‘Social workers don’t need to be told what to do – we need more time to do it’

Many practitioners are doing an incredible job despite cuts, criticism and the looming threat of more reform, argues Social Work Tutor

More paperwork is taking social workers further from what matters, according to Social Work Tutor

Social workers aren’t capable of doing our jobs properly. That’s the message we’re consistently given by the media, our government and those who set the field for our practice.

We’re told we’re incapable of adequately assessing risk. We’re inefficient, have little emotional resilience and aren’t committed to our careers long-term. We’re not bright enough, our training was substandard, and we should be subjected to further testing regardless of our previous educational achievement and experience.


To put it bluntly, we are viewed as simply not being up to the task. How else can we explain the constant upheavals, reviews, inquiries, task forces and regulatory changes that are forever changing the foundations of our jobs?

Yes we’re given a few shining examples of ‘best practice’ authorities every now and then. But there’s never been a time when social workers have been told ‘you’ve got it right as a profession, let’s leave things as they are and see the fruits of hard work.’

More often we’re told we’re inadequate and served up evidence, currently mostly poor Ofsted inspections, to enforce this. In all too recent memory we’ve been hit with jail threats and the closure of The College of Social Work, a body that was set up to give our profession a voice.

It’s no wonder we can feel a browbeaten and disconsolate profession when we have such a constant level of negative reinforcement.

The frontline reality

Yet this isn’t the reality I see on the frontline. No matter how many people in powerful positions say otherwise, I see a committed and passionate workforce doing their best in difficult conditions.

I see a workforce made up of people who compromise the quality of their own personal lives for the good of people who will never thank them for their sacrifices.

I see a workforce striving to undertake person-centred practice in a culture of scrutiny, managerialism and risk-aversion. I see staff delivering support despite bureaucracy that dampens the human aspect of social work by looking to quantify every single decision with a performance indicator.

I see a workforce that has to cope with losing admin support, budget cuts, hotdesking and the loss of essential car user allowance while still being told they’re valued. I see a workforce made up of some of the strongest, most caring people I’ve ever met.

I do not see a workforce that’s incompetent. I do not see a workforce who need to be lectured by those with no understanding of frontline practice. I do not see a profession that’s in need of radical saving by those from without.

The need for time

Yet there is a simple problem and it’s one that’s been shared with me time and time again by social workers from all across the world – we do not have enough time to do what we are here for.

At its core, social work is a simple process of assessment, intervention and review. We assess risk, we intervene and we review to see if our work has been effective. But above all we’re here to help people. That’s the age-old ideal that brought so many of us into the profession in the first place. Sadly each extra piece of paperwork we have to complete and every additional barrier to our practice takes us further away from it.

In my career I’ve never once had a single service user say to me ‘that assessment you completed was really great’ or ‘I’m glad that you took the time to write up those case notes so thoroughly’.

Instead it’s the work I can’t quantify that people thank me for – the help to move home, the food parcels, the advocacy, the effort to explain social work processes in a manner people can understand, the showing a dad how to change a nappy.

The moments that make a difference

These are the things that make social work so rewarding yet where is the performance indicator for the child’s smiles? Where is the box you tick to say a service user told you they felt safe now? How do we get the data for that gut feeling where you know a family are going to be okay?

It is these little moments that are missed when we’re told we’re inadequate. It is these little victories that we forget to record. It’s this part of the job that we need time to work on, not pushed further away from.

We don’t need to be told what to do, we need more time to do it. More time to build relationships, plan our work, see children and families and reflect on our practice.

Children aren’t saved by a piece of paper or case records stored on a computer, no matter how many hours you spent creating that data or how much praise you received for your efficiency.

Children are saved by relationship-based practices that are focussed on them. By having a relationship where they feel comfortable in sharing the abuse they are experiencing and by having a social worker they can contact, not one who looks at their phone ringing and knows that answering it means they might miss the deadline for their single assessment.

We know what is required. Now we need fewer cases and less paperwork to give us the time to make it happen.

The author is a child protection social worker who runs the Social Work Tutor site

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8 Responses to ‘Social workers don’t need to be told what to do – we need more time to do it’

  1. Felix Tambebawack May 8, 2016 at 1:30 am #

    I am a first year postgraduate social work student.
    After reading this document. I see the realities of the profession.
    There is no indicator to judge the performance ratio of a social worker who strives to see that children are not abuse and neglected.
    Social workers who advocate for asylum children and the elderly (Gerontology )to remain in their homes rather than going into Nursing homes without their wish or service users who lack capacity to make their own judgement.

