By Matt Bee
Time waits for no man, and it certainly doesn’t hang about for social workers. But this won’t stand up in court if you work in adult services and haven’t read up on the Care Act yet. Heralded as the biggest shakeup in the social care system for 60 years, and having come into force on 1 April this year, it’s something every frontline social worker should know in detail by now. But finding the time to study is a dilemma we’ve all had to contend with.
Put simply, it’s hard to give priority to reading legal books when our caseload is mounting, the phone keeps ringing, emails are flooding in, and we’re running late for the next appointment. In such an intense environment, it’s easy to lose sight of the importance of staying up-to-date.
The Health and Care Professions Council makes it quite clear, though. ‘Being able to practice within the legal and ethical boundaries of their profession’ lists second from the top in their standards of proficiency. Fail to understand the law and you risk losing your registration. And if David Cameron has his way, you could risk losing a lot more than that.
The pros and cons of training days
The answer, for many local authorities at least, is to send practitioners away on training days. But how successful these are depends on a lot of variables. A good facilitator will engage the audience, encourage discussion, work through examples, and ensure the key messages are driven home. A bad facilitator will distribute too many handouts and spend the first hour trying to get the projector to work.
The attention span of the audience also needs to be brought into question. Service users don’t stop falling into crises just because we’re out of the office for the day. Deadlines still loom. Mobiles still ring. Although it’s possible to gather social workers together in one place, their minds can easily remain elsewhere, still occupied with pressing concerns about the welfare of their clients.
Lunchtime study not the answer
Many practitioners don’t even feel able to abandon their caseload for a whole day and resort to studying at home or grabbing a spare moment over lunch to consult resources online. Resorting to this, they’re unlikely to establish the depth of knowledge good social work practice rests on.
And this is the crux of the matter. Knowing the law gives social workers the confidence to make meaningful decisions, to advocate for their clients, and to obtain the help, support and funds from those who are obliged to provide them. Knowing the Care Act – and the responsibilities it places on local authorities in particular – is crucial in this respect.
But at 157 pages long, backed by a further 498 pages of statutory guidance, you’d be ill-advised to tackle it over a lunch break.
Request study time
Instead, you could consider requesting protected study time. It’s worth remembering that taking time out to learn and reflect isn’t a luxury – although asking for it may feel like it. Your employer should support your continued professional development and the local government standards for employers of social workers emphasises this point.
Learn through discussion
Alternatively, you could set up a reflective practice group. Learning through debate and discussion can be much more engaging than wading through a textbook alone in a quiet side room. It also combats the temptation to cancel at the last moment, giving in once more to the insatiable demands of casework. Mutual support and accountability among colleagues gives the task the priority it deserves. If you’re struggling to match diaries up, you could begin by simply setting time aside in regular team meetings to begin with.
Involve service users
But perhaps the most innovative way of learning the Care Act, and any other legislation for that matter, is to encourage your team to hold an event for service users.
It stands to reason that if we, as social workers, need to understand a law that protects and upholds the rights of our clients, our clients themselves also need a working knowledge of it. So why not book a meeting room, print off some flyers and invite those on your caseload to attend? Having a clear date in the diary, a goal, gives the whole enterprise a focus. And the need to talk about the subject, rather than to merely listen, provides plenty of incentive to learn it thoroughly. As a final benefit, it helps build stronger working relationships with your service users. You could even consider running it as a joint venture with a local carers group to build stronger professional links as well.
Think outside the box
However you set about the task, the fact is that as of 1 April this year our work has been governed by a different law and our practice guided in a new direction, and it’s very much our job to know all about it. It’s our employers’ job to help us with this. And in the modern workplace, with social workers pulled in ten directions at one, we may need to think outside of the box when it comes to truly understanding the implications of the Care Act.
Matt Bee is a forensic social worker based in a mental health hospital in North East England