Ethics of social work don’t work in councils

Help social workers serve the law, not their employers Academic Michael Preston-Shoot points to the areas of learning that need improvement if child...

Academic Michael Preston-Shoot points to the areas of learning that need improvement if child protection social work is to become more effective

Education secretary Michael Gove’s letter to Professor Eileen Munro, who will lead the latest review of child protection, invites exploration, once again, of the barriers preventing social workers from making well-informed, evidence-based judgements, free from bureaucracy.

Drawing on my experience as an independent chair of a local safeguarding children board and as a researcher into the interface between law and social work practice, there are several disconcerting questions which need to be addressed.

Evidence from inspections by regulatory bodies, inquiries by the local government ombudsman, and the findings of judicial reviews point to some councils and agencies failing to meet, or actively seeking to avoid their statutory duties.

There are examples of flawed assessments, poor service provision, and of failures to follow statutory guidance. Evidence from inquiries and reviews of serious cases, and from research, highlights the difficulties many social workers have in understanding the legal rules, around information-sharing for instance, and a lack of continuing professional development focused on social work law.

The evidence also reveals that some local authorities mishandle complaints from service users and their advocates, and penalise staff who blow the whistle about unlawful, unethical and unsafe procedures and practice.

How can we ensure that public bodies acknowledge and value the fact that that a social worker’s professional duty, as enshrined in the code of practice, is to draw attention to situations where the highest professional standards are threatened? What stops practitioners and managers from highlighting the resource and operational difficulties which can impact on their ethical practice?

Lack of competent managers

The same evidence sources also uncover practice environments characterised by a lack of supportive and competent managers, poor supervision, unmanageable workloads and inadequate resources to cope with rising demand.

The research suggests that when social work students are on practice placements they may witness the impact of deep-seated organisational arrangements, for instance how performance indicators and targets affect decision-making, and how personal professional judgement abuts against organisational procedures.

Silent curriculum

Not only is the teaching and assessment of law still under-developed in practice learning, but where practice assessors and their managers prioritise agency procedures over ethical practice, there emerges a hidden or silent curriculum which can contrast markedly with formal social work education and with statutory guidance and codes of practice.

How might we more effectively provide social workers with the resilience and confidence to challenge what one judge referred to as “the viruses that enter local authority decision-making and practice”? Concerns about workloads, supervision, employer expectations of newly qualified staff, and access to continuing professional development are longstanding.

Where local authorities and voluntary agencies have sought to promote research-informed and knowledge-driven practice, and where learning from serious cases has been implemented systematically, there are signposts for how organisational environments can change to promote the very best of social work. Perhaps a window of opportunity exists.

Professor Michael Preston-Shoot is the dean of the faculty of health and social sciences at the University of Bedfordshire. He is the co-editor of the book Children’s Services at the Crossroads

This article is published in the 24 June 2010 edition of Community Care magazine under the headline Help Social Workers Serve the Law, Not Their Employers

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