by Laura Walters
Social work will always involve overcoming challenges. A large part of our job is identifying a problem and then trying to find the solution.
We do this for service users on an individual basis all the time, but how often do we stop to do it for ourselves?
How often do we try to challenge the very system and working conditions that can determine our chances of successful intervention with the family, before we have even stepped through their door?
I’ve been qualified two years now, and in the months following my Assessed and Supported Year in Employment I’ve set up a Social Work Forum in my local authority.
This is a monthly meeting held in the absence of management. Social workers and practitioners working on the frontline come together to speak about collective issues and discuss our proposed solutions.
I take these issues and our proposed solutions to discuss them directly with the person who can be most effective at dealing with them – for example the chief executive, director or other senior managers.
We organise and present our concerns and solutions as a single, strong and unified voice in order to be clear about what the collective issues are and to effect change within our organisation.
The problems that are raised can be anything that affects our day-to-day work. High caseloads and caseload management, lack of equipment in the office, policies around personal safety, whether the computer system is fit for purpose, what supervision should look like and more.
There’s a clear link between how making stuff better for the people we help is enhanced by making stuff better for ourselves.
The frontline and senior management should be moving forward together, and making the changes together to create excellent social work practice.
I am a steward for Unison, but I soon realised there were only a small number of social workers around who were union members, mostly because they do not fully understand the benefits, personal protection and collective power being part of a union brings.
However, it doesn’t mean we can’t use the spirit of unionisation to achieve positive change which is where the Social Work Forum comes into play.
I am early in my social work career, but shortly after I began I saw changes that needed to be made to support excellent social work practice.
If the problem clearly stems from wider systems issues then it’s our job to challenge it.
In our meetings with senior leaders about issues in the forum they acknowledged what we said, they’ve listened, and other people in the authority have said we’ve made an impact.
Change from within
We’re helping feed through changes to be made to our systems so they can be carried out. They are big issues to solve and we are making the argument and persisting to ensure everyone does what they need to do to ensure the change happens. If we remain active and united – it will.
Changing the system from within to make it fit for purpose is entirely achievable if everyone supports the direction of the change and presents it as one voice.
To make change requires self-assurance, something a collective voice can help bring.
When I’m working with families I make justifiable decisions and stick to what is right, supportive and within the boundaries of the law. My decisions are made after taking the evidence and any research into account. I don’t fear my decisions as I know all I can do is make the best possible decisions based on the information I had at the time.
Achieving this level of self-assurance, and having the confidence to carry it through, can’t always be done in isolation. The support network is vital for building assurance, and maintaining it. When I completed my ASYE I was very lucky with the support I had. I could ask anyone around me any time for help or advice and I would get it.
There’s no reason this should end after becoming fully qualified.
Social workers are strong and often politically engaged, what’s missing is our collective voice.
There are bodies such as BASW who are the voice of our profession. However, in order to have strong leadership, and to make changes, there needs to be a strong body of social workers actively supporting them and driving them forward.
Without this the leadership has a vacuum behind it, no firm basis upon which to build and no strong unified voice behind it.
These changes don’t have to be limited to just one authority. If there was a unified voice in each local authority to achieve safe and reasonable caseloads, and each social worker played their part to support the argument, then suddenly the national picture would be transformed to one of safe caseloads and a strong and unified profession that is then fit to take on bigger problems.
Well, that’s the idea anyway.
Chatting to colleagues about issues without taking them further can only get you so far. That’s not an effective way of dealing with the issues.
Social work is what we make it, together, and if we do not drive the change then other forces, not based in the profession, will fill this void and drive change for us.
At the heart of this is a simple idea – that social workers need to change the state of play so we can enable families to stay together. There are plenty of things social workers love about their jobs that make it worth fighting for.
I really love direct work with children. In my short time in social work I’ve had some lovely and funny children who I’ve spent time with. When a child opens up their heart to you – which is all children in this situation can give and they are giving it to you – that’s a very special thing.
However, for us to be able to give everything we can back, and do the things we love doing, we need to work in a system that enables us to do that.
Laura Walters is a children’s social worker