
The principal social worker (PSW) of Munro’s original vision would advise the frontline on practice, while relaying their concerns and challenges to management. Crucially, they would remain in practice themselves.
But the most recent published survey of PSWs by The College of Social Work suggested 60% of children’s and 80% of adults’ PSWs held the role as an “add-on” to a senior manager, head of service or assistant director position.
While the PSW network is more active than ever, with the majority of councils implementing the principal social worker role in some capacity, some feel its original purpose has been undermined.
For Stanley, the potential of the role to push back against the status quo and bring challenges from the frontline to management has not been realised. When the role is an add-on and the PSWs are located within management “the PSW becomes all things to all people and, ultimately, a really ineffectual critic and voice of practice,” he says.
“Many PSWs are still senior managers and so they are doing quality assurances, audits. I don’t think the PSW should be the quality assurance manager – we’re supposed to bounce against quality assurance and say, what are the implications for practice?”
Stanley is clear that some positive local gains have been made, but the national picture remains inconsistent.
One PSW, who agreed to speak to Community Care but wanted to remain anonymous, feels a lack of support from her manager has prevented her from carrying out the role as it was intended.
“I’ve almost been like another miscellaneous manager without a clear focus – anything that needs doing that other people don’t have time for, it comes to me, and that has stagnated my progress. I’m anything and everything to my manager.”
She’s grown frustrated by bringing challenges from frontline to management, only to be shrugged off and told what she’s observed is not the case.
“Any problems I bring up, it’s challenged…if I come up with a solution, they don’t agree with it,” she says.
“The bit they want me to do – being the voice of senior management to the frontline – seems to be working, but the other side of it….going upwards from frontline to management is a constant struggle.”
For Clive Diaz, a children’s PSW in Gloucestershire Council, this is the wrong way round. He says the process of linking frontline practitioners with senior managers “shouldn’t be top down, it should be bottom up”.
“It’s about making senior managers aware of the pressures for frontline social workers so they can do things to make it easier,” he says.
“There’s a tendency among people to not really want to hear what it’s really like. That hasn’t been my experience in Gloucestershire but I think for a lot people, those are the challenges of the role.”
As a principal social worker with a supportive manager, Diaz has been able to lead on an organisational health check and a supervision survey to identify social workers’ areas of concern.
Like Stanley he believes remaining in practice is key to PSWs’ understanding and reporting the realities of practice: “The risk is the principal social worker just becomes another kind of strategic senior manager and doesn’t necessarily have the experience to say ‘writing a child protection plan on this particular IT system is really difficult so I’m going to do something about it’.”
Pockets of supportive and committed management around the country mean, at a local level, many PSWs do feel they are having an impact.
Mandy Nightingale, a children and families’ principal social worker at Essex Council, feels she is ideally placed to do the role, and has made great strides in making sure the employer standards are being implemented.
“My role is so diverse – I am a member of the senior leadership team, I have contact with practitioners and undertake case audits – that I touch all aspects of the organisation,” she says. “I frequently visit operational teams just to have a chat with them and I’ve been a social worker for many years so I know what it’s like.”
However, she does concede that the role is “quite an evolution” from Munro’s original vision and you’d be hard pressed to find two PSWs doing the same job across the country.
For Rob Mitchell, an adults’ principal social worker in Calderdale Council, the experience has been a mixed bag. His ambivalence reflects a wider picture of a group of social workers striving to be a voice for the profession in a management structure that doesn’t always allow them to do so.
Mitchell says he is lucky in that his director, a qualified social worker, is supportive of the role and has worked hard to promote the identity of social work. The council has been moving towards a care management model in adult services, where the emphasis is on unqualified staff, but Mitchell believes that as a PSW he has been able to start conversations around the importance of social work.
However, conjecture around the level at which the role should sit has caused challenges: “It’s felt like a bit of a bolt-on to my existing role – I became a service manager/PSW.
“We’ve tried to make my role more connected with practice, for example next month I do my Best Interest Assessor training, but it’s been difficult because I’ve still got operational management responsibilities for the whole of adult care services.
“Every now and again I feel there is a compromise as to whether I’m being a first manager or whether I’m able to fully advocate and properly articulate and support that PSW role, so that’s been the tension.”
Nevertheless, Mitchell does believe Calderdale is in a better situation for having a PSW.
Questions around what the PSW role should look like, and who the voice for the profession is now, are more pressing than ever since plans for a new practice leader status were announced.
What the practice leader status will look like is still unclear, but the feeling among PSWs is it will either overlap with or subsume the principal social worker role.
Stanley hopes existing principal social workers would be the first people to apply for the new posts, but he’s not convinced.
“People haven’t grasped the possibilities of the role as Munro intended,” he says, and this leaves the post in a vulnerable position. “If principal social workers are not proving themselves nationally, they are vulnerable to the question – why have one?”
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