‘Dear education secretary’: a social worker’s open letter on the state of the profession

Practitioner and blogger Social Work Tutor appeals to the government to rethink its approach to reforming the profession

Picture credit: Rex/Cultura. Posed by model
Picture credit: Rex/Cultura. Posed by model

Dear Mrs. Morgan,

This week you announced your plans for the future of child protection social work, setting out a range of goals that you hope to achieve over the course of this current parliament. In this speech you detailed plans for accreditation tests and a new intake of high achieving graduates that you hope will help my profession to ‘get it right’.

This week I have once again worked at least 10 hours over the 37 I am paid for and I have no hope of claiming this time back. I have either skipped lunch or eaten at my desk every day in order to dedicate my time to vulnerable people. If I didn’t work these extra hours, I would have no chance of providing the written evidence that I am demanded to in order to justify every action I take and every decision I make. If I didn’t work for free I would not have any time to see families; around 80% of my time being spent at a desk creating reports and observations.

‘Getting it right’

You claim that you will help my colleagues and I to ‘get it right’, with the inference we must currently be ‘getting it wrong’. Am I getting it wrong when forced to apply for food parcels because families cannot afford to eat? Is it my fault that changes to legal aid mean vulnerable parents cannot afford legal advice when facing private law proceedings? Should I accept the blame for having to provide gas and electric funds when benefits sanctions mean children are living in cold and dark homes?

Your government is presiding over a period of inequality that I have not known in my lifetime and the narrative you are feeding the public is that my profession is not getting it right. Worse than this, your solution is to seek to recruit bright young things who will come and save the profession by following a ‘fast track’ approach to training.

‘The pressure of accreditation’

You admit in your speech that you and those close to you have no experience of social care and yet, in the same breath, claim to offer us a solution to our problems by raising standards and recruiting a new wave of workers. The profession is haemorrhaging staff, with many failing authorities kept afloat by an increased reliance on agency workers, do you not consider what the pressure of accreditation and individual grading will bring?

On that point I should actually be grateful for only working 50 hours this week; next year I might be facing a 50 hour week followed by revising at home in order to justify that I am still capable of completing a job I have sacrificed my life to.

Please reconsider this approach you are taking and reflect on the underlying issues here. A new wave of intensely trained professionals will not address cycles of deprivation that are decades in the making. Threats to jail social workers will not save young girls who are targeted by sexual predators due to mental health issues, a lack of adequate parenting and vulnerability.

Accreditation tests will not prevent the societal risk factors of deprivation, domestic violence and poverty your own government’s policies are fuelling.

Before you look to blame our profession, look at the changes your government can make. Then we might stand a better chance of ‘getting it right’.

SWT

The author is a child protection social worker (@socialworktutor)

23 Responses to ‘Dear education secretary’: a social worker’s open letter on the state of the profession

  1. Semi A January 16, 2016 at 1:20 pm #

    Preach!

    • Chidi Ogbonnia January 19, 2016 at 2:53 pm #

      Dear Social Work tutor, you couldn’t have written better. BRILLIANT and straight to the point.
      Keep it up,

    • Louise January 20, 2016 at 11:02 pm #

      Word and value perfect. Thank you for expressing so clearly our day to day working efforts. In solidarity.

  2. Joship January 16, 2016 at 4:19 pm #

    Well said, we have a right to reply via the children’s social work reform enquiry of the education select committee. The more to do so the better. The profession is being vilified for one reason, opening the door to the private sector. See link below, let’s tell the how it really is. Responses need to be in by the end of March.

    http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/education-committee/news-parliament-2015/children-social-work-reform-launch-15-16/

    • Planet Autism January 18, 2016 at 2:35 pm #

      Joship, I think the profession is being vilified not for the reason you suggest, but for wrongful interventions in families that are innocent, adoptions without consent, lack of support for families that do need it before reaching crisis, because social care sets the bar too high and is reactive. The blame culture within social care also needs addressing. It seems to me ‘you can dish it out but you can’t take it’!

