Social work must challenge Cameron’s reforms with a critical eye and an open mind

Comment: The profession needs to play the hand it has been dealt while confronting the government's lack of consultation on key changes

Picture credit: Ray Tang/Rex/Shutterstock
Picture credit: Ray Tang/Rex/Shutterstock

Here we go again. For the second time in seven years social workers face a dramatic overhaul of their profession.

The change programme set in track by David Cameron’s government differs markedly from the reforms that emerged from the 2009 social work taskforce. Back then the profession was asked what was needed to raise practice standards. This time it is being told.

The changes

With no warning, social workers found out they’ll get a new regulator and improvement body. Every children’s practitioner will face accreditation tests without promised consultation (see page 13 of this report) having taken place on whether they should be mandatory. Before an evaluation of the Frontline scheme has been published, ministers have pledged £100m for fast-track programmes so they can produce a quarter of new children’s social workers by 2018.

Meanwhile a child protection taskforce, made up of 12 ministers and zero social workers, will set about accelerating the ‘transformation’ of local authority children’s services. Those deemed failures will be taken over by third parties, while high performers will be given ‘academy style freedoms’.

The narrative

The detail on many of the changes is muddy. Clearer is the government’s narrative behind them.

Look past the praise of social workers as ‘unsung heroes’, and ministers are selling a story of remedying failure. Of rooting out weak council-run services and sorting out a broken social work education system accused of churning out too many poorly trained graduates.

Notably absent is any desire to strengthen social work’s ‘national voice’. That was a key driver of the 2009 reforms, and led to the establishment of The College of Social Work and the chief social worker roles.

The government withdrew support for the College last year, after the organisation ran into financial problems. The chief social workers have given social work a presence in Whitehall but some fear ministers have used this to effectively replace, rather than aid, consultation with the wider profession when it suits.

A daunting task

Social work’s representative bodies, particularly the British Association of Social Workers, face a daunting task in responding to the changes.

Gone, at least on the children’s side of policymaking, is a strong desire for consensus building. The government has lost trust in the idea social work can reform itself.

The financial mess The College got itself into hardly helped. But before its demise ministers were already looking elsewhere for solutions to social work’s problems – the Narey review of social work education one high profile example.

Since The College closed, another reform symbolic of professional-led change –  the Professional Capabilities Framework – has effectively been put out to pasture. There is a new game in town.

The views of a narrow, but trusted, group of advisers and pro-reformers now holds greatest sway. Consultation with the wider profession is often piecemeal and limited to scraps of reforms, rather than the fundamental direction of travel.

Opportunities and dangers

Many social workers’ initial reaction to Cameron’s changes has been to point to the realities of practice, the unsettling effect of constant upheaval and the financial context facing staff and those they support.

The truth is the profession must play the hand it has been dealt. Its representatives must keep a cool head, weigh up the potential opportunities and dangers of what is on the table, and present a confident case for the measures they can and cannot support.

That will involve keeping an open mind. Yes accreditation is causing anxieties among many practitioners but could it offer avenues for the  post-qualifying development many social workers have long craved? In adult social work the approved mental health professional and best interests assessor roles have brought welcome recognition of advanced social work practice.

In regulation, social workers have plenty of misgivings about the Health and Care Professions Council, particularly because of its wide multi-professional remit. Could the creation of a new body focused purely on social work offer the chance to address some of these issues?

And while legitimate questions surround the growing inequity in financial support between fast-track and traditional social work education, the trainees graduating from Frontline and other schemes could prove a real boon to the profession. They should not be written off, nor should those graduating on the traditional routes ministers have criticised.

There will also need to be strong critique and challenge. But any opposition must draw extensively on the knowledge that comes from day-to-day practice. It should be evidence-based, focused, and seek to build alliances with service users to ensure it does not lose sight of what matters to the people social workers support. Little impact will come from simply decrying austerity or claiming ‘back door privatisation’.

Key questions

A starting point could be to push for transparency on many of the unanswered questions from last week’s announcement.

For example, why less than four years after the government disbanded the General Social Care Council, is it proposing setting up a new regulator? How much will this cost? Is it the best use of money given the cuts frontline services face and the recruitment and retention problems facing many local authorities?

Why didn’t the government wait until an evaluation of Frontline’s effectiveness was published before investing another tranche of public money into the scheme? Likewise, why were ministers quick to give so much weight to largely anecdotal evidence of traditional education routes failing? There are issues with social work education but a report out this week also suggests more students are actually graduating with good degrees and getting jobs.

What will happen to social workers who fail their accreditation tests? How much will accreditation cost to deliver? What is meant by ‘academy style’ freedoms in the context of children’s social work, beyond a soundbite that plays well with the Conservative grassroots?

