Debate over principal social worker role obscures senior leaders’ missing links to practice

A single career structure for social work would help to restore the link between leadership and practice, argues Brendan Clifford

Leader Illustration
Illustration: Fotolia/mmustafabozdemir

By Brendan Clifford

The debate about the role of the principal social worker (PSW) in adults’ and children’s services is really a debate about the role and definition of social work itself – and especially the qualifications and experience the sector’s senior leaders should possess if they are to effectively shape practice.

The social work role in the UK has largely been determined by the activity undertaken in councils; after all, that’s where most social workers registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) are employed. And a council is the only place you’ll find a PSW.

At the time the PSW role was proposed in the 2011 Munro Report, social work confidence had been knocked by many things. Tragedies involving individual children or adults undermined public confidence in the social work profession – justifiably or not. Other factors, such as the need for financial efficiency, were also in the mix. Perceptions that social work had been reduced to “tick box” transactions between citizens and paid social workers grew. In terms of career development, some good practitioners were attracted away from frontline practice to management, commissioning, leadership, research and teaching.

‘Misplaced messianic expectation’

So the introduction of the PSW role was seen as one which could renew practice confidence but also practice quality. In truth, the PSW role has probably suffered from some misplaced messianic expectation thrust upon it about what it might deliver; for instance, attempting to bridge the perceived gap between those practising on the frontline and those practising as leaders. Alone, the PSW role could never fix the problems of confidence brought about by the growth in managerialism, the widening gap between commissioning and practice, or the effect of interpretations of efficiency on direct practice.

The development of the PSW role has been something of a halfway house on a journey to reasserting the role of social work practice through every level of decision-making in councils. For a number of years, it seems, there has been a growing breach between frontline practice and leadership which no amount of “engagement” on the part of leaders whose experience hasn’t been forged on the frontline can solve. The leadership and social work practice connection was gradually diminished, appearing to have different interests – one concerned with the person and one concerned with the money. In reality, both parties need to be concerned about both people and money.

In due course, I think we’ll need to move beyond focus on the role of the PSW to restore this connection and there are some inklings of the direction in which we are travelling. For example, the Care Act guidance on the role of the PSW in adults’ services, the reassertion in children’s services of “practice leadership” being associated with an assistant director role within councils, and the actual designation in some authorities of a ‘chief social worker’ with line management responsibility for frontline social work practise in the organisation and other services reveals a crucial point which has been forgotten; namely, that at one time, the chief social worker in a locality, i.e. the “top” professional social worker, was the director of social services.

‘Transferable skills’

The weakening of the link between the statutory director role and the social work qualification is perhaps another way in which the social work profession has been devalued. When council children’s services departments were re-established more than 10 years ago, much was said – for and against – about the relevant merits of education or social services skillsets among directors of children’s services. Likewise, anecdotally, adult care services also saw a de-coupling between social work qualification and the director of adult services role.

The concept of ‘transferable skills’ was used to underpin the permissive approach to occupational territory at director level in public services. This would have been the basis on which the examples of social work qualified directors moving into leadership of health services was also achieved.

This isn’t to say such transferable skills don’t exist, don’t matter or don’t work. But the idea that “an effective social worker doesn’t necessarily make an effective leader” was gradually allowed to take hold in our councils – even though many aspects of leadership can be learned and easily made available to qualified social workers.

Single career structure

A broader, single career structure which does away with distinctions but gives a primacy to social work could be a way of solving this problem. Think of the “social care” and “social work” debate in adult care services, for instance. When I started my career in what we now call social/provider/residential care, those of us who had worked (unqualified) in job titles such as “residential social workers” perceived a snobbery from some “field social workers” towards us – we were not quite the real thing, I’m afraid.

But I have always been grateful for this social care experience, and I think that I was a better social worker and leader for it. Indeed, in my view, such experience should be compulsory for any social worker or commissioner, as part of a developed career structure.

Primacy of social work

So, how should we move forward? My suggestion is to reassert the primacy of a social work qualification as the norm for leadership of social work and social care practice for which councils are responsible. Let social work principles, values and practice permeate every level, with leaders committed to practice concerns and practitioners committed to leadership concerns.

There would be different pathways. Some people would have acquired an initial social work qualification for the frontline, as would other relevant disciplines such as occupational therapy, education, social care or other disciplines. But a new qualification for council social work leaders would require engagement in a programme not unlike the National Professional Qualification for Headship required for head teachers.

There have been attempts at this before, I know, and the current “practice leadership” role in children’s services looks like a move in this direction. I just think we need to be more explicit and clearer that the role of the statutory director in a locality includes that as the “top” professional in the locality – the chief social worker. In other words, you need to be a registered social worker to be the statutory director.

The debate about the PSW role is definitely not about individual PSWs in adults’ and children’s services, many of whom have done great things. Or their leaders, for that matter, many of whom have also have done great things. This is about social work in councils having an integrated career structure available to a range of relevant professions and doing away with the false social work/social care distinction. What we do is all care, it’s all work and it’s all very much social.

Brendan Clifford is an HCPC-registered social worker and director of capacity4care. He was an assistant director for nearly 10 years and a chief social worker for adults and children in Dudley Council. He was vice-chair of the national Adults Principal Social Workers Network in 2015-16. He writes in a personal capacity.

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4 Responses to Debate over principal social worker role obscures senior leaders’ missing links to practice

  1. LongtimeSW September 19, 2017 at 1:14 pm #

    Only comment is ‘ Good points well made’ – enough said.

  2. John Kelly September 19, 2017 at 6:46 pm #

    ”My suggestion is to reassert the primacy of a social work qualification as the norm for leadership of social work and social care practice for which councils are responsible. Let social work principles, values and practice permeate every level, with leaders committed to practice concerns and practitioners committed to leadership concerns” …… I could not agree with the suggestion more. However, as the true integration of adult health and social care is as elusive as ever, we put up with a visible but tokensic mergeing of cultures in the form of health care professionals managing social workers and social care budgets. Social work does not not exist as a profession.

  3. Joe Warner September 20, 2017 at 1:46 pm #

    A Council is not the only place you will find a PSW, focus is an independent adult social work practice providing the statutory social work functions in North East Lincolnshire, we have a PSW who is a member of our Board and as the Chief Executive I am required to be a registered social worker.

  4. Kirsten September 23, 2017 at 12:20 pm #

    Most of the social workers registered with the SSSC are also employed in councils.