Lisa Nandy MP has spent the last year shadowing frontline social workers. Here she tells Community Care what she saw, and why she believes the ‘fundamental’ role of the social worker is being undermined.
Social work is in crisis. That’s the verdict of a damning report published recently which surveyed 3,000 social workers.
It reveals a common picture of social workers struggling with intolerable workloads, lack of supervision and, as a result, unqualified staff used to assess children and families in need being turned away as thresholds are revised upwards to cope with overwhelming demand. As one social worker put it: “high amber is the new green.”
Over the past year I’ve spent time on the frontline shadowing the children’s workforce as part of Labour’s policy review. In 12 months, everybody I’ve met – children’s lawyers, teachers, foster carers, health visitors, independent reviewing officers, family judges, children’s guardians and children – have left me in no doubt that the role of the social worker is fundamental.
But at time when public spending is tight, what can a future government do to solve this? Here’s what they told me:
- ‘Freedom matters; adoption isn’t always best’ Like so many children’s workers, social workers said they wanted the freedom and autonomy to do their job well without central interference. They said the level of prescription in the current Children and Families Bill, and the assertion that adoption is best, is unhelpful.
- ‘Value teamwork’ Social workers don’t work alone. It’s a team effort. Current initiatives like Frontline must be careful not to create a two-tier workforce within the profession, and retain a mix of career switchers, older more experienced workers and younger, recent entrants with fresh ideas and perspective.
- ‘Keep paperwork but give us some help!’ Records matter, but in efforts to protect the frontline back-office functions like administrative support have been cut, leaving social workers chained to their desks. We need to make sure social workers have both the supervision and support to spend time with children and act on their concerns.
- ‘Preserve the spirit of the 1989 Children Act’ The understanding that children’s best interests are paramount is the glue that holds work with children and families together. The current Children and Families Bill, which seeks to define what is in children’s best interests, is potentially very disruptive and prioritises speed above good decision making.
There’s a temptation in politics to pull the levers you can, rather than the levers you should. Many of the measures in the children’s bill do just that – changing the law, which doesn’t need revision, because it’s easier than changing practice, which does.
‘Not one social worker I met has felt really valued’
In my time on the frontline I saw countless examples of barriers to helping children that we should tackle – clunky IT systems, the lack of policies to protect social workers from hate campaigns on social media and a pressing lack of access to budgets across health, social care and education that make getting support for children dependent on who’s asking, rather than a child’s needs. I met a 5-year-old desperately in need of therapy, but unable to access it because the department that gains is not the department that pays.
But we should also deal with the most pressing issue in social work, which is how you keep good, experienced people in the profession. Tackling caseloads has to be a priority and dealing with low morale is essential. Not one social worker I’ve met in the past year has felt really valued and that shocks me. We have to urgently ensure better working conditions – admin support, decent IT equipment and supervision from above.
‘Innovative approaches to intervening early’
Finally, it struck me that so much of a social worker’s time is spent dealing with crisis, not pre-empting and preventing problems. We need to move toward a system where social workers pre-empt problems and solve them in their gestation rather than patching up problems after they’ve occurred.
Shifting this will not be easy but there is much we can learn from the Early Intervention Foundation’s work. We need to think of innovative ways to create new sources of revenue – through social impact bonds for example – so that children aren’t left wanting while we try to shift the focus.
The reality is that it’s hugely costly to intervene late, both in monetary terms and in terms of the damage to children’s lives. So, the question is not can we afford it, but can we afford not to?