When Peter Hay started out as a social worker in Grimsby, his route through the Lincolnshire hills would be a daily reminder of the scale of the job he would dedicate his life to.
“You could see over [the town] and think ‘Blimey, what’s going on in all of those houses, that’s my responsibility’,” he recalls.
He still gets that feeling these days as he prepares to retire from his last statutory role in social work – director of children’s and adults services in Birmingham, Europe’s largest local authority.
“You come to a point on the M6 where you can see the city laid out in front of you. You get some sense of that personal responsibility and what you’re trying to lead and shape. That is always a bit daunting because it’s a difficult, challenging job dealing with sensitive points in people’s lives.”
Over 34 years in social work Peter has worked on the frontline as a social worker and principal practitioner. He’s helped form policy through his work with a project team developing the Children Act. And he’s led both children’s and adults services as a director, first in North East Lincolnshire and then at Birmingham, as well as holding the post of president of ADASS.
In every role, he’s tried to bring a commitment to communities he says was instilled in him before he trained as a social worker.
Studying English at Swansea University, one of Peter’s lecturers left a lasting impression when – in what would become a familiar scenario in Peter’s working life – he took Peter and the class to see the whole town unfurling in front of them.
“He said: ‘These are the working classes, the university is built on the back of working people,” says Peter in an (admittedly poor) Welsh accent.
It was a striking image to show young people in 1980s Britain, and Wales in particular at the height of Thatcherism and the fall of local industries.
He decided to become a social worker after volunteering on a student community action project run with the Children’s Society. Peter was paired with a tweed jacket-wearing social worker, and remembers thinking “I could do that job” when the pair were visiting a family.
Never off duty
He trained as a social worker in Exeter before starting the Grimsby job, where he was attracted by the community model of social care.
“It’s probably no accident that I started in neighbourhood work because I think social work is not just about people but it’s how you live your life, and you live that in communities, in relationships.
“They were very small neighbourhoods, we served 25,000 people in what turned out to be fatally-small teams. But for a while, [in] places where it was working it was a really good attempt at getting underneath, not only individual working, but how to do something a bit more systemic.”
For the past 20 years Peter has been a director of social services. He says it’s a job where “you’re never off duty”, which has a knock on effect on family life.
His children either haven’t seen – or can’t remember – him doing another job, he says, while his wife quips that “sometimes it feels like there’s someone else in the marriage”.
But it’s also a role he’ll never underestimate the importance of: “It’s so overwhelming that your mind, even if you’re not at work, is somehow processing it.”
“Even if events aren’t scary enough, the job’s got an element I think you should always respect.”
Last year Community Care spent a day with Peter to better understand his role. Watch the video here.
Events have certainly been a feature of Peter’s time at Birmingham.
He first took over running the council’s children’s and adults services in 2003, overseeing an improvement that led to inspectors awarding services a one star rating two years later.
When the Laming reforms to social work in 2005 led to councils splitting the directors of social services role into children’s and adults posts, Peter ran Birmingham’s adults services.
By the time he returned to head up the council’s children’s services in 2013, the quality of care had deteriorated dramatically.
Ofsted’s chief inspector branded the services a “national disgrace”. Services were rated ‘inadequate’ and the government had ordered Professor Julian Le Grand to scope out alternatives to the council running them.
Peter says the “extent of the breakdown” in services when he returned made it one of his most challenging jobs.
“The haemorrhaging of staff that was going on at the time felt very out of control, I think in the Le Grand report I likened it to clinging on the edge of a cliff with our fingertips, and it did feel like that,” he says.
“And you’re not in control of those events, you’re trying to assert some control and get confidence in staff back, but you can equally sense that they may or may not give me that chance. Thankfully they did, and I’m very grateful for that.”
When Ofsted visited Birmingham last year, it acknowledged the hard work of senior leaders and politicians in delivering “some significant improvements” in a range of services. But inspectors still gave the services an overall ‘inadequate’ rating.
The council has now decided to shift the services into an independent trust.
Peter’s retirement means he won’t be in post to oversee the trust’s creation but he hopes it offers the services a “chance to start afresh”.
“It doesn’t immediately wipe out Birmingham’s record, but it should start to think differently. Clearly if I go with it I bring a bit of that history and also potentially limit some of its ability to explore ‘where to from here’,” he says.
“For those reasons – with some regret because it would be really interesting to see how it gets on – it feels like it has to be about other people having a go at that.”
When he looks back at his social work career he says there have been some “very, very painful moments”, adding “it’s not a career of unbridled happiness by any means”.
“Some of the child death incidents for example, they are very difficult to deal with. [And] some of the times that are less public. When you know that the service hasn’t done what it should have done, and you’re dealing with people that you have let down in some shape or form.”
However, he says he’s seen lots of positives too, and the quality of social work has “improved immensely” since he started out.
“Social workers do look at me a bit strange when I say that when I started there were two carbon-copy forms, your referral form and your mileage and payment sheet. Those were the only standard forms we had, the rest was hand-written notes. We didn’t have a lot of the tools we have now. Actually the quality of social work has risen immeasurably, particularly in areas of mental health.”
‘How do you keep going?’
Is there anything he regrets not being able to address before he retires?
“World peace”, he laughs. “You’re never finished. What you’ve got to hope is that the direction of travel is the right one…There are always things. It would be good if you could replay it at some point and say ‘If I could just do this here, we would have made further progress’. I think to do the job you’ve got to be inherently a bit restless and want to have done better.
“I’ve loved it, I can’t say I haven’t loved it, but it does feel like now is the time to put that down. Many people say ‘How do you keep going?’ You’ve got to realise where your limits might lie. I don’t want to find out where that space is. I have got the opportunity to not try and find out where the limit is.”
Would he do it again if he had the chance? “Oh yeah,” is his instant reply.