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Privatising or pioneering social work practices?

topaz pic for blog.jpg

My article, Life beyond the council: meet the social work pioneers, has provoked an interesting debate on Twitter about the pros and cons of social work “beyond the local authority democratic mandate”. In response, @ermintrude2 has written a detailed blog post, Privatising or Pioneering Social Work Practices, which is well worth a read.

As the journalist who wrote the feature, I wanted to clear up what I think are a few misunderstandings, plus offer some thoughts on what I think this debate says about social work, its relationship with the media, and the process of change and innovation in the sector.

The media: we give a snapshot

@ermintrude2 says the article “extols the wonder of the Topaz team in Lambeth”.

The idea behind the feature was to give front line social workers the chance to talk about innovative practice in their own words. It’s something I’m trying to do more of on Community Care because I think that not enough space is given to social workers to explain what they do without fear of criticism.

Talking to me was a brave thing for the Topaz team to do and I really admire their courage in sticking their head above the parapet. We need more social workers to do this otherwise the image of social workers will never be improved.

Lambeth Council and the government were definitely not trying to “promote these social enterprise teams”. In fact, I approached them and it’s taken months of behind the scenes talking to get the piece.

Over coffee last Friday, I was struck by how happy and enthusiastic the Topaz team were. They’re passionate about community social work and I’m absolutely certain the remark about “getting back to real social work” was not meant to be dismissive of their local authority colleagues, more a reflection of their excitement of building relationships with local people.

Nor do I think the Topaz team is “cherry picking” clients. What I perhaps should have made clearer in the feature, is that the project is very focused on prevention and reaching people who may be under the radar of local authority social work. The team systematically call everyone who was assessed as low or medium level eligibility a year ago to find out if their circumstances have changed. This enables them to identify concerns and make sure the right support is put in place.

They all stressed how important safeguarding is and their work is picking up safeguarding concerns that may previously have been missed. There is then a robust process for referring these concerns to the council.

The public perception of social work is a problem



Yes, sometimes social workers are “agents of control who take children away”, but if this is all that the general public knows of social work, this prevents vulnerable people getting the support that social workers are so great at providing. The impression I was left with after meeting the Topaz team was of dedicated professionals bringing the very best of social work to their local community.

Personally, I don’t think the project is the “start of a slope to eventually push statutory functions outside the local authority”. In house, outsourced, what matters most is great social work. If testing new models of practice enables social work to innovate and serve local communities better, that can only be a good thing.

About Ruth Smith, editor

Ruth Smith is editor of Community Care. She won New Editor of the Year 2013 at the PPA New Talent Awards. When not at work she enjoys cooking, gardening and dress making.

3 Responses to Privatising or pioneering social work practices?

  1. ermintrude2 12 April , 2013 at 3:37 am #

    Thanks Ruth, I accept your points but I’m still far from convinced! It’s probably the cynic in me and I don’t see why this work has to be separated from the local authority – if the work is so necessary, why isn’t it a part of what local authorities deliver and how is it different from the signposting/community work that voluntary sector organisations did and do very well when their funding hasn’t been withdrawn.

    I wonder if it’s just a cheap (see poor terms and conditions) way to replace what the voluntary sector previously did.

  2. LilyTrent 12 April , 2013 at 3:37 am #

    I am very pleased to hear about the TOPAZ project! It is a positive step towards social workers taking greater ownership of their profession. Their enthusiasm, expertise and willingness to go the extra mile will certainly benefit the people in the community. The terms and conditions may not be competitive, however, they might be more than outweighed by the sense of satisfaction these professionals gain from doing the work they truly enjoy and believe in.

  3. Ruth Smith, editor 12 April , 2013 at 3:37 am #

    Thanks for your comments Ermintrude2 and Lily.
    I recognise your concerns about role of LA and funding. I can be very cynical (I’m a hack, so it’s my job!)but I guess I took fact social workers said they were enjoying their jobs so much at face value because sometimes we don’t do enough of that.