Professor Eileen Munro, whose influential review of child protection was published in 2011, delivered a seminar for social work training scheme Frontline last week. Watch Professor Munro’s talk in full above and read some of her key points below.
“[In my review] I was critical of what had developed over the previous decades. It was looking at social work as if it was a technical, rational process. It was as if you as a social worker were some kind of robot that went off to a home, collected information then went back and sat in front of a computer to type it into. I want to talk about how radically wrong that is about human beings and the nature of social work practice.”
“One of the great dangers of the managerialist approach is that we’ve forgotten…how much the human relationship pervades the whole process of trying to engage and work with a family. Your job is not to write beautiful reports and lovely essays. It is to make life different for children.”
“A colleague of mine described the shift from uncertainty to risk management as the point at which someone gets responsibility for managing uncertainty. That responsibility has been handed to social workers and I think that we haven’t expressed clearly enough what is a reasonable level of managing uncertainty.
“We end up with people having too high an expectation and then too vitriolic an attack when we don’t live up to that expectation. And the anxiety of that whole area of blame paralyses the whole system of social work in very important ways at the moment. Changing the narrative around that and getting a better understanding is key.”
“It struck me how very pathological the whole system is to have that anxiety running through [social work]. What we need is to get the ability to have standards about good enough practice that takes account the circumstances. A decision made at 3am in a crisis should be judged by different standards than a decision made after three group meetings and a long time to think it through.
“Until we have that kind of professional security, you will find people being defensive in their practice. It’s very difficult to keep a clear focus on the safety of children when you’re frightened about yourself. We must stop people judging us when they have the benefit of hindsight and they are only looking at information through that lens, which is totally distorting.”
“You should be able to come back from a difficult interview and know where your colleagues are and who you can go and talk to…If you just have to come back to a room full of people [you don’t know] sitting typing on a computer then you have to hold all that emotion inside you, you start taking it home at night, you start getting burnout.”
“[Good working environments] matter partly for your mental health but also for the quality of the help you give a family. By getting a better understanding of how you’re reacting to them, you get a better understanding of what might be going on and how you can work with them. So the impact for children will be greater if we’re providing this sort of help to staff.”
“Social work with child protection used to be the elite part of social work. Back in the 1980s and 90s it was very difficult to get a job in child protection because when people got one they stayed there. The teams around London would’ve been full of people who had been in post for years and years.
“That demoralisation of the staff is a direct response to managerialism not recognising the nature of the work that you need to do with families. To me, the need to challenge the work conditions that we need is one of the important tasks ahead. To get a very strong narrative on why we need to have these supports. That they are not because you’re fluffy and silly and need extra care, it’s because you’re doing more challenging work.”
“The concept of timeliness really matters because what we know is that when people are faced with difficult decisions, most human beings just put off the decision, so it’s about drift.
“But it has to be about timeliness relative to the needs of a particular child. The idea that seven days is enough for everyone is nonsense. We need the principal of timeliness to influence our thinking, but it should not be there is any fixed timescale. The reality is [in the past] that became overriding. People called an assessment completed because they got to the seventh day. They got it the wrong way round.”
“I don’t think the problem [of bureaucracy] is the local authority. I think the problem was the central government prescription of what people should do and I think it’s a bit of a cheek of them to dump the blame on local authorities. I don’t have strong feelings [but] I do object to the idea of Virgin Care making profit from taking kids out of families.”
“What I’m concerned about is the tendency to think research is an easy answer. Research is valued because of the hard work and rigour that went into how it was developed. The findings you have confidence in because of how they were reached. If you then take a Ladybird view to the findings and think they’re very simple to use, then you destroy the benefit of how the research was done.”
“I think your final exams for your training course do that. I’m not sure why you should have more. I haven’t looked at it closely, of what it is like and whether it is sensible. It is something I feel I don’t know enough about to form a view but I have a slight puzzlement as to why it’s necessary because I think your basic training should be to get you there and cut out the people who haven’t got it.”
“Since my review, something good has happened but it’s so invisible nobody really notices it apart from me. And that is when there have been horrible stories in the newspapers, the government has not come out with any horrible statements. They have not been saying ‘heads will roll, someone’s to blame’.
“They have been keeping quiet. It would’ve been great if they’d actually been supportive but being quiet is a lot better than Ed Balls [education secretary at the time of the Baby P scandal] saying ‘sack the director’.”
“This is a really exciting time to be in social work despite the funding cuts. We have this chance that we must try and use.
“We mustn’t just end up bickering among ourselves because, as my final point, the aim of all of this is not to improve the status of social work – it is to improve the quality of help we can give to children. My hope is we’ll get to the point where children [we’ve worked with] are just very glad a social worker came into their lives.”