‘Things get better for service users when we make social work better for ourselves’

A social worker highlights the benefits of a social work forum, a vehicle she is using to help drive changes to working conditions

Picture: Mathias Rosenthal

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.

High caseloads

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.

Strong leadership

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

7 Responses to ‘Things get better for service users when we make social work better for ourselves’

  1. LongtimeSW October 19, 2016 at 11:52 am #

    Laura you give me hope and a sense of pride that things will be ok (if you are listened to!) – this from someone who is in his last years in this wonderful profession.

    United we stand etc.

    • LongtimeSW October 19, 2016 at 11:54 am #

      BTW . . . . . also a Unison member

  2. A social worker October 21, 2016 at 3:52 pm #

    One of the challenges to speaking ‘with a unified voice’ is that social work, as a profession, doesn’t really know how to speak about itself. To non-social workers it can seem arcane or ill-defined or both. I’m afraid, as long as folk talk about ‘social work’ as if it pertains solely to their particular specialism (most often children’s and families’ social work it has to be said) without acknowledging its much wider mission and application across groups, we’re a long way from speaking with a unified voice. Perhaps we would be better served if we had two voices: one for social work with children and families and one for social work with adults, which then spoke in concert.

  3. Laura October 24, 2016 at 10:06 pm #

    I understand that social work sounds ill-defined to some, but we have common values and a common purpose that unites everyone and we can, and must, base our actions and decisions on those common values. The point of this article is to get you to think about what you can do to make the profession unified around our common cause to make us, on the whole, much stronger, and the Social Work Forum is a suggested way of doing this. The forum is a solution to the problem, not an added problem. The sooner people come together and stand together in each local authority, the more practiced they will get at speaking up, and the more confident the profession will become.

    The forum can work for adults’ services as much as it can for children’s’ services as it is about social workers coming together to discuss the issues that matter and making the changes required. These issues will differ somewhat between work places. I don’t believe social workers should be split into two big groups as that’s dis-unifying and serves no purpose but to water down the profession.

    Presuming you work in Adults, you could set up a monthly meeting tomorrow and get your colleagues to come, talk about the issues that matter and start taking it to the top to make the changes happen. You will then find you have a unionised workforce. That then makes two local authorities who have unified social work professionals.

    If we really do have the problem you suggest – which is we don’t know how to speak about ourselves – then getting together to do just that will help.

  4. A social worker October 30, 2016 at 12:58 pm #

    Laura, thanks. I’ll start by saying that I think you are to be commended for taking positive steps to strengthen the voice of the profession. However, as you have publicised these attempts here, I believe it appropriate to critically examine them here also:

    1. I disagree that social work sounds ill-defined to some, it is ill-defined. Can you define social work, in brief and simple terms and in a way that takes into account everyone else’s definiitions, including those of service users? For example, what in your view is social work’s ‘common purpose’?
    2. Your article and your response to my comment appear to be based on the assumption that others are not already thinking about and taking steps to address the problem, which does come across as somewhat patronising, which I ‘m sure wasn’t your intention but nevertheless is the case. You might have ackowledged social work’s long tradition of radical action at the interface of front-line practice and strategic and organisational planning, whether in the form of forums like the one you have set up or in any of the myriad other forms it has taken.
    3. ‘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.’ I’m afraid this sounds like a simplistic, if not miraculous, solution to highly complex (set of) issue(s). Social workers uniting to stand up for themselves to have ‘safe and reasonable’ caseloads will not address the wider societal issues leading to unprecedented numbers of referalls. The ‘bigger problems’ will no wait while we try to help managers see the wood amongst the trees. We need to be dealing with both simultaneously. While we enjoy ‘safe’ caseloads, vulnerable people will almost certainly be left at unconscionable risk of harm. The only difference will be that we will not know about it.
    4. For the record, I work with adults and young people from age 16 onwards. Recognising the particular missions and practice challenges of the two main areas of social work neither disunifies nor dilutes the profession, nor does it risk failing to recognise the foundational commonalities. There is no question in my mind at least that children’s and families’ social work and the various controversies, problems and issues associated with and contributing to its poor status are much more widely-recognised by the public than those relating to adults, for reasons that are abundantly clear if not always justified. There are over 28000 children’s social workers in England as opposed to around 16000 adults’ (as at 2015). Not recognising the risk (and the commonly heard grumble of adults’ social workers) that the voice of adult social work may be subsumed by that of children’s is the real threat to unity and strength. It is ironic that, as social workers, we speak about respecting and valuing diversity but fail to take this into account when considering the complex challenges faced by the profession as a whole and across its areas of practice.

  5. Laura October 31, 2016 at 10:12 pm #

    Thanks for your response and the positive comment you initially made. I would like to address each point you made in turn.

    1) Social work does have a definition – it’s stated by the International Federation of Social Work. Of course I cannot take into account everyone else’s definition of social work but I can’t take into account everyone’s definition of most things yet things still do have actual definitions. To say I’m not allowed to define something because there might be different interpretations would make everything undefinable.

    2) I certainly didn’t intend to patronise so I am sorry if you felt that way. I am merely considering a problem and thinking of a solution. I don’t think others have done nothing in order to make the profession stronger but I do know that we are not strongly unionised which does make us very weak. I still think we should all continue to think about doing more than we do do and as such people should set up a forum.

    3) I don’t propose that a forum can take on everything all at once, but we can make gains. I don’t think us taking action in each authority is simplistic at all. I think it is a good way of doing something positive in the current climate rather than wait for the government to reduce us further.

    Are you suggesting that if we had unsafe caseloads that people would no longer be left at risk of significant harm? Of course you’re not, that would be ridiculous. I think you will agree that achieving safe caseloads is a good thing in any circumstance. I do think that we should also be tackling societal issues and I think unionising is a good method of doing this.

    4) As for your last point, you sound as if you are racing to the bottom. We agreed social workers need a strong voice, but then you said that the childrens’ social worker’s voice is stronger than adult’s social workers; voices, and then argued about adult’s needing a bigger voice compared to children’s social workers. I think social work can be one strong voice. There is no need to reduce us to the infinite number of things that divide us, it achieves nothing when instead we can make gains for the profession.

    • A social worker November 1, 2016 at 2:58 pm #

      Laura, I just wanted to acknowledge and thank you for this thought-provoking and well-argued response.