‘Testing and accreditation couldn’t be more relevant for the leaders of a profession at risk’

Tony Stanley, a principal social worker, says the government’s plans to make heads of children’s social care ‘practice leaders’ are long overdue

Leading from the front. Image: Ikon/Rex

By Tony Stanley, principal social worker, Tower Hamlets 

The government recently set out its proposals for practice supervision and practice leadership. Previously, some had wondered what was meant by ‘practice leader’. But we have probably all worked with or know of one – someone who promotes a practice led-system over managerial dominance or bureaucratic compliance (just as we can all think of senior managers who favour Key Performance Indicator spreadsheets).

Eileen Munro placed a spear in the sand and said we can take back practice from the grip of this managerialism, but to do this, we need brave leaders.

‘Tinkering around the edges’

We need people at the top of organisations who are willing to take risks and make more space for practice-led systems. Post Munro we have only tinkered round the edges, for example with principal social workers. With 75% of local authorities needing to improve, according to Ofsted, the pressure is on. More of the same is not an option.

Practice leadership, as set out in these statements, can guard against managerialism. It allows balance and a new influence within systems dominated by measurement and statistical claims about progress and child safety.

Seeing a child every 10 days does not make them safe but this inflexible approach can take over.

I have had emails from managers reminding me of visits on my caseload recorded outside of timescales. What is the priority here? Is it to do things on time? Or is it to practice with a quality that is focused on change, families empowered to co-collaborate with us, to build resiliency and coping strategies? Is the focus to offer real help to families – practical and emotional – and record it in a way that is helpful to the child and their family to read later, and for the next social worker, for Ofsted and so on?

Why accreditation?

The point of our practice should be ‘doing the right things’, not ‘doing things right.’ This is why we should embrace accreditation. Other professions have long done so. Teaching hospitals are great examples of a culture where research and the latest practice debates are alive and well.

In New Zealand, where I qualified, there is a practice leader in every area office, and they collaborate with the chief social worker to improve the child welfare system. As a newly qualified social worker I accessed the national chief social work office for research and practice updates. I worked a case of denied sexual abuse, involving a violent gang culture and I was supported by the practice leader to take risks for the children, while the chief social work office provided me the latest practice research. I was supported in my decision to leave them within the wider family system, but build safety around them.

Leadership support and backing

If a tragedy happens, we need to know that we have leadership support and backing. Practice leaders need to understand practice methodologically and theoretically if they are to promote it. Let’s not shy away from raising the game as high as we can. Otherwise practice will stay risk averse and defensive.

Who is a practice leader?

Are principal social workers (PSWs) practice leaders? Maybe – perhaps some more than others. Are we a national force to be reckoned with? Not yet. Will we be? Unlikely. Why? Because too many PSWs are no longer in practice. They struggle to comment on how managerialist systems of work dominate.

Practice leaders can learn from the PSW experience to avoid this trap and offer a new vision for social work.

Fresh approaches

Recent radicalisation cases demonstrate why we need leaders who can create new structures. Currently, families in these cases are shoehorned though the traditional child protection system. If they don’t comply, courts grant wardship orders on teenagers, with families left on the sidelines.

This is neither right, nor just and disempowers a family’s right to lead solutions for their child. Perhaps the problem is trust. Do we trust families enough? Do we trust social workers enough? The system is geared towards watching and checking-up. Too many people are paid to watch and professional voices and professional spaces are favoured over those of the family and their networks.

How can family participation be weighted more evenly alongside professional input? Could the family group conference, which I think is better for cases of radicalisation risk, replace the traditional child protection conference system? Only practice leaders could drive such a change.

Leading from the front

Being the principal social worker is the most interesting role I have had, and there are many of us trying to agitate and influence. But we can’t change things. We can only try to influence within the existing structures. Practice leaders, and this should be the head of children’s social care (and adult services, although this hasn’t yet been proposed) need to be the first to be accredited, to truly lead practice from the front. There are many out there already. Some will argue that testing and accreditation is not relevant. I am arguing here that it couldn’t be more relevant for the leadership of a profession at risk.

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4 Responses to ‘Testing and accreditation couldn’t be more relevant for the leaders of a profession at risk’

  1. Peter Durrant August 5, 2015 at 11:32 am #

    Tony Stanley and congratulations on your direct and helpful article. Family conference approaches, also mentioned below, are a fine export from New Zealand to help us all think about neighbour-hood based preventative strategies. And I read recently that Essex are employing the same model working with people with recovering emotional health problems…

    As a long retired social worker – although I never liked the term and preferred the preface ‘community’ – I’m still retaining an interest in observing the College of SW in disarray. Together with what seems disillusionment with university-bound qualifications, the problem of explicitly describing what we all do, yet alone why, and an inability to work from the grass-roots upwards. Leading, as ever when I was practitioner in three local authorities, to a continuing search for that odd concept ‘professionalism.’ Ignoring what Bernard Shaw, accurately, argued in The Doctor’s Dilemma that it’s ‘a conspiracy against the laity.’ Why not stay with the definition of a trade reminding us that shared transactions and a more explicit statement of intent is a more honest way forward.

    Let’s start with us oldies, ten million of us now living alone, but who have a great deal to offer. With what seems to me to be only, crass, observations from the Third and other Sectors to ‘call on your neighbour and ask if they require a newspaper.’ There may not be too many viable alternatives around for us to re-invent ourselves but Google the more radical approach of theageofnoretirement for starters. Again, whilst Children and Social Work depts, who now seemed to have mysteriously excluded themselves from evolving Social Care, have a brave new approach borrowed from New Zealand through family group conferences. Which for the first time, arguably, in social work provides significant clues on how to monitor, observe and work with, and not for, people on the receiving ends of services. With even the central govt. project on troubled families, where on earth did they get that regressive title, thinking more equitably about positive interventions.

