Principal social workers – Scotland’s experience

The Munro Report calls for a principal social worker role to be created at every local authority in England along the same lines as Scotland's chief social work officers. Jackie Cosh reports.

The Munro Report calls for a principal social worker role to be created at every local authority in England along the same lines as Scotland’s chief social work officers. Jackie Cosh reports.

Aberdeen’s chief social work officer Fred McBride has a direct line of accountability to the chief executive

Professor Eileen Munro’s review of child protection recommended that there should be a principal child and family social worker in every local authority in England, whose job it would be to report the views and experiences of frontline staff to all levels of management.

Munro’s recommendation echoes the Social Work Task Force’s call, 18 months earlier, for all social work employers to ensure the presence of “a senior manager who is also a qualified social worker and who oversees the overall health of professionals within the organisation, advises it on how the standard for employers can be upheld, and is accessible to frontline staff”.

The two reports send a clear message to government that support is growing for the creation of a network of senior, dedicated social workers, who could give frontline practitioners in England a stronger voice.

In Scotland, they already have a broadly comparable role – that of the chief social work officer (CSWO).

Created by the 1968 Social Work (Scotland) Act, the CSWO is a strategic role found in every local authority in the country. CSWOs are senior, qualified social workers, who link their colleagues and the council, providing annual reports on the organisation’s social work provision. They also support and advise social work managers, make final decisions on issues including adoptions, and ensure appropriate systems are in place to promote good practice.

Ruth Stark, manager of the Scottish Association of Social Workers, adds that the CSWO helps elected council members to understand their accountability when it comes to children’s services.

“I think it strengthens the confidence of social workers to do the job they have been trained for,” she says. “It gives clarity about what you can do as a social worker and the responsibility of your employer.”

Munro looked at the CSWO practice guidance, but her proposal for a principal social worker role differs in some key respects. For example, CSWOs cover all areas of social work, whereas Munro has proposed creating a position that applies only to children’s services in England.

Right direction

“It is a step in the right direction,” says Michelle Miller, immediate past president of the Association of Directors of Social Work, Scotland. “And it’s better than not having one, but it is important that there is not a division.”

Miller, who has been Edinburgh Council’s CSWO for the past four years, argues that substance abuse, child protection and adult services are all related and therefore require a principal social worker who understands the profession as a whole.

Some employers in England share her views. John Nawrockyi, secretary of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services’ workforce development network, says: “I would like to see it incorporating adult and children’s services, because social workers need an understanding of both.

“It would be a marvellous opportunity, and a great recognition of the commitment and professionalism of social workers. And it would improve social workers’ morale and confidence to have someone high up in the council; a sign they were recognised.”

But he admits this is unlikely to happen in the current financial climate: “It would be a challenge to do well and consistently, particularly with limited resources.”

However, Nawrockyi’s counterpart at the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, Marion Davis, disagrees with the idea of broadening out the principal social worker role. She says: “I think there is some merit in it being for children’s services only. The role of social work in adult services is changing, and we couldn’t just assume that it would work.”


Davis also cautions against looking too much towards the Scottish system. “There are so many different arrangements in the way social work is organised in Scotland that it would be hard to draw parallels.”

Sector leaders will debate whether to follow in Scotland’s footsteps over the coming months. Munro’s proposal has attracted the interest of Moira Gibb, who chaired the Social Work Task Force and now spearheads the Social Work Reform Board, and the strong support of the burgeoning College of Social Work. As Corinne May-Chahal, interim co-chair of the college, says: “We need to retain expertise and the capacity for supporting practitioners in the field, at the same time as ensuring management continues to be of good quality.”

Children’s minister Tim Loughton has not yet committed to implementing Munro’s recommendations, promising only to look at them and consider how they might work in practice. An official response is expected later this summer.

In the meantime, Munro is adamant that the creation of a principal social worker position is an essential part of the wider reform programme. She says: “There has been too much focus [in England] on designing forms and not enough on developing skills. More practice-based reform is needed.

“Expertise is gained though direct work with families rather than through office-based skills. If social work doesn’t put value on its role, it won’t get going as a robust profession.”

Views of a chief social work officer

Fred McBride (pictured, top), director of social care and wellbeing at Aberdeen Council, talks about life as the authority’s chief social work officer

Munro’s recommendation for a principal social worker sounds exactly like part of my role as a chief social work officer, except my role is subject to a wider scope including criminal justice, and covers adult social work as well as children and families.

I am a director, but that is not a prerequisite for being a CSWO. I have a seat on the corporate policy-making table in Aberdeen and I’m an officer of the council. Like many CSWOs, I produce an annual report for the council covering all social work including child protection.

My role involves being absolutely clear with social work staff about the standards of practice required of them by the authority. But I also support staff and talk to them about their role. It’s about engaging people within the organisation.

In relation to children’s services, I have to approve all the decisions and recommendations around moving children into emergency placements and putting children into secure care. I also approve decisions related to adult services. It works very well: my role provides a direct line of accountability to the chief executive and the full council on standards of social work practice and decision-making.

Is the principal social worker role for you?

Sarah Pope, manager at Hays Social Care, draws up a person specification to fit Munro’s vision

“Principal child and family social workers require excellent communication skills. Being empathetic, approachable and engaging is a must in order to get the views of those on the frontline. Professionals will need to demonstrate that they are able to take an objective approach, showing they can be assertive when required and are comfortable challenging poor practice at an individual and organisational level. They will also need to have good presentation skills, to ensure relevant information is fed back to senior managers in the most effective way possible.”

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Special report: The Munro review of child protection and children’s services

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