  3. Maria January 17, 2016 at 2:10 am #

    Well said Social Work Tutor!

    I love following your page and appreciate your advocacy for the social work profession.

    In Australia, things are not much different when it comes to the expectation from above for us to do more with less and it’s getting worse.

    In the decade I’ve been working in child protection, I have experienced so many barriers to doing my job properly. I love my job but the bureaucracy that governs it has got it all wrong.

    We are constantly under pressure with case plan statistics when meanwhile our day to day job is taken up with putting out fire after fire.

    With high caseloads and lack of professional support, it’s like we are swimming upstream all the time.

    As Richard Branson clearly appreciates, people are your greatest resource. When are Governments going to acknowledge this and treat us accordingly?

  4. Ray Jones January 18, 2016 at 10:44 am #

    THANK YOU!!!! Not only for your tremendous commitment to children and families but also for being a champion for social work and social workers and telling it like it is. Now we need to make ourselves collectively stronger as a profession and to get out to the public the realities and stories about the awful lives of deprivation being created by politically-chosen agendas.

  5. Get me out of here January 18, 2016 at 10:49 am #

    Well said Social Work Tutor, unfortunately your words will fall on deaf ears. The agenda is clearly to follow the shock doctrine, denigrate, castigate and offer privatisation as the solution. I am also a Social Worker and in all honesty this Government hates Social Workers and since taking office have ruthlessly set about dismantling terms and conditions of employment taking away pension rights, freezing our pay and in real terms cutting our pay. I am told that hard choices are needed because this Government have cut 40% of the budget for providing care to vulnerable adults and children. Those hard choices are not that hard for Tory Councils and include forcing cuts to terms and conditions of employment. I would absolutely agree that the poverty you are seeing will get worse as the Austerity agenda is offloaded onto the weakest and poorest people in society. Last week I had to deal with a young women who had been treated with radiotherapy for cancer of the throat, her immediate battle was just staying alive. This lady then showed me letters she had received calling her for fitness to work interviews and another letter saying her Housing Benefit had been stopped and her employment support allowance cut as she was not available for work, effectively making her destitute. This is what you get when you elect heartless and cruel tory workhouse masters to run the country. I am ashamed to live in such a heartless and cruel society as this but I will keep on doing my small bit in attempting to bring about change for the better. Bringing in Super Social Worker will not change anything for the better as I have said previously this is about ideology and scapegoating, tell a lie often enough and it becomes the truth. Social Workers are not the problem but they are a convenient scapegoat to sell to the public as being useless and in need of the big stick to make them better. I always wanted to use my skills to make things better for people, but the scope for achieving that is rapidly disappearing in the new world of the Big Society and the belief that the way to help the poor is to make them even poorer. My prediction misery will increase in line with the obsession this Government has with its hatred towards the poor, disabled and vulnerable people in general. Nicky Morgan is just another Tory with a big stick coming our way.

  6. Sue January 18, 2016 at 10:55 am #

    This letter needs to be tweeted and also posted on face book.
    This government has utterly undermined the perception of the public about caring professions; whether we talk about doctors, lawyers(legal aid), teachers, carers of the elderly. We are protrayed as incompetent and voraciously greedy. The reality is that as we are squeezed to the point that our working hours and practices in no way correlate with the either the wage we receive or indeed any working regime that could be described as physically or mentally beneficial to the intelligent, articulate people who entered these professions full of energy and desire to make a difference.
    We are day in and day out confronted with the most vulnerable and deprived people who have needs that we struggle to meet as a result of government cuts. Their plight is compounded by the governments attempts to deprive them not only of a reasonable level of benefit but also of the resources they should be signposted to, to address poverty, learning difficulties , mental health problems and drug and alcohol difficulties, to allow them the chance to bring up their own families, find work, make a contribution.
    I do not follow this government’s logic. I do not think at 50 I have ever lived in a more socially divided Britain.

