‘If ever there was a time when social workers must be vigilant, it is now’

There's every danger the government will seek to capture and colonise every social worker-created development, writes Ray Jones

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On one day (13 July) there were three news stories about social work and a related story from the week before. They are each a cause of concern for social work’s future.

If ever there was a time when social workers – and all those who value the contribution social work can make within the lives of people who are in crisis, distressed or in difficulty – need to be vigilant about what others may planning, it’s now.

‘Doomsday scenario’

First, the president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services described the funding of children’s social care as a ‘ticking time bomb’. In many areas it is a bomb primed to go off very shortly. In some places it has already exploded.

With more than 50% increases in child protection investigations and plans since 2008, with early help funding reduced by 55% in the last 5 years and with further cuts for poor families and the services helping them, it really is a doomsday scenario.

And it is no better for social workers working with disabled and older people. With 31% cuts to social care budgets since 2010, despite a 14% increase in adults seeking help, rationing is the overwhelming task for many social workers.

Fragmented profession

The second story of the day was that Sir Martin Narey is canvassing for the profession to be fragmented with separate education and training for those who might work with children and those who might work with adults.

This seems to largely ignore that children live with adults and adults care for children, which is why, for the past 40 years, social work has had the children’s and adults interface as a central focus.

Sir Martin’s prescription will lead to the demise of an integrated profession of social work. It is based on trying to squeeze what should be a broader initial education and training, followed by a specialist assessed and supported year in employment, into a short very specialist qualifying training.

Professional skills and values

This week, Sir Martin wants the profession of social work to be fragmented. Last week, he was castigating social workers for not placing more children for adoption, with this, increasingly, appearing to be the measure against which social work should be judged. But far from losing their nerve about placing children for adoption, as Sir Martin suggested, social workers are holding on to their professional knowledge, skills and values. They see adoption as one way to build stability for children, but not the only way.

And while there has been some reversal in the rapid increase in adoptions, there has been an increase in special guardianship orders, which also create stability for children within their wider kinship network or with long term foster carers.

Positive developments

The third story was about grassroots members of the College trying to retrieve from its ashes those positive developments created by social workers following the recommendations of the Social Work Task Force and Social Work Reform Board.

It was social workers who created the Professional Competencies Framework. It was social workers who built and resourced the College’s faculties. It was social workers who powered the national networks of principal social workers.

But there’s now every danger ministers will seek to capture and colonise each of these social worker-created developments.

Independent of government

If they do, these will be re-shaped into whatever vehicles the government thinks will best fit its policies and purposes, many of which, under the heading of austerity, run counter to the commitment and values of social workers.
This is why the Professional Competencies Framework, the College faculties, and the principal social worker networks need to be independent of government. They should be located within the profession of social work, rather than government departments, or with these departments deciding where they should now be allocated.

This should not be within the gift or control of the government, but of the social work profession. If ever there were a time to be vigilant, it is now.

Ray Jones is a former director of social services and professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, London

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