    Or what about poverty and there doesn’t seem too many clues here. Section One money, and I remember paying for a television licence for a family down on their luck, seems largely absent although if we re-thought credit unions through rediscovering Community Banks and work with hundreds of Social Enterprises, try SolidatoryNYC we’d be quids in. Ireland didn’t manage to reach £19b plus GDP without providing individually-based Friendly Society-like support, moving nicely away from poor man’s (and women’s) banking images. Whilst co-working, or co-production, or whatever they call it these days could even employ people as Cambridge VOICE and others do working with people with people with various sorts of learning disabilities. Isn’t that all of us? And, in passing, take a look at Anglia Ruskin’s social work course innovatory Social Users and Carer Involvement (SUCI) where its contributors are paid an hourly rate.

    Have you, or any authority, noticed that Bromley-by-Bow.healthcentre is still going strong after twenty-years in enabling and facilitating GP’s to work more helpfully, and successfully, with GP practices? Along with, one hopes, local authority social workers. Or what about reminding ourselves of the Barclay Report from thirty years ago still, straight-forwardly, showing us the more adventurous route towards community social work. We could even borrow from the hundreds of Meet-Ups, usually free, helping all of us lonely people to enjoy Unhurried and other Conversations. Or even when re-thinking our emotional health, and I’m allowed at my age to challenge the nomenclature, by rethinking the notion of Maxwell’s Jones’ Therapeutic Communities and Triage Support Services for vulnerable people.

    Although pro-active networking, learning how to consciously transfer power to key and natural figures, avoiding top-down systems and committing ourselves to Asset Based Community Development (ABCD), which quickly identify the huge amounts of knowledge, information and life experience out there in our neighbourhoods, represents only a few of the values and principles which Community Development theory and practice has given us over the years. Don’t believe me? Tune in then to the Independent Association of Community Social Workers – and I sometimes think myself and a community housing group in Gt Yarmouth are the only members in the south although there are over 4,000 world-wide, for some international messages of hope. Or try Rebecca’s, a scientist would you believe, teaching us all about local greens as we walk twice a week about Nightingale Park in Cambridge. Together with her self-learning community work skills in, hopefully, leading us to understand what Men’s Sheds could achieve for many of us. Although we’d need to re-name them Community, People’s, or whatever Sheds…..

  2. Tom Patterson August 5, 2015 at 12:10 pm #

    Interesting article which does point out that many Senior managers believe that their proceduralisation of the services and ” managerialism” makes them strong practice leaders

    In Scotland the team ” strong practice leadership” seems to have been appropriated as a cover for increased managerialism , bureaucracy and ever more tightly specified procedural frameworks.

    In the same way that the term “Social Work” has been purloined to all work done in the entire social care sector, and attempting to blur the professional Social Worker in with the generic “social care worker”/ ” Senior social car worker” nomenclature.

    It may be semantics, but the ownership of words and their interpretation is very powerful. And those who have power will not part with it easily to professional practitioners.

  3. Lee August 5, 2015 at 9:14 pm #

    This article from Tony is timely, it is perhaps a clear call to action for those in the role of principal social worker, holding the mirror up what has the role of PSW achieved? in some LA and other organisations it has created the space for challenge, improvement and ensuring the voice of social work is heard at the top table. The top table should be front line practice- this is where leadership and practice leadership is both crucial, and the glue that binds intervention and social work together. Strong senior leadership should be both tuned in and atuned to the challenges and success of front line practice- I do believe that the PSW function as envisaged by Munro has made a difference- but only where the senior leadership team has supported, promoted and indeed accepted the challenge and asking of those difficult questions.

    The practice leaderhsip role outlined by the CSW for children has merit- but if we are going to do this lets do it properly, dont just give this role and function as an add on to an operational senior manager if we do the risk of the same old same old will repeat itself and not lead to systems change-our profession needs to get this right, credibility reputation and foremost people and children who need social work services deserve this.

  4. james Marsh August 6, 2015 at 1:27 am #

    Interesting piece Tony, I could not agree more with your view that bureaucracy and a system obsessed with timescales rather than the quality of work and relationships with families is causing so much damage. There is a bigger issue which you do not touch upon though and that is the problem that as Peter Wanless (head of NSPCC) recently made that the public are more concerned with whether their bins are collected on time than whether children are safe. There are two possible hypothesis for this: 1) People are selfish and most don’t really care about anything other than their own welfare 2) Social work and child protection services have failed completely to explain the complexity of their role and why child protection matters. The truth is probably somewhere between the two.
    The fact is that most child protection services in the UK cause more harm than good, there is a large body of research spanning back 30 years that child protection conferences for example are a hideous experience for parents and children yet we still have these meetings and they have barely changed in most local authorities during those 30 years. 25 years ago the social workers in a local authority in the North went on strike for nearly a year and only carried out emergency work. There was a study carried out during that time that concluded that the fact that there were virtually no social workers carrying child protection or adult care work during that time made very little difference to service users. This rather depressing fact needs to be considered by leaders in social services particularly in the current context where social workers spend on average 75% of their time in front of a computer typing things into a system, most of which will never be read by anyone else (apart from maybe a senior manager carrying out an audit) and will make no difference to anyone including the families that pay our wages. There is a lot of money in child protection (just look at the massive fees that are paid to agency social workers right now) but most of it is pointless and there is a fairly strong argument that purposefully or not all it does is help the state to ‘police the poor’.