  7. J O B January 18, 2016 at 11:03 am #

    Well said and thank you for putting so eloquently everything I would have said and more.

  8. Julia January 18, 2016 at 11:11 am #

    Eloquently and passionately written. These thoughts are probably echoed by everyone in the profession. This government has become adept at causing misery and deprevation on a massive scale and deflecting it as the fault of others.

  9. Jeff Hatcher January 18, 2016 at 11:30 am #

    We’ve recently seen Junior Doctors coming out to stand up for themselves and to challenge government ideological stances that will damage the NHS and put patients at risk. Maybe it’s time we collectively stood up together, fought for a governing body that stands for us as a profession rather than some hyper-punitive quango that hangs us out to dry, There are so many parallels between how social work, parenting, and government intervention is undertaken. Hyper-criticism in all three hampers development and improvement and achieves the opposite to what is desired. Firm expectations in all three are to be expected, but only when combined with support and an atmosphere that creates positive experiences for change will improvement be seen. Successive governments have taken the stance of cold, distant and punitive parents towards the profession, perpetrating almost emotionally abusuve ways of management towards us as a whole. If we saw parents treating children in this way we would intervene, but we just tend to grumble into our coffee and meekly so as we are told, generally because the job leaves us too exhausted to fight.. If our politicians want things to improve, they need to engender an environment that nurtures and encourages, rather than criticises and punishes, and resource the services properly.

    Maybe it us time for Communuty Care, BASW, Unison and all those with a voice to stand up to these foolish and narrow minded decisions. Maybe it is time for the profession, like the junior doctors have done so recently, to make a stand. I’ve served in the Armed Forces for over 20 years, and been a Social Worker for 15. I’m used to following orders, but also standing up for the vulnerable. Sometimes we cannot do both. Sometimes they are not compatible. Watching our government tear down our profession breaks my heart. I have never felt so militant in my life as I do now.

    Maybe it’s time to fight for what’s right. For the profession, got our services, for our colleagues, for our service users, and for ourselves.

  10. L Wilson January 18, 2016 at 2:23 pm #

    They will be jailing social workers to stop them leaving the profession soon!

  11. Soupy January 18, 2016 at 9:28 pm #

    Dear SWT, thank you for taking the time out of your demanding week to write this, I appreciate it, a CP social worker x

  12. Concerned January 18, 2016 at 9:37 pm #

    Dear Social Work tutor thank you for expressing the views of the profession in a way that the so called leaders of our workforce seem incapable of doing. As someone who is involved with educating social work students I also feel a sense of dread for these poorly informed recruits who will be on this Frontline experiment. They have no idea what awaits them in practice and how inadequate their training will be in falling short of the support needed to help them survive out there today. There are currently 13,000 vacancies in front line practice, HEI’s train 4,000 newly qualified social workers after two or three year programmes each year. This initiative Nicky Morgan has announced will train 3,000 new recruits by 2020 who have followed a fourteen month course with a maximum of eight weeks in the educational setting. Students need time to reflect on their practice and to develop as professionals. This approach to training is a ‘sink’ or ‘swim’ approach and condemns these new recruits to a highly stressed environment well in advance of their capability to make sound decisions.

  13. Daphne Sanders January 19, 2016 at 10:11 am #

    As a retired social worker, I am grateful to you for speaking up. I can scarcely bear to see our hard-won knowledge and skills, the product of decades of experience, not being used as they could be to make the lives of children and their families better.

  14. Pancho January 19, 2016 at 4:00 pm #

    I would be willing to bet that this social worker, or, indeed any social worker, can take half an hour off during the day to eat a jam butty without the world coming to a juddering halt.

