By a newly qualified social worker
Last week I attended Community Care Children and Families Live, an event brimming with social work practitioners, managers and students. For me, the most memorable part of the event was hearing Sharon Shoesmith and Professor Ray Jones speak about the response to Peter Connolly’s death and the resulting culture of fear and blame in child protection.
As a newly qualified social worker (NQSW), it took me some time to adjust to the constant fear of something going wrong. The threat of failing an Ofsted inspection drives a ‘culture of compliance’ and there have been times when I felt paralysed by the pressure of timescales and targets.
I’m not suggesting targets and timescales are a social work evil – I know that I’m at my most productive when under pressure. But there have been times when I have felt overwhelmed by all those red tasks in my Integrated Children’s System (ICS) tray. I end up working late most nights so I can get administrative tasks done and still spend time with families. It feels like targets compete with time spent with families and creates a conflict with social work values.
I was struck, by another speaker at CC Live Camila Batmanghelidjh, who challenged social workers to resist what she termed the ‘vanilla moment’- when it’s easier to go along with the status quo than make waves by challenging colleagues- and to stand up for what they believe to be in a child’s best interests.
This discussion mirrored a Twitter chat I took part in earlier in the week which focused on dissent. Social workers and students discussed their experiences of challenging decisions made higher up. It was acknowledged that a supportive and approachable manager was an important factor in being able to do this. However, some felt the pressures and processes imposed from above meant they were unable to discuss issues with their manager and, at times, their decision-making left their values compromised.
Sharon Shoesmith ended her keynote speech by warning social workers not to be ‘lame ducks’ and to make their voices heard.
The conversations and attendance at this event confirmed that there is a passionate, committed and experienced workforce of social workers . There are also inspirational students and NQSWs who, in Professor Jones’ words, are ‘fired up’ and joining the ranks each year. The voice of social work is growing louder, but perhaps before we can truly challenge the public and media perception of social work, we need to overcome the difficulties within the profession itself.
How can we overcome such negativity when social workers feel afraid to constructively challenge their employers? When we have social workers leaving the profession due to overwhelming caseloads and the constant fear they might be the next subject of a media witch hunt. We need a culture which allows the creativity and passion of the workforce to flourish rather than be extinguished. We need a collective, not a fragmented and hierarchical approach.