‘The revised standards for social work employers are an opportunity not to be missed’

Community Care's head of workforce content, Kirsty McGregor, reflects on four and a half years of writing about social work

Kirsty McGregorThe initial findings from our Social Work Watch survey show just how committed social workers are to the very difficult job they do. The extent of the personal sacrifice is overwhelming, with some social workers missing anniversary dinners, missing out on time with their children, fighting with their partners, losing touch with friends and feeling exhausted, tearful and alone; yet unable to walk away from the people on their caseload without doing as much as they can to help, support and protect them.

This Friday is my last day at Community Care; after four and a half years of writing about social work and social care, I am moving on to a new industry. In my time here, I have seen the Social Work Task Force and Reform Board come and go, Eileen Munro’s review of child protection and, most recently, the two reviews of social work education, all trying to address the system’s flaws.

Today our survey shows that, three years on from Munro and four since the reform board’s final report, most social workers are still forced to stay late or take paperwork home in order to squeeze in some face-to-face time with service users. There is still a lot to be done.

But it is not all doom and gloom. The survey also drew out powerful examples of why social workers make such sacrifices. Service users doing well in placements, safe, removed from an abusive situation, given choice and control over their lives. Getting through to people who have resisted in the past, counselling people, bringing a smile to their faces. More examples will be released when Unison publishes the full results of the survey in early June.

I’ve met some amazing social workers since I joined Community Care, many of whom were newly qualified or had only a few years’ experience, who took jobs in some of the most challenging authorities and areas because they were determined to make a difference where others couldn’t. What worries me is that their energy and enthusiasm will quickly disappear, as the long hours and stress take their toll.

But I take comfort in the fact that, responding to our survey, many social workers said they wished for more hours in the day – but not that they had a different job. That is a commitment that can be built upon, with the proper support.

This week a revised version of the standards for employers of social workers in England was published, after uptake disappointed when they were first launched a couple of years ago. This second chance to raise the standards of support for frontline staff must not be wasted. When I raised this with care and support minister Norman Lamb, who was speaking at Community Care Live yesterday, he agreed: “These standards are incredibly important and we have to hold local authorities to account to ensure that they are being implemented.” He added that he’d be happy to talk about steps the government could take to ensure the standards are embedded across the system – so hopefully more on that to follow.

In the meantime, I leave Community Care in slight awe of social workers, as I have been since I started. The ongoing reforms are ambitious and can at times feel painfully slow, but there will never be any doubt that social work is worth it. Good luck.

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