    • Beth January 20, 2016 at 7:05 pm #

      No but that half hour is another half hour of out of date work that you will be criticised for! We are not a 999 service but it’s a mad job! I’ve worked in social care over 30 years but this year will begin my retraining.
      It’s legal the lack of breaks/long hours! I don’t mind working hard but increasingly these fast track corporate types are leading social work. They are clueless. Ics is set up for audits and ofsted not the sw! We need reduced case loads and pa support!
      We do not need informing how to do our jobs! I know how to engage families and initiate change but you social work are loosing your best and most experienced to this nonsense!
      Give me five years if that! The gov will not be assessing my fitness to practice!

  15. Ellie January 19, 2016 at 4:54 pm #

    Perhaps my reply will not be appreciated, but I will say it as I see it…

    The matter we are dealing with, here, is complex; just like the social inequalities that Social Workers tackle on a day-to-day basis, the public perception of Social Work has been a long time in the making. I would argue that the somewhat vitriolic, and ignorant, comment by “Planet Autism” sums up adequately the view of Social Workers so often held by the general public. Social Workers are seen as “baby stealers”, as “interferers and nosey-parkers”! Why? Personally, I would argue that media influence is much to blame. The media, and the public who read or watch it, have a strong taste for titillating and salacious gossip. This amounts to what sells newspapers, or makes a TV “soap opera” compelling viewing. Since when did we ever see a soap opera portrayal of a Social Worker that was positive? Since when did news stories focus on any good work done by the profession?

    Sadly, people tend to believe the media stereotypes; I would argue that this is, in part, because too few people question stereotypes (they merely accept, blindly), but also because recent events have suggested that there is a pitiful grain of truth to the negative perceptions. The Social Work profession, in light of what happened to “Baby P” and “Victoria Climbie”, has been seen to fail people. Alas, despite the fact that these cases were not necessarily representative of what ALL Social Workers do – indeed, they were very unfortunate blunders, that demonstrate all that is worst about the profession; but are clearly inaccurate reflections of the day-to-day work of many Social Work professionals – they gained Social Work a “bad press”. Sensationalism sells newspapers, remember, and these chilling stories WERE sensationalist! But, the unfortunate consequence was that they both reinforced the media’s negative stereotyping of Social Workers, and they tarred all of the profession with the same brush.

    Once a profession has lost public support, it is very easy for anyone and everyone to criticise it. Added to this, it would seem to me (having been a Social Worker, myself) that very few people actually know what Social Workers do for a living. Even my own parents were unclear as to what I did as a Social Worker, and why I chose to do it! I would argue that this highlights a significant lack of public awareness regarding the profession, and its role.

    By contrast, other healthcare workers such as Doctors and Nurses are VERY good at cultivating their professional image. The NHS is a massive workforce, and thus it affords protection and prestige to its workers in a way that the lowly Social Work profession does not. Just look at the way the media, and the public, view Nurses and Doctors. Why, Nurses are seen as “angels”; Doctors as “heroic”! This is despite the fact that BOTH jobs got a very bad press because of people like Beverly Allitt and Harold Shipman. Because Nursing and Medicine are well-known jobs, which even the general public appear to have some understanding of, they were far more able to “weather the storm” of negative press. TV programmes like “Casualty” and “Holby City” continue to depict Nurses and Doctors as caring, kind people… when do they ever feature Social Workers, let alone featuring positive depictions of Social Workers? The very fact that so few TV programmes even have Social Workers in them (including so-called “medical” soap operas) shows that pretty much nobody knows what Social Workers actually do. A profession that is not understood is a profession ever so likely to be publicly misunderstood, and thus misrepresented!

