By Tony Stanley, principal social worker, Tower Hamlets
The government recently set out its proposals for practice supervision and practice leadership. Previously, some had wondered what was meant by ‘practice leader’. But we have probably all worked with or know of one – someone who promotes a practice led-system over managerial dominance or bureaucratic compliance (just as we can all think of senior managers who favour Key Performance Indicator spreadsheets).
Eileen Munro placed a spear in the sand and said we can take back practice from the grip of this managerialism, but to do this, we need brave leaders.
‘Tinkering around the edges’
We need people at the top of organisations who are willing to take risks and make more space for practice-led systems. Post Munro we have only tinkered round the edges, for example with principal social workers. With 75% of local authorities needing to improve, according to Ofsted, the pressure is on. More of the same is not an option.
Practice leadership, as set out in these statements, can guard against managerialism. It allows balance and a new influence within systems dominated by measurement and statistical claims about progress and child safety.
Seeing a child every 10 days does not make them safe but this inflexible approach can take over.
I have had emails from managers reminding me of visits on my caseload recorded outside of timescales. What is the priority here? Is it to do things on time? Or is it to practice with a quality that is focused on change, families empowered to co-collaborate with us, to build resiliency and coping strategies? Is the focus to offer real help to families – practical and emotional – and record it in a way that is helpful to the child and their family to read later, and for the next social worker, for Ofsted and so on?
The point of our practice should be ‘doing the right things’, not ‘doing things right.’ This is why we should embrace accreditation. Other professions have long done so. Teaching hospitals are great examples of a culture where research and the latest practice debates are alive and well.
In New Zealand, where I qualified, there is a practice leader in every area office, and they collaborate with the chief social worker to improve the child welfare system. As a newly qualified social worker I accessed the national chief social work office for research and practice updates. I worked a case of denied sexual abuse, involving a violent gang culture and I was supported by the practice leader to take risks for the children, while the chief social work office provided me the latest practice research. I was supported in my decision to leave them within the wider family system, but build safety around them.
Leadership support and backing
If a tragedy happens, we need to know that we have leadership support and backing. Practice leaders need to understand practice methodologically and theoretically if they are to promote it. Let’s not shy away from raising the game as high as we can. Otherwise practice will stay risk averse and defensive.
Who is a practice leader?
Are principal social workers (PSWs) practice leaders? Maybe – perhaps some more than others. Are we a national force to be reckoned with? Not yet. Will we be? Unlikely. Why? Because too many PSWs are no longer in practice. They struggle to comment on how managerialist systems of work dominate.
Practice leaders can learn from the PSW experience to avoid this trap and offer a new vision for social work.
Recent radicalisation cases demonstrate why we need leaders who can create new structures. Currently, families in these cases are shoehorned though the traditional child protection system. If they don’t comply, courts grant wardship orders on teenagers, with families left on the sidelines.
This is neither right, nor just and disempowers a family’s right to lead solutions for their child. Perhaps the problem is trust. Do we trust families enough? Do we trust social workers enough? The system is geared towards watching and checking-up. Too many people are paid to watch and professional voices and professional spaces are favoured over those of the family and their networks.
How can family participation be weighted more evenly alongside professional input? Could the family group conference, which I think is better for cases of radicalisation risk, replace the traditional child protection conference system? Only practice leaders could drive such a change.
Leading from the front
Being the principal social worker is the most interesting role I have had, and there are many of us trying to agitate and influence. But we can’t change things. We can only try to influence within the existing structures. Practice leaders, and this should be the head of children’s social care (and adult services, although this hasn’t yet been proposed) need to be the first to be accredited, to truly lead practice from the front. There are many out there already. Some will argue that testing and accreditation is not relevant. I am arguing here that it couldn’t be more relevant for the leadership of a profession at risk.