A modest proposal

The green paper Every Child Matters rightly devotes a
chapter to workforce reform. It acknowledges that social work is
not attracting sufficient staff and makes useful suggestions to
improve the attractiveness of the occupation. Yet the chapter fails
to perceive that major reforms proposed elsewhere in the report may
increase job dissatisfaction.

The main recommendations are that local authority education and
social work children’s services should come under one director and
that, eventually, they should be joined by other services to form
children’s trusts. The report’s authors do not consider that the
resultant huge bureaucracies and the more procedures and paper work
will make the job less attractive. Staff will feel more distant
from management. By contrast, I believe that social workers thrive
in agencies small enough for them to feel a personal part of the
unit and when they are known by senior management.

Furthermore, the authors seem oblivious to evidence that staff
benefit from attachment to place, in particular to neighbourhoods.
A project worker is about to leave the local community group in
which I am a volunteer. She is the first to leave for another post
in eight years. Staff tend to enjoy an identification with a
neighbourhood and its residents. The closeness enables them to more
fully understand both the difficulties and strengths of the area.
Often they develop a loyalty to the place that makes them want to
stay in that post.

It will be countered that the above comments apply to voluntary
projects. But they are also relevant to statutory ones. During the
1980s, about a quarter of councils initiated community social work
in which they decentralised social service teams into neighbourhood

Child care staff not only undertook statutory duties but also
worked with community groups and opened their premises as drop-in
centres. Critics anticipated that it would lead to neglect of child
protection work. Far from it. For instance, on the Canklow estate
in Rotherham, the numbers of children in care and on the “at risk”
register declined. The presence of social workers in the community
enabled them to spot family difficulties at an early stage and to
mobilise local resources to help. Such work gave satisfaction to
the staff. Unfortunately, most community social work disappeared
when centralisation became the vogue.

Community social work also allowed social workers to undertake both
prevention and protection. When I was employed by a children’s
department in the 1960s, child care officers dealt with adoption,
fostering, private fostering, visiting residential homes, approved
school aftercare as well as receptions into care, protection and
prevention. They were child care specialists yet had a spread of
cases that required a variety of skills.

Today many child care social workers deal almost exclusively with
children considered at risk of abuse. Some complain that they
monitor families rather than relate to them. Their task is of great
social importance yet its intensity and sameness can be
overwhelming. Not surprisingly, many social services departments
are short of staff. Their work would be more enjoyable and
effective if they had a range of different tasks.

My idea of satisfying child care social work is of staff in
modestly sized organisations, working – where possible – in
neighbourhood teams, and with a varied caseload that allows them to
exercise differing skills. These reforms would be as important as
the increases in salaries and changes in training suggested by the
green paper. In short, social workers need improved work
environments and cultures not just improvements in pay and

Lastly, I am surprised that the media accepts the assertion in the
green paper that the government is tackling child poverty by
“ensuring work pays through the national minimum wage and the
introduction of tax credits for working families”. The levels of
these payments – not to mention income support rates – only remove
poverty according to the government’s miserly definition of what
constitutes a reasonable income. If Tony Blair and Paul Boateng,
who both write bland forewords to the report, lived in deprived
areas it might dawn on them that thousands of families are
overwhelmed by debt precisely because the government has not taken
them out of poverty. Social workers should put pressure on the
government to ensure that all families have sufficient income to
provide their children with a decent lifestyle.

Bob Holman is author of Champions for Children: The
Lives of Modern Child Care Pioneers
, Policy Press,

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