‘Social work missed chance to change public opinion by critical reaction to Dispatches’

By focusing on rights and wrongs of 'Vicky's' actions, profession has missed chance to capitalise on having its problems exposed on national TV

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By Matt Bee

A fortnight after Channel Four’s Dispatches aired in which ‘Vicky’ went undercover at Birmingham children’s services, and the uproar is still yet to die down. Was it a violation of trust? Yes, undoubtedly. But was it the right thing to do?

Most of the profession appears to think not. You have to wonder how we’ve arrived at this point. Then again, if you’re a social worker who has ever tried to raise concerns within an organisation, you might not wonder so much.

Of course, there are whistleblowing policies, but these appear to be about as useful as the lookout on the Titanic. Practitioners report being bullied, lied to and sidelined altogether for daring to use them.

Putting on a positive front

And then there is the inspectorate. Ofsted regularly gauge the quality of our children’s services. But they’re not perfect – and they do have a history of missing key warning signs, such as at Haringey and Rotherham. Who can blame them, though, when public services go to such lengths to win a favourable report? One team manager I interviewed last year simply laughed when I asked if she was open with inspectors. Instead, she is guarded. After all, with a government poised and ready to come down like a ton of bricks, it’s hardly in the interest of a local authority to draw attention to its failings.

Towards the start of the Dispatches programme, Birmingham’s cabinet member for children’s services, Brigid Jones, admitted the difficulties Birmingham children’s services had faced – but on the whole she provided a positive overview of the progress that had been made.

Baring the reality

By prodding a camera into the service, that public front is punctured and we see a reality of high caseloads, social workers unable to cope, and managers overwhelmed and openly admitting they don’t understand the rationale for decisions being made. And then we see some of the decisions that are made, like bringing together a multi-disciplinary team into the same room and then instructing them to only speak on the phone.

All of this has been going on in a children’s service and without that camera, that portal, that social worker, ‘Vicky,’ we’d have never known.

Confirming what we know

Except, really, all she has done is confirm everything we’ve been saying all along – and not just about Birmingham, or even children’s services, but about our profession as a whole. Social workers can’t cope. They aren’t supported. Countless surveys have told us this, and now here it is on a TV screen broadcast to the nation. ‘I can’t do it,’ says one practitioner in the programme; ‘you can only go so far.’

Critics worry that, had the social worker been aware of the camera, she wouldn’t have made that admission. And that’s my fear, too. Because it was a powerful image and one, I think, the public needed to see.

Strapping cameras to ourselves and going undercover can hardly be an answer to our problems, but at least it casts our problems in a whole new light.

Into the nation’s living rooms

‘Vicky’ has shown us nothing new, nothing we didn’t know before, but she has gone about it in dramatic fashion. Instead of an open letter to the PM – and let’s face it, when does he ever write back? – or an online petition or even a protest march, this was a slab of primetime TV dropped in the living rooms of the nation like an anvil. Inescapable, irrefutable evidence of everything we’ve been saying. Public services are breaking apart. Social workers are struggling. Many are walking out.

It was all there.

So here, I thought, was gold dust for anyone wanting to demonstrate exactly how dire the situation has become in the wake of the cuts. And what did we do with it? We criticised ‘Vicky’ for betraying our trust and Dispatches for focusing too much on Birmingham and not enough on the wider picture.

An open goal missed

What better opportunity could we have had to argue that public services need proper funding, less red tape, and social workers the correct support? In footballing terms, this was an open goal. But instead of capitalising, we became embroiled in a debate about the rights and wrongs of a social worker going undercover. And once we’ve dusted our hands of that, we’ll probably go back to writing open letters to the PM which he’ll put in the bin.

Politicians only respond to public opinion, and for a brief moment a fortnight ago we had the public’s full attention. ‘Vicky’ handed it to us on a plate and had we run with it, had the public listened, had the politicians been forced to act, we’d all be lauding her as a hero. But instead we were all too horrified at the idea of a social worker poking about the place with a secret camera.

The rights and wrongs of her actions do need to be considered, but what a chance this was to show the public the reality of our work and to campaign for change. And how we wasted it.

Matt Bee is a social worker and freelance writer based in North East England

12 Responses to ‘Social work missed chance to change public opinion by critical reaction to Dispatches’

  1. Hels June 10, 2016 at 9:50 am #

    Whst better way to sabotage your very own profession!!!!! Trust amongst colleagues and most of all the families we work with !!!!! Job well done Vicky!!!!

