“The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air”.
The opening lines from The Lord of The Rings come to mind as I reflect on a major week for the world of social work.
In case you need a recap, the past few days have seen:
- The publication of the Children and Social Work Bill, legislation that spells major change for our profession.
- News that Channel 4 will screen an undercover documentarythat looks set to expose the gritty reality of frontline child protection work.
- The council that is the subject of the documentary, Birmingham, announcing it will move its children’s services from local authority control into an independent trust.
- A series of national newspapers leading with high profile stories on the impact of more than 150,000 pre-school children being referred to children’s services in a year.
In short, the political and media spotlight is on social work. It’s an odd feeling. As a profession we’re used to being marginalised in comparison to health or education colleagues. Now we’re getting a level of attention social work has long needed.
Arguments will rumble on as to whether the nature of the attention we’re getting is positive or negative. Questions abound. Does the media have a hidden agenda? Is there a secret purpose in the government’s plans to privatise our services by stealth? What will the added pressure do to an already beleaguered workforce?
Those debates will continue for some time. Yet I feel that our profession must embrace the attention we’re currently getting and harness it for good.
Let me state, I’m no government lackey. I’ve written critically about the government’s plans, and the prime minister’s rhetoric, around social work in recent weeks. I have no problem offering criticism whenever I see issues I feel will impact our ability to protect children from harm.
However, I also try to ensure that this criticism is fair and balanced. I want to avoid falling back on clichéd arguments around ‘nasty Tories’ that simply want our services to fail and be privatised or, worse, slurs like ‘Cameron left his own kid in a pub’.
Making these straw man arguments in response to the major changes facing us, in my view at least, lacks impact. It does little to deal with the current issues we face and leaves us too open to being easily dismissed at a time we have a series of entirely legitimate and important concerns to raise with those in power.
Likewise, continually taking the stance that the government is out to ‘get us’ prevents meaningful debate. It has contributed to a mindset from civil servants and ministers that any criticism of their agenda is quickly shot down as people being ‘negative’ (although civil servants and ministers must also acknowledge their role in creating that climate).
This Mexican standoff is not helpful for those that we came into this profession to support.
Practising in frontline child protection, I regularly talk with families about the need to have all voices represented in plans to address need and risk. When I attend family courts in relation to private law cases over where children will live, parents are asked to mediate. Even our own professional guidance asks us to ‘Work Together’ in order to effectively safeguard children.
It seems remiss not to take our own best practice into mind at a time when our profession is on the cusp of major changes.
The political landscape
Whichever political party we each backed in last year’s general election, and whatever we made of the result, the current government was voted in with a mandate to rule and has a 12 seat majority.
The next election is four years away. We will have to work with the current government over at least that period. It could be longer too given the continued infighting within the Labour Party threatens to undermine Jeremy Corbyn’s efforts to provide a credible alternative to the centre-right that has dominated politics for decades.
The average length of a career in frontline social work is reportedly seven years. If that’s true, at least half that career will be spent under majority Tory rule.
I can’t help but feel this is a time to come together to try and find a common ground in child protection. We can start with a base that is unanimously agreed upon: the current system of child protection is, in the main, not working. We have the odd exception to this rule, with a select number of authorities praised for best practice by Ofsted, but for the most part we have a profession that is struggling.
We see high caseloads, procedures that restrict time with families, a focus on recording data and not relationships, high staff turnover, departments with 50% of staff on short-term contracts, rising referrals to services and bureaucracy stifling best practice. These are all issues that all parties invested in social work appear willing to work on.
Of course the proposed solutions to these issues differ. There are valid arguments on both sides about the merits of several planks of the government’s approach – new graduate training schemes, accreditation plans and trusts taking over children’s services to name a few.
However, the intended outcome is shared – a desire to improve the lives of children and reduce dependency on statutory services. These are goals that are surely welcomed by all who have chosen to work in this field, whether in practice or policy.
Options for change
With cross-party agreement on the need for social work reform (the Labour Peer Lord Adonis chairs the Frontline board) and little sign of appetite from other parties to provide an alternative to what is being offered by the Tories, the indications are that the proposed changes are here to stay.
As social workers we face four options: we walk away from the profession, we remain in the profession but reject and fight changes all the way, we embrace the changes or we seek to work on compromise.
Barring a dramatic shift that sees our profession suddenly willing to fight in the way junior doctors and teachers have, I feel we have to look at engaging in these changes and trying to harness the attention on social work for good.
I’d argue we should embrace the changes we can agree on in full (for me that would be moves towards more support for care leavers, raising standards, more people attracted to train as social workers). However, we should also be ready to challenge and seek compromise in areas that clearly need more input from frontline staff (accreditation, cutting bursaries for university students, the trust model).
We are entering what feels like a pivotal time for social work practice. We have a prime minister who is taking an active interest in our profession. Whether you agree with his views or not, he appears to have a genuine interest in addressing the poor life chances afforded to those young people who enter our care system. We also have a public that, thanks to blanket news coverage this week, is becoming aware of the difficulties we face in having to cope with caseloads that are too high.
Communication and involvement
We have a chief social worker who must be engaged to make sure the views she’s passing to the government are fair, valid and reflective of practice on a national scale. But if we are to buy into these changes we also need to be shown more respect from government and be met halfway.
We need to see better communication regarding accreditation, not a long wait to get a simple answer as to whether those failing to pass can still practice. We need to see consultations with social workers taking place, not just vague promises they are being planned. We need to know what secondary legislation is being planned to flesh out the Children and Social Work Bill, not be left guessing about the ambiguous terms and left fearing the worst.
We need to know how long the HCPC is to remain a lame duck and whether we can still maintain trust in a professional regulator that our own government clearly does not feel is suited to the task.
And we need to get better at engaging with the press in a smart manner. The often accepted narrative that a coalescent ‘media’ is always out to attack social work will only sow further discord and advance an ‘us and them’ entrenched mentality. Unless we learn to embrace both traditional and social media and get savvy to telling our story well, we are likely to never achieve the kind of public sympathy recently afforded to the junior doctors. Instead, our profession will remain misunderstood and marginalised.
For now, we’re in the national spotlight. We’ve an opportunity for change. I hope we can work together to bring about these changes in a fair, cooperative and client-centred manner. We can only do that if we put aside tired arguments, look at the current facts and accept valid criticisms while putting forward strong, fair arguments of our own. All of it should be towards trying to find those common goals we can all agree on.
At the end of the day, we social workers are supposed to be experts in bringing about positive change for others in times of turmoil and crisis. Isn’t it about time we tried for ourselves?
The author is a child protection social worker who runs the Social Work Tutor website