The past week has seen two reminders of the power professionals can have in determining the future of their own careers.
In education, the government dropped plans to force all schools in England to become academies. Then, in health, we had Jeremy Hunt’s decision to ‘pause’ the imposition of new contracts on junior doctors.
Both outcomes came after professionals launched committed, coordinated campaigns and indicated a willingness to take strike action to defend their positions (the doctors used the strike option). Facing a backlash against plans to impose change, ministers showed reason – or at least restraint – and are rethinking the proposals.
Lessons for social work?
Social workers are facing major changes being imposed on us too. Among them are accreditation, a new regulator, an overhaul of our education and training system, and the threat of being imprisoned for ‘wilful neglect’ if we’re deemed to have failed to protect children.
Could our profession match the impact achieved by our brothers and sisters in education and health if we stood up and fought back against policies we disagreed with?
History suggests not. I certainly can’t recall an example where social workers have secured the kind of concessions from government we’ve seen over the last week.
Yes we take some action. We join protests with other local authority workers against unfair working conditions and salary issues. However, these generally concern wider public services rather than an effort to stand up for social work itself.
To be fair I do see a number of my more politically active colleagues, those that cling to the ideals of radical social work, taking part in anti-austerity matches whilst holding up placards of support from our vocation.
I also read many opinion pieces and watch a lot of lectures about everything wrong with our profession and all the things that we need to change.
However I see few direct actions to affect any of these needed changes. I also see little recognition, outside of our professional bubble, that frontline social workers disagree with much of what is being imposed on us by the government.
I’ve never heard from one practising social worker (and at the time of writing I have 164,000 people who are fans of my Facebook page) who thinks plans to jail social workers for a professional neglect of duty are needed.
I can’t recall any social worker telling me they needed compulsory accreditation testing in order to do their job better.
I’m not aware of any social workers who believe it’s fair to take money from traditional university students and divert it towards fast-track courses (although, as I have previously argued, I do feel that the students coming in through this route are needed).
For all that this is the reality as I see it on the frontline, and that is shared with me by thousands of people on a weekly basis, for some reason this message does not reach far beyond our own profession.
For that reason I remain downcast when reflecting on the prospects that a change is coming that will benefit frontline workers.
I am now convinced that Munro’s review of child protection will never be fully-heeded. I have prepared myself for compulsory accreditation. I know that I’ll soon have to double-down on my case recording to protect myself from going to prison.
I’m ready for a workplace that will be dominated by the practices of those coming though fast-track courses and that this level of training will be seen as the gold standard I’ll need to aim for; especially when the first waves of managers from this route begin to emerge.
I’ve accepted all of this because, from past experience, I’ve seen that we allow ourselves to be walked all over as a profession.
While teachers and doctors have been galvanised to fight for their profession, I see little direct action from our own workforce that suggests a will to fight against what is being imposed upon us. The flame of radical social work has burned down to a softly glowing ember.
Why are we lying down? Maybe it’s the fact that, as caring professionals, we give so much of our energy to others that means there’s little left to advocate for ourselves. Maybe our lack of unified professional identity, our discipline spread across so many diverse roles and different aspects of humanity, dampens our roar.
Maybe my own situation typifies part of the problem, a lapsed member of both Unison and BASW, so committed to the job and scant time with my own family that I have nothing left over for direct activism.
Whatever the drivers behind our lot, social workers let ourselves be walked over time and time again to the point where we risk accepting whatever is imposed upon us.
While our friends in education and health fight back and make themselves heard, we risk being subjugated by those who seek to shape our profession to fit their own ideologies. This is an ideology that, as I have explained previously, currently paints our workforce as poorly trained, ineffective and incapable of adequately safeguarding those in need.
I don’t yet know how we can improve our current position and galvanise our profession (I’m working on that one) but I know that accepting we have an issue in this area is the beginning of change.
Social workers must accept that we have a PR issue. We must accept that we lack a clear professional identity and we must get better at working together.
Maybe if we accept these problems and begin a discussion about tackling them, we might eventually be able to stand up for ourselves and have a shot at achieving the kind of victories recently seen by our medical and teaching colleagues.
The author is a child protection social worker and tweets at @socialworktutor