By Dave Hill
Last Friday I visited social workers in Birmingham council’s New Aston House – subject a week previously of a Dispatches programme critical of their work. As I left London in the pouring rain after days without sun, it was heart-warming to arrive into Birmingham welcomed by bright sunshine, blue skies and a real buzz about the place.
I am conscious of the never-ending stream of visitors in local authorities including politicians, commissioners and Ofsted so I wanted my visit as president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services to be less onerous. I wanted to show solidarity with social workers, hear their views and demonstrate that as leaders of children’s services we recognise the difficult but important work they do each and every day with children and families.
We talked about social work, philosophy of practice, relationships, caseloads and supervision. One thing that struck me was their commitment and enthusiasm to Birmingham and the children and young people who live there … it was infectious!
I asked about how the Dispatches programme had left them and what its impact on morale had been. After all, they are on an improvement journey and constantly under the microscope. They were heart-warmingly honest and expressed anger at the betrayal by ‘Vicky’, who covertly filmed private conversations without their permission. But they also expressed a view that there is real progress and purpose on their journey – one to which they remain fully committed.
We also shared experiences about the demands of social work and the need to be able to ‘sound off’ to colleagues in the sanctuary of the office. This is something that most of us do from time to time, including directors of children’s services.
There was some defiance about what frontline staff see as constant attacks when they are on an important journey. There was also a great conversation about how social workers enjoy adversity, with one person saying ‘it’s why we got into social work in the first place’. I also talked a little about the Essex journey and how back in 2010, when I first arrived as DCS, we embarked on a similar improvement journey and have moved on significantly.
There is a real determination to use the ‘Dispatches moment’ as a fulcrum to move forward. Birmingham social workers and managers talked about outcomes for ‘their’ children, young people and families and how much things have changed.
The picture now is very different from that shown at the time of filming: caseloads are lower and more manageable, senior and middle managers are staying with the council and sticking at it and agency staff members are choosing to convert to permanent roles. It is a journey but the basics are increasingly sound and there is a sense of optimism.
As I set back off to London, towards the rain and gloom that awaited me I was left feeling encouraged and inspired by the staff I encountered on my visit, the brightness of social workers in adversity and by a very clear sense that they will make it on their journey.
Thought and hope
Looking ahead to how we move on from this as a sector I want to leave you with a thought and a hope. The thought is to imagine an environment where no two situations are the same, there is never just one solution, and you are battling against a constant stream of media scrutiny whilst at the same time trying to do your job well. That is social work.
My hope is that we remember for every headline grabbing case there are thousands of other stories that no one wants to write. These are the good news stories about the positive, life changing-work being undertaken each day by social workers and we must take the time to tell them.
Dave Hill is the president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services and the director for people commissioning at Essex County Council.