Principal social workers enshrine great professional leadership, says College chief

But we have a responsibility to hold our nerve and make sure the role is embedded properly, writes chief executive of The College of Social Work, Annie Hudson

By Annie Hudson

Recent discussions in Community Care have brought some important issues to the fore about the role of principal social workers (PSW). The College of Social Work helps to co-ordinate the national PSW networks for adults and for children and families, and so has some insight into what is currently working well and what less so.

Bridging the divide

The PSW role is absolutely pivotal to both achieving high practice standards and bridging the often unhealthy divide between practice and management worlds. We now need some honest reflection on how it can best develop.

There are as many different interpretations of the role as there are post-holders and directors, and this may be no bad thing. But a “thousand flowers blooming” approach has its pitfalls, not least in creating conflicting expectations.

Impressive buy-in

There has been impressive buy-in to the role: a recent count indicated that there are now over 140 identified PSWs in adult services and more than 130 in children’s services. But these figures mask very diverse interpretations of roles and accountabilities.  Although in many places PSWs have been given clear status and capacity, in others the role has been a rather tokenistic add-on to other responsibilities, making it extremely difficult for those individuals to prioritise the essential functions of a PSW.

At the heart of Professor Munro’s original conception of the role was an emphasis on someone actively involved in practice having lead responsibility, with authority and influence at all levels of management. We know that in some areas, the PSW role has not been given what PSW network leads Marion Russell and Tony Stanley refer to as the necessary “gravitas”. Unlike most of the health professions, social work does not have well-established organisational models where professional leadership stands alongside managerial leadership, rather than beneath it.

Challenge the status quo

For PSWs to really know what is going on in practice (as opposed to what they think is happening) they need the freedom and confidence to challenge the status quo amongst managers and practitioners, as well as ambitious and clear practice standards and a zest for learning and change.

PSWs must be able to move seamlessly between operational and strategic issues, working with passion and provocation to connect them in the interest of children, adults and families. No wonder then that sometimes they feel sandwiched between seemingly competing agendas.

There is clear and growing evidence of the added value of PSWs as system changers, supporting practitioners to be analytic, reflective and grounded in evidence. There are many examples of PSWs leading initiatives to support better practice, improved recruitment and retention and enhanced professional morale.

Realities and risks

Nevertheless, we cannot ignore current realities and risks.Some have suggested the introduction of the assessment and accreditation scheme for children’s social work, and specifically of practice leadership, could dilute the PSW role. This highlights the need for clarification about the relationship between these two elements of the system. There is a risk too that where the role has, for whatever reason, not flourished, its capacity will be diminished or cut completely.

Three things could help the role to consistently punch above its weight in future. Firstly, we need more clarity. Together, the PSW national networks, the two associations for directors of children’s  and of adults’ services, the chief social workers and The College must address the ambiguities of the role, setting clear expectations and priorities, whilst also supporting local flexibility. We need to identify where, how and why the PSW role is proving most effective, and what practice issues benefit the most from their involvement. PSWs cannot be all things at all times to all people.

Rooted in practice

Secondly, the PSW function must be firmly rooted in practice: this is the basis of their professional leadership and authority. This will involve a blend of supervision, education, mentoring, co-working, evidence sharing, and practice analysis. There has been much debate about whether PSWs should have their own caseload – this may be right for some but not others. What is more crucial is finding out and knowing about what really goes on in practice, and using this to build practice expertise.

Thirdly, senior directors must honestly evaluate how well they and their teams engage with the work of PSWs. There are many brilliant examples of fruitful and respectful listening, challenge and dialogue. These need to be mirrored everywhere.

At an uncertain time, social work must hold its nerve and beware changing the architecture. The PSW role absolutely enshrines what great professional leadership should be about. We all have a responsibility for embedding this correctly, and using it to support real change and improvement.  

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