    I would argue that, to some extent, the Social Work profession has itself to blame for this. Social Work, as a profession, never seems to “blow its own trumpet” the way that Nurses and Doctors do. These jobs have obviously spent time cultivating their image – far be it from me to know exactly how – but they appear to have done something that has lead to a public, and media, perception that glorifies them in the main. Could it be that organizations like the General Medical Council, Nursing & Midwifery Council, and Royal College of Nurses know how to court the media in a way that the Social Work professional bodies do not? Have they somehow forged links with media, and other high-profile public organizations, that they can use to portray them in a positive light? Are we looking at the art of selling oneself, or selling a profession? After all, EVERY profession has to have a public profile, and this ought to be carefully cultivated… just HOW does a profession go about doing this? Has Social Work even stopped to consider such a question? I’ll bet Nursing and Medicine did!

    At this present time, I would argue that both the NHS and Social Services are coming under intense scrutiny. Perhaps the negative press HAS affected both, to such an extent that an overhaul is warranted? When things go publicly wrong for any profession – when high-profile cases such as that of “Baby P” hit the media – it is admittedly time to take stock. Rather than viewing this as something to fear, something to be concerned about, perhaps the Social Work profession should accept that it is actually no bad thing. All failures, all mistakes, are valid learning experiences. NOBODY gets it right all the time! We humans can learn much from admitting to our errors, taking ownership of them, and then investigating what can be done to ensure that they never happen again.

    This could be a time of OPPORTUNITY for Social Work, as has never existed before. Hear me out, before you shoot me down in flames! Yes, the profession is coming under scrutiny – including Government scrutiny. Good! That finally places Social Work in the limelight; it finally gives Social Workers the chance to showcase their profession, and to educate the general public, media, and Government alike as to what they actually do. It also gives the profession the opportunity to take stock, to re-evaluate – what are its values; what is its knowledge base; what level of qualification, training and expertise does it expect of workers? It affords Social Work the chance to begin building a positive public profile by embracing change, not shying away from it. Yes – this may be a difficult period, but it’s time to see that there are some advantages to be gained…

    So, the Government has “plans” for Social Work as a profession… work with those plans. Work on the Government to influence those plans. Show the Government what Social Workers do… what it means to work in Children & Families services, or Mental Health… Give clear examples of what staff DO on a day-to-day basis. Use these examples to highlight the impact of budget cuts, to make a case for why it is that the profession requires better finding, increased staffing levels. As to the new recruits that the Government intends to train up… Don’t sneer at them. Don’t reject them. Embrace them! The profession NEEDS more recruits; true, how they are trained, and to what standard may well be a viable subject for future debate, BUT right now, surely it is beneficial to have more recruits.

    Social Work, as a profession, needs to use this time wisely. It needs to find its identity, and to work on building a positive public image. It needs to strip away the “dead wood”, too – tackling all the unnecessary burocracy, and levels of management, that have turned the job into such a nightmare. Perhaps chains of command need to be streamlined? Perhaps the profession needs to adopt a new approach that sees Social Work managers, and senior managers, employed from the ranks of “grass roots” Social Workers, instead of from outside organizations (i.e. big business)? Perhaps managers and senior managers need to be trained Social Workers themselves, so they better understand the actual job, and see the human perspective to it? Perhaps the way Social Workers work needs to be changed, so that less time is consumed by admin, and more time is spent working with people who use Social Services? Perhaps new and more effective models of care need to be brought in? Perhaps more effective integrated team working with the NHS needs to be enforced? Perhaps the Social Work profession needs to become more adept at undertaking and publishing research into methods of care that will benefit people? Perhaps Social Workers have to learn to show an interest in, and champion, research? Perhaps forward-thinking staff, and staff who “think outside the box”, need to be more encouraged and rewarded? Perhaps outdated and ineffective ways of working need to be eradicated? Perhaps Social Workers’ innovation and creativity needs to be highlighted, and supported? Perhaps Social Work needs to finally adopt a new professional body that will protect and nurture the profession; as opposed to a mere registration body that does little more than castigate workers and bleed them financially dry? Perhaps the profession needs to learn to trumpet its successes loudly to the world?!

