Has social work lost its mojo? Chief social workers take part in first joint debate

Chief social workers Isabelle Trowler (L) and Lyn Romeo (R)

Role of the chief social worker

Romeo and Trowler kicked off the conference by explaining their new roles. They are both senior civil servants whose job it will be to serve the government of the day (rather than any one particular political party) by offering advice about social work in England. They will give their views on what needs to change in social work to make things better for service users and staff. Trowler clarified: “This is not a policy job, although its purpose is to influence policy; this is about having a senior professional voice at the heart of government.”

Asked if she would be free to speak her mind, given her role sits within the Department of Health (and Trowler’s within the Department for Education), Romeo said: “We’re there to advise government, so if they say, ‘we want to do this,’ I could say (publicly) that I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

On how the two posts will sit together, Romeo added: “When I was appointed, people said ‘you’re very different from Isabelle’. But we will work well together and complement each other; we are already forming a strong relationship and have been meeting regularly.”

Priorities for children and families social work

During her presentation, Trowler went through her wish list for transforming children’s social work for the better, which included:

  • More time for evidence-based direct work.
  • Much less bureaucracy.
  • Social workers must be the custodians of risk assessment and management in whatever context they work.
  • They must be creative and independent thinkers, with professional pride in themselves and their work – and a public and positive image.
  • Responsibility must be twinned with the ability to make decisions.
  • More focus on supervision.
  • More on-the-job coaching and modelling by advanced practitioners.
  • Creative structures with roles fluid and tasks allocated to individuals with the best capability and what needs to get done for young people and families. (Not getting tied down by job descriptions.)

Romeo set out her priorities for adult social work in an interview with Community Care shortly after her appointment.

Both Trowler and Romeo placed great emphasis on the importance of principal social workers, to feed issues up to the office of the chief social worker and lead change at a local level. Trowler also said it was important to “mobilise support” for the College of Social Work, so frontline professionals have a louder voice.

Social work’s mojo

Finally, here is a snippet from a Q&A with the two chiefs. Trowler had been expressing her view that social workers must be more vocal about what needs to change in the profession. She noted that many practitioners seem reluctant to take part in consultations (e.g. on the new Ofsted framework) or to speak up on behalf of the services they provide.

In response, the conference chair asked: Do you think social work has lost its mojo?

Trowler responded: I think it’s a vital profession; you’re out on the frontline working with people day in and day out. But what we haven’t had sufficiently is the right channel through which that professional voice can reach the people who make decisions, at a local and national level .

Romeo added: I agree. But I also think we have to refresh the confidence and professionalism of social workers and help them to get more involved and engaged. Jo Cleary (chair of the College of Social Work) said to me recently that social workers are notoriously bad at joining things, at getting in there and getting involved, taking a lead. I think that is something we need to support and encourage them to do.

Conference chair: Why are social workers not good at joining in? Are they dragged down by the difficulty of the job they’re doing?

Romeo: I wouldn’t say dragged down. I think Isabelle’s earlier point is a good one; some of the bureaucracy we create can sometimes limit their capacity to do other things.

Delegate: I think social workers underestimate what they do and they’re not good at taking compliments. You tell them they’ve done an excellent piece of work, but they won’t take credit for it.

Delegate: For me organisational context is all. In the statutory children and families context, workload pressure stops people from joining in and having the energy to engage in the debate.

Trowler: I completely understand the pressure peoples are under in the workplace, but I do think it’s about having the right channels so if you want to contribute to something you know where to go to.

Conference chair: Do we need to do more to give people the opportunity to reflect on best practice?

Trowler: Yes, it’s about having more capacity. That doesn’t mean more resources – there are many ways you can redesign systems to free up time. Social workers spending inordinate amounts of time putting in forms for £1.50 has to stop.

But our best advert is when other people are selling social work; the agencies we work for, the people we help. We need to be more sophisticated in forming those allegiances and getting the message out.

Manchester Metropolitan University has launched a new continuing professional development framework designed to develop individual learning pathways for the student and service context while also addressing employers’ strategic objectives in the protection of vulnerable adults, children and families.

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