And given these reforms are largely driven by the Department for Education, what do they really mean for social workers in adults services or those working outside statutory services altogether? Is the government genuinely committed, or simply paying lip service, to the idea of a unified social work profession?

There may be good answers to these questions. Social workers deserve to know. Education secretary Nicky Morgan said “it is on the shoulders of social workers that the success of the system rests”. That’s why they need to be involved properly in reform plans, not blindsided by announcements every few months from a government that claims to value them.

10 Responses to Social work must challenge Cameron’s reforms with a critical eye and an open mind

  1. Robert Templeton January 20, 2016 at 8:21 am #

    Very Good article outlining the challenge to Social Work. I believe that top-down initiatives carry the risk of ignoring the great work already being carried out. There is a need to work with existing structures, building upon and strengthen what is already there and working well in social work. ‘A scorched earth’ approach may further cleanse the talent and enthusiasm from the profession just when we need it most. But as the article says we must play the hand we have been dealt and keep a cool head and an open mind.

  2. Popeye January 20, 2016 at 12:16 pm #

    Bit hard to scrutunise when the social work force gets drained further due to the latest view out of central government in which they say New Zealanders earning under £35,000 will be deported. Its ironic that English speaking New Zealanders might be deported.

    That new view might also extend to other commonwealth countries and may also apply to social workers from those countries, and also health professionals, teachers, students, and police and charity workers. Personally I don’t know any social workers on the front line who earn £35,000, not even with AMP or Best Interest Assessors skills, or even forensic social workers. ideas like this will further undermine already stretched front line social work.

  3. Tom Hughes January 20, 2016 at 12:33 pm #

    Given that Cameron has deemed G4S as suitable to look after Young People by paying public money to beat them up, i.e Panorama, I think I would take his views on Social Work with extreme caution.

  4. Helen Gormley January 20, 2016 at 2:48 pm #

    time we took the same stance as the fire service, the junior Doctors and teachers and start standing up together united challenge the oppression expressed by the government to this industry and service users and say a rather large and authoritative NO

  5. loiner January 20, 2016 at 7:34 pm #

    the top down approach has been discredited in adult care, only in children’s care does it happen………..person centred care has been proved time and again to have much better outcome’s for service users……move with the times social work people…….in practise person centred care is great

  6. Ian Mancor January 20, 2016 at 8:44 pm #

    What a load of sanctimonious drivel! The government tell social workers to jump and they’re supposed to respond by asking How High! It’s about time social workers stood up for themselves and took a leaf out of the junior doctors book. They need to fight back and take industrial action. The Tories are dismantling the welfare state. They’ve already imposed draconian cuts to council budgets. It’s impossible to deliver services to clients if you haven’t got any resources! It’s no good waffling about your “practice” because they’ll be nothing left to practice with!

  7. Chris Brazendale January 21, 2016 at 12:22 am #

    We really need our own professional trade union (BASW doesn’t count -they’re all academics). Ideally we should refuse to co-operate with the accreditation proposals. Most of my colleagues don’t even know about them.

  8. Mike Richards January 21, 2016 at 1:24 am #

    Why oh why does government not realise the social work task is already perilously difficult and that mounting pressure that feels like blame is likely to fuel the exodus from the job. What is needed is a supportive arena pulling us forward rather than weighing us down. The fundamental error seems to be looking only at outcomes for service users (I agree they should be much better) and blaming the SW profession for those poor outcomes. This fails to recognise that SW’s did not make the system they just work it. As a manger I can look forward to even more recruitment issues and they are serious already.

  9. Andy West January 21, 2016 at 9:53 am #

    I totally agree with you Ian. I think the argument that taking industrial action will harm clients is a nonsense in the face of the attack upon the welfare state by this government. I think we also have got to be aware that this government is proposing further restricting the possibility of taking industrial action by unions and therefore to enable them to further roll back the state and support to those who are most vulnerable. (though of course this does not stop them ordering the public sector around as they of course know more about social work, teaching and the health service than those who do it day in and day out) When you also add in the proposed changes to constituency boundaries that will heavily weigh in the Tories favour and their plans to change how unions and the public purse fund political parties we are staring at an extremely long term restructuring of public services in this country for the worse. I feel it is sickening as to how leaders in social care have kowtowed to the government as demonstrated in this article. I leave aside those who act as the government’s henchmen in order to advance their own careers.

  10. Andrew Grant January 21, 2016 at 3:12 pm #

    The Social Work Profession has become the front line for taking the blame for this dreadful disingenuous governments dismantling of the Welfare State. We have a poor government driven by appeasing big business that invests in the few rather than the many. Cameron and all the other cronies have not a clue regarding good practise ,their own practise at best is poor. We are human engineers who at best fix people and make their lives better. This Government continually keeps removing our tools (resources)then questioning why we cannot deliver the services we are supposed to provide!