    Maybe this is the time to make it happen? To force the Government to listen; to encourage debate about training, qualifications, registration, funding, budgets, cuts…? To open the eyes of the general public? To overhaul Social Work’s professional image; and to create a new professional body that, as opposed to enforcing registration and acting punitively against Social Workers, will protect them, promoting the profession as one to be proud of?

    I have NOT had an easy life, that I will admit… BUT, there are some things that I am beginning to learn in life. One is that you gain NOTHING by sitting silently with one’s discontentment, for fear of “rocking the boat”! Sometimes the boat truly needs to be rocked, perhaps even scuttled! You don’t get what you want if you are terrified to ask. NOW is Social Work’s time to ask the Government for what it wants. Clearly, the profession has the Government’s ear, the Government’s interest… It’s time to work out what is required to secure the Government’s funding and support.

    Let me put it another way… It’s better to be noticed, sometimes for the wrong reasons, than never to be noticed at all. Once you have somebody’s attention, then you have a chance to work on getting what you want and need from that person. Social Work now has the attention of the Government, the media and the public. Think on that!

  16. Sally-ann January 20, 2016 at 8:07 am #

    Such a great letter and well thought out responses.

    The Social Worker’s Assembly are proposing to prepare a collective response to the Education Select Committee.

    Any Children’s social workers who would like to respond but don’t have time to prepare a response themselves are welcome to join the group and add their views:

    https://www.facebook.com/groups/489193371243443/

  17. Nell January 20, 2016 at 7:43 pm #

    Ellie, I agree with so much of what you say, particularly in regard to how social work is understood (or not) and how it is portrayed in the media. I would also agree that in the main, attention for a profession can be an opportunity for a better public understanding and central resourcing. Sadly however, I am unable to agree that this is likely to be true in terms of social work. You see, it is the underlying reason for this current level of scrutiny which is troubling. This is not scrutiny with transparency. I think we all know there are agendas at work which support this administrations mealy mouthed and punitive approach to spending money on the vulnerable. The hard truth is that we do not generate income and we cost a considerable amount. You may say that this is also true of other services, notably the health service – but the difference is that everyone has a level of contact with Health services and hospitals and the better understanding people have of health professions is allied to the fact that no-one can be complacent about their own and their families health. Most people will never have ANY contact with social workers and if they do, they are likely to be very disadvantaged, needy and (lets face it) materially poor. Hence the ‘disposable’ attitude of a government which gives not a fig for poverty stricken families, towards those trained and paid to help them. However, if this beleaguered profession gives those in charge an opportunity to take some graduates out of unemployment, then they won’t let scruples get in the way of statistics.

    In relation to advocacy for social work – the elephant in the room is the Chief Social Worker herself, now an experienced civil servant but also a registered social worker. Where is the voice of the worker on the ground, the positive public face of the profession? Yes, I fully accept the need for ongoing challenge and development but it would be good if it were tempered with a a little respect and reassurance for the profession she has chosen. I don’t hear it. Or perhaps she has now chosen differently. Its a debate I am just too weary to contemplate. She has the governments ear but sadly, I think the government may have her integrity. It is a lost opportunity and I fear that the level of scrutiny and reform will be yet another.

    Best wishes

  18. Sue Holliday January 20, 2016 at 10:22 pm #

    I so agree with social work tutor and I don’t see why we as a profession should be bashed yet again. Can we get this letter onto facebook as soon as possible please? There is a facebook item called Dr Rant critiquing the governments cuts to NHS.. We need the same for social work. Lets stand up for what we believe in like the Junior Doctors

    • Sammi Morgans January 22, 2016 at 12:53 pm #

      I concur Sue Holliday:

      * 1 – with exactly what the SWT has said (Huge congrats there and thank you for standing up for everything SW stands for, your honesty and for the good of who SW serves)

      * 2 – Yes.. lets get this on Facebook. I know that I want others to read this and not just the professionals that make or break this god damn situation we are all facing but those who use the services.