Principal social workers: local gains, but a missed national opportunity

Tony Stanley, deputy chair of the principal social workers' network, explains why he thinks the role is failing

Photo: Ky/ flickr

By Tony Stanley

Social work is at a critical juncture  and principal social workers (PSWs) needs more than ever to step up and lead. But, despite some clear local gains, nationally PSWs remain a weak voice.

Last year, joint PSW network chair Marion Russell and I published a paper challenging principal social workers to step up and take on the reform agenda, head on, and loudly. We argued that if we don’t, others will set the agenda for us.

We also advocated that the PSW must be in practice, holding cases, stepping over family thresholds, sitting on couches, and critically, learning about social work in situ. By doing so, we offer a unique perspective back to our organisations about the realities of the front line.

Will they rock any boats?

One of the key problems weakening the role today is the number of assistant directors or senior managers who act as principal social worker as an add-on to other roles.  They are too busy to contribute, and they probably have an investment in the status quo. Will they rock any boats? Who do they speak for and speak to as PSWs? When did they last sit on a couch and experience, really experience doing social work?

I am a PSW for children’s and adult services in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, and it is an amazing role where I lead professional social work. But across the country, high caseloads and high demands for statutory services keep fuelling anxious responses to children and vulnerable adults. The PSW must speak up about this.


Why are we so silent nationally about the working environments that stop us caring for people to the best of our abilities? There should be no higher priority than making our organisations healthy workplaces and speaking up about the things that affect frontline practice, yet the one tool we have to monitor this, the health check, is rarely used.

Meet Ofsted at the door

The fear of an Ofsted or CQC arrival continues to fuel anxious, compliance-driven cultures. The PSW should be able to meet Ofsted and CQC gladly at the door, welcome them in and show them the excellent practice we are delivering. But to do this, we need to know that our practice and leadership is excellent,  that our organisations are trying to improve workplace cultures and balance high caseloads and that our supervision is of the highest quality. The PSW should know whether this is the case because they are in practice, speaking up for the frontline.

The PSW should ensure that our services are evaluated through the voices of the people that deliver and receive services. Too often we are evaluated against government edict and quantitative key performance indicator measures. This tells us about activity, and how many times we have done something, but it doesn’t tell us about the quality of our social work. The PSW needs to ask: have we been helpful? Have families understood why we are involved? Have we left them more able because of our social work?

Can’t, or won’t

This requires a considerable level of skill by the PSW and their senior management colleagues. Some might not like what we are saying. Some PSW probably won’t speak up because of this. We are at a critical juncture if PSW can’t, or won’t speak up.

Some great local gains have been made. PSWs have put in new supervision frameworks, set up and led social work academies and suggested ways to reduce bureaucracy and paperwork. But nationally we are weak and we are not speaking back to the national reform agenda with collective intelligence and confidence. This is our fault – we may have missed the opportunity.

The PSW is at risk of finding themselves just another part of the structures that got us here in the first place. The opportunity is now for practice leadership. And if we don’t seize it, others will define it for us.

You can join our Stand up for Social Work campaign by:

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.