When setting out as a bright-eyed and bushy tailed social work student you’re quickly taught how different ways of working can shape your practice and the skills to motivate change.
This is Social Work 101. At its heart is the notion that using empathy and empowering others to make the changes they’re capable of is the best way to practice. Building people’s capabilities, by using their own motivations to change, can deliver long-term positive outcomes while forcing change isn’t the answer.
How alien it is that these basic foundations of social work practice are seemingly forgotten in the way the government is handling its current crusade to change our profession.
Reforms that promise to throw our workforce into a state of turbulent upheaval, including accreditation tests of our skills and a new regulator controlled by government, are effectively being forced on us. Meanwhile our profession’s voice is being largely ignored.
If this was our own approach to working we’d be shocked. Any social worker who has worked with vulnerable adults knows the damage that punitive assessments of rudimentary abilities, performed in a pressurised environment, can have – just look at ATOS assessments.
Any children’s social worker will see the way changes forced on parents, based on professionals’ views of perfect parenting, simply set people up to fail.
Whichever setting you work in you’ll see how people can thrive with stability, and how damaging repeated upheaval can be. You’ll also know how ensuring the clients’ voice is heard is absolutely integral to our assessments.
Social work’s voice seems to be far from integral to the government’s assessment of what our profession needs. We are paid lip-service, yes, but that’s akin to a lazy social work assessment where the professional writes ‘child agrees with the plan’ and leaves it at that without trying to engage or empathise.
Thank heavens then for today’s education committee report on the state of social work reform. The committee found “significant weaknesses” in the government’s agenda and warned of a “divisive” split in policymaking that is seeing the Department of Health and Department for Education pull adults and children’s social work in different directions.
It warned that accreditation proposals risk destabilising our “already fragile workforce” and urged the government to bring forward consultation on the measures. It cautioned that a government-controlled regulator and standards body “will further marginalise the voice of social workers” and the plan should be abandoned in favour of creating a new independent professional body.
It identified risks that specialist fast-track schemes could produce trainees with too narrow an understanding of social work. It criticised the “distinct lack of collaboration” the government has shown the sector in shaping all of the reforms, and said too little was being done to address caseload pressures and retention problems.
The committee also warned the negative media and blame culture was creating a toxic environment to practice in. There’s even a recommendation that government consider a positive PR campaign to address this – something I’ve long campaigned for and have just successfully crowdfunded a book to help achieve.
The concerns echo many of the conversations I’ve had with social workers about the reforms. For the first time since Munro’s final review of Child Protection was published in 2011, it feels like some of the powers that be ‘get it’ in relation to the issues we face on the frontline and the true voice of our profession has been represented.
There has long been talk of our profession needing a ‘champion’. That BASW must do more to engage the workforce. That opposition parties need to put an alternative plan in place or that we need to go on strike like our education and health colleagues.
How wonderfully strange it is that the seminal point of the fight back against the changes being forced upon us, ones that rub so hard against the accepted value-base of our profession, might just have come from the very politicians that we constantly complain are ‘out to get us’.
I saw my last false dawn five years ago, so I’m not going to be dancing in the streets just yet. But social workers now have something tangible that we can build on in the hope for a better future. We finally have some cross-party recognition of the issues we face. We may even be seeing the sowing of seeds for a valid alternative to how we go about our work.
Let’s now all work together by nurturing these green shoots of recovery and creating a profession that belongs to all of us, not one shaped by the views of the few.
In doing so, let’s not lose sight of the international definition of social work as set out by the IFSW: “Social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people.
“Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work. Underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and indigenous knowledge, social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing”.
The author is a children’s social worker who runs the Social Work Tutor site.