‘Social workers need reflective practice to make personalisation work’

Personalisation is a big cultural shift for social workers and councils must provide them with the training and reflective practice opportunities to make it work, argues Ali Gardner.

The 2013 Community Care survey on personalisation reveals that social workers still do not feel they are getting an adequate amount of training.

This is disappointing considering the attention personalisation has been afforded in recent government policy and the central place it will play in new legislation when the Care Bill becomes law. The implementation of personal budgets is set to carry a legal duty for practitioners charged with assessment of adults with social care needs, yet 72% of survey respondents working in this field, largely on the frontline, felt the amount of training they received was not enough, insufficient or non-existent.

Local authorities have to prioritise training in personalisation despite reduced budgets and necessary cuts. Unlike other areas of practice in social work, the personalisation approach is notably different from the approach that many of the current social workers trained under, and therefore requires dedicated time to explore the ideological and practical implications of practice.

Training in personalisation ‘patchy and varied’

Unfortunately training has been patchy across the country and varied in its content, amount and quality. Those local authorities who have made most progress with personalisation have invested in robust training focusing on values, operational issues and building community knowledge.

As a consultant working with a number of local authorities, I can sympathise with the level of planning, support and challenge training of this nature requires. Many staff are resistant to this change and some are resistant to any change, but I have been involved with some very rewarding sessions where space has been given to unpick resistance and take social workers back to the core principles underpinning their practice.

Although time-consuming, with social workers moving at different paces depending on their prior training, practice experience and working context, some of the most intelligent discussions have taken place in supporting social workers to engage with the personalisation agenda in a more thoughtful way.

Social workers ‘need space to think through personalisation’

I am not saying every social worker will be persuaded and that is not my role, but social workers need space to think about personalisation from their own professional perspective rather than through a managerial lens that pays less attention to the ethos underpinning personalisation and more on the practical possibilities of managing increasing social care need with shrinking pots of money.

From this perspective, a social worker is understandably sceptical of personalisation and resistance leads to a refusal to engage or buy into such dubious practice. This, however, dismisses two important facts. Firstly, personalisation and self-directed support originally emerged from the independent living movement, not from government  initiatives. Secondly, personalisation is about more than money and budgets, but about developing person-centred practice and supporting individuals to take control of their own lives and support wherever possible.

In my involvement with training social workers, not many argue with this, but they are understandably frustrated by bureaucratic, inflexible systems that appear to offer very few meaningful opportunities for service users to exercise more choice and control.

Encouraging signs for next generation

Perhaps  there are more encouraging signs that the next generation of social workers will be better equipped to adopt more personalised approaches to social work. The College of Social Work (TCSW) has published a curriculum guide on personalisation with an expectation that higher education institutions embed this teaching as part of the delivery of the new social work degree.

The curriculum guide encourages teaching to be designed in a way that enables students to engage critically with both the value base and the operational issues involved in delivering personalisation.

Ali Gardner is senior lecturer in social work at Manchester Metropolitan University and the author of Personalisation in Social Work (Learning Matters, 2011) and The College of Social Work’s curriculum guide on personalisation.

More on Community Care’s 2013 personalisation survey

Training gap, cuts and paperwork damaging personalisation, warn social workers

‘We must end the bureaucracy around personal budgets’

‘Flawed personal budgets cannot deliver personalisation for service users’

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