The “reform” of social work over the last six years shows an unprecedented level of interest and financial investment by the government in social work and social workers.
We have seen the deliberations of the Social Work Taskforce in 2009, the Munro Review of Child Protection in 2011, the Social Work Reform Board in 2012 and the two reviews of social work education in 2014, by Narey and by Croisdale-Appleby.
A glance at a thesaurus offers some revealing alternative words for “reform”: improve, mend, reconstruct, rehabilitate, renovate, repair, get back on the straight and narrow, get one’s act together, pull one’s socks up, turn over a new leaf…
Have we really been in need of so much improvement?
I have been unable to identify another period when there has been such a concentrated focus and money allocated to social work – yet we have so little to show for it!
The decision makers
While ministers announce key policy decisions, the initiatives, the ideas and real decisions are left to civil servants and quangos.
Do we passively await the policies and hang around while others take decisions on how they are implemented or do we grasp the initiative, critically considering what is suggested or proposed, speak out and then act, taking on the leadership from within?
The imminent closure of The College of Social Work is not due to lack of funds. Rather it is the result of a high cost, staff intensive working model which failed to actively use the expertise, experience and energy of members.
From the outset it preferred to use costly advisors and consultants. It ignored the community development and participation skills which are central to the heritage of the social work profession.
Having witnessed at first hand the early, gory battles between the nascent College and the British Association of Social Workers, the responsibility for failure and the refusal to work together has to be shared by both organisations. The consequences have harmed both social work and social workers. Critically, the ultimate losers have been the people we serve and their carers.
Another current example is the proposal from a government advisor that social worker education be split between adults and children and families.
The Association of Directors of Adult Services (ADASS) has publicly declared this ‘nonsense’ – there is no pure children and families or pure adults social work.
Could a government edict simply impose a split without the full cooperation of social worker managers who recruit, employers who work in partnership with universities and universities who design and provide social work education?
If education is split, it will be due to their cooperation (or connivance), not government imposition or aspiration.
Yes, there are real issues and challenges in social work education. We need a consensus on a coherent curriculum, and particularly the practice learning element. These issues require urgent attention from the profession itself.
A confident, ambitious profession
Studies repeatedly show that many social workers do not receive regular, reflective supervision.
As the Social Work Reform Board closed its work “employer standards” allocating responsibility for professional reflective supervision and continuing professional development were set out for organisations.
But we need to own the standards, as part of our professional being, to ensure we receive and provide supervision. To place the responsibility with employers has inadvertently led to us seeing it as someone else’s responsibility and not our own.
A mature profession with confident ambitious graduates and equally ambitious supervisors, with a fraction of the government funding would have grasped the professional standards and internalised them as core to practice.
New social workers
Assuring the standards for the first year after qualifying, in practice quality and expertise, has been especially protracted, halting and circuitous.
The newly qualified social worker (NQSW), programme, later re-named as the assessed and supported year of employment AYSE, has been implemented in a tortuous, repetitive and very costly way over the past seven years, led by civil servants and a quango sector skills council, not by the profession.
Prior to the SWRB, there was an established professional route of modular post-qualifying awards which assessed and externally validated knowledge and practice, within university and employer partnerships. Consolidation of learning at the start of a social worker’s career was validated , at low cost. Years later, we have nothing of equivalent rigour, despite the extraordinary amount of public money spent.
Employers difficulty recruiting high quality social workers is in part due to their failure to provide high quality placements to students, leaving a proportion of social work graduates almost unemployable.
Government imposed “reform” will not solve this. Energetic self-leadership by social workers, acting with authority within their university partnerships, is the key to success.
The College received government funding to support and coordinate the adult and children’s principal social workers networks. If this approach continues, I would argue, it infantilises the role and the networks.
PSWs need the space to develop their own agenda, in collaboration with the Social Workers Assembly, to work across the profession and exercise their vital role with professional authority, both collectively and within their employing organisations. The networks need to identify what resources they need and take forward their next stage of development.
All these examples show the risk that too much reliance on central government or employer funding can ultimately control the agenda, potentially restrain our authority, aspirations and ambitions and determine our very existence.
Bill McKitterick is a social worker, working in supervision and leadership. He is the author of Self-Leadership in Social Work, Policy Press.