  2. Andrea June 10, 2016 at 10:35 am #

    Not sure that what the programme showed the viewing public was lost because people are criticising ‘Vicky’ – people will see it if they are willing to.
    The problems in social work are far deeper – and include the crucial fact that ‘social’ jobs/careers ie.g teachers/social workers etc are not valued as they once were and therefore fewer people want to do them which leads to recruitment difficulties – as well as,frankly, some ‘education’ establishments passing social workers who simply should not be practicing – some newly qualified ( and not so newly qualified) have clearly been trained to collect information but have absolutely no idea how to analyse that information – and a manager who tries to address this with the worker is viewed as unsupportive or a bully.

  3. Alistair June 10, 2016 at 11:59 am #

    Extremely good point, well-expressed.

  4. Matt June 10, 2016 at 12:57 pm #

    i totally agree and thank you, someone, for saying it.

    And thank you too to ‘Vicky’ for having the courage for highlighting the problems that we all know are endemic across social services.

    Now maybe BASW or one of the organisation’s that are suppose to represent SW could actually stand up – for once – show some courage and speak to the points raised as opposed to banging on about betrayal etc.

    Sadly i doubt anything will change as, after all, we work with the poor and politically irrelevant which is why the situation has come about, and will continue.

  5. julie June 10, 2016 at 1:10 pm #

    Matt I totally agree with you that it was a missed opportunity and said the same when I have commented on various Facebook posts in relation to the documentary. Most offices up and down the country will have experienced what the social workers in the show highlighted as issues and more funding, support, more social workers and lower case loads is what’s needed to alleviate some of the issues.

  6. CEG June 10, 2016 at 2:11 pm #

    A key point here is that SWs use their team colleagues to off load and to say how they are feeling – it the most important support to practitioners, but it then allows them to do their work. None of us could do the work without offloading in this way with trusted colleagues. Of course we wouldn’t say that in front of a camera, or in front of other professionals. The trust for this team was broken, and that is unforgivable.

  7. dk June 10, 2016 at 7:43 pm #

    No, and that is how the show was a true stitch-up; it offered virtually no analysis and was almost devoid of any actual content. It added nothing to the discourse, and that positions social workers delicately when criticising it because it makes very easy for others to position social workers as defensive and unreflexive.

    The question for me is not really one of ethics, but more why Channel 4 didn’t simply ask to interview some social workers, even if anonymously; there was nothing shared on the programme that any social worker would hide but none of the explanation or elaboration that would have come with simply asking people questions about their experiences.

    I found myself thinking while watching that, if I was a member of the public and even an angry member of the public with reason to feel hostile to services, that I’ve been disappointed and indeed bored by the programme. What did it really say? Blame managers? To what end? It was rubbish as an insight into social work and even more rubbish as entertainment.

  8. Chris Pointon June 10, 2016 at 8:25 pm #

    Thank you for your voice of reason, Matt Bee. Completely agree.

  9. student social worker June 10, 2016 at 9:11 pm #

    Im a student Social Worker and I find it so upsetting that social workers are attacking eachother. Yes, secret recording betrays trust but im sick and tired of all this in fighting and talk…someone needs to do something to fight for our profession.

  10. COG June 11, 2016 at 2:03 am #

    Bullying by managers is rife. Newly qualified can analyse information and are trained to do but are often undermined. How often do you hear that phrase from a manager ‘ you’re the SW’ for them to override your decision in favour of not getting a complaint. SW’s are not the decision makers

    Teams are understaffed, case loads are far to high to keep children safe, LA pay is poor, Children are removed from abusive parents for the parents to then have monthly contact. Children are placed with Carers or anyone connected to be abused again. What is the percentage of children in care or leaving care offending? Private care agencies are making a profit from abused children, the whole system is askew. Oh the best is that other phrase ‘ threshold of harm’ Vicky you were brave

  11. Mark June 11, 2016 at 8:26 am #

    You miss the point completely. Whether ‘Vicky’ felt justified or not she had no right to go into a local authority undercover. She was not whistle blowing; and if she has an ounce of respect for the social work profession and wants to make a difference then she should stand up, face her audience and not hide behind anonymity.

    Vicky betrayed the trust of those who thought she was a colleague and someone they could rely upon.

    Did we learn anything? No! What Vicky ‘exposed’ is repeated up and down the country and demonstrates that Children’s Services is in dire straights due to budget cuts, massive red tape and a government that appears hell bent on privatising everything. If we want the public to see the real face of social work let the film producers come into another office, in another inner city, but this time do it openly with the LA having editorial input.

    And as for ‘Vicky’, lesson learnt there I think. If you play with the devil it can bite back.

  12. Anon y mous June 11, 2016 at 9:24 pm #

    As a student social worker having worked within stat child protection teams for many years I did not see anything new.

    Values and ethics are fundamental in my training and understand when social workers are reprimanded by HCPC for their practice. I have been shocked by the negative response. Sometimes it takes a brave person to do something radical to bring about change. This was a missed opportunity and totally agree that we should remember the purpose.