  2. Stefan May 9, 2016 at 9:51 am #

    Darn well said!

    All these regulatory bodies full of bean counters who have no clue what really goes on are the most abusive lot in the entire system and it is their interference that causes most of the issues revolving around proper care and best practice!
    I am in Adult Health and Social Care and work in a Care home and every day it is new bits of paper to fill out to say that you have done this or that. So far, not one bit of paper to tick off that says “Have you spent 2 minutes with a resident to sit and talk to them and make them happy?”
    Why not? Because CQC does not give a damn about that, just that you have applied a cream that is prescribed, checked an air mattress is functioning, checked the 95 degree food trolley, offered the residents a choice of crappy slop to eat!
    And all the while CQC is too scared to make a stand and state categorically that 1 staff member per 5 residents is totally inadequate! Bunch of lily livered bean counters sitting behind a desk dictating to us who actually do care and get out there and do the work not hiding behind a well paid screen like CQC and walking around in judgement as though they are some special gift to the Care industry!

    Rant over! 🙂

  3. Get me out of Here May 9, 2016 at 10:14 am #

    I completely agree with all you say at its core, assessment, intervention and review. The new version of Tory Social Work, however, is somewhat different. We are told that we are inadequate that the poverty and deprivation we see is all down to personal failings and has nothing to do with Austerity and Government cuts to welfare. What Social Workers need now is re-education for the new approach, strength based Social work, no longer do we assess people and fit them to services we have conversations about self help with them, resilience, helping them to help themselves. Connecting them to Community resources, getting their families to do more for them, coaching the individual to do more for themselves. This approach we are told is because there will be no money for services by 2020 as Local Authorities are cut off from central Government funding. Only as a last resort will we offer any Local Authority services. Meanwhile back in the real world personal budgets are being cut or squeezed, day centres for the elderly closed down, transport service cut and people living in squalid conditions being left to fend for themselves. The new approach is Big Society zero cost services, because we cannot make Google, Apple, Starbucks and other companies pay appropriate tax. We cannot look after people because that is a choice we have made low taxes and the destruction of society as we know it. The world of George Orwell’s 1984 is not as far away as you might think, welcome to Dystopia Tory style.

  4. Julie May 9, 2016 at 7:25 pm #

    Well said SW Tutor; just so sad that anyone with any sense doesn’t appear to be aware of active listening ! Social work is imploding and been evident for years yet as said Tory style

  5. Keith stewsrt May 12, 2016 at 5:07 am #

    I am not a social worker. My mother was failed by a social worker who did not live up to those lofty ideals. He would blame work pressure. I blame prejudice, incompetence and bias on his part. Backed up by a management wearing the same clothes.
    You do not need a form or a bean counter or ofsted to tell you to take 5 minutes not 2 to check the needs,satisfaction, views and happiness of a client. Or a colleague. I worked with young people in difficult circumstances. This social worker needed a guideline to tell him his role. This social worker needed to remember what a person centred approach meant. So he could support a vulnerable 92 year old woman. And not be best friends with an incompetent care home manager. Social workers are under pressure. So are teachers. So are nhs staff. So are many, many people and professions. This article and your responses don’t encourage me as a member of the public. Some social workers aren’t up to the job and many are I imagine. But my experience in over 20 years of contact with social workers on my mum’s behalf is overall negative. You have a resposibility for your behaviour too. Don’t blame everyone else.

  6. Pauline May 13, 2016 at 1:00 am #

    Well said, I for one am totally fed up of all the forms we have to fill in before anything can happen, I am also very annoyed and upset by all the changes that we are supposed to put up with, these are meant to make things better and in fact make it worse for those on the frontline. For instance a 15 step process to get after school club organised. Agile working is very frustrating, having to carry every thing with you, feeling like a bag lady, not knowing where your colleagues are or when they will be into the office. Not having post it notes to hand, having to find a desk and get it set up and fit all your files into a very small locker. Doing lots of extra hours to get things finished with no hope of claiming the time back. Don’t get me started about google mail, brought in to save money but more difficult to use and not as clear, it may be the final straw that breaks this particular social worker!!

  7. Jody May 13, 2016 at 11:12 am #

    I have shared this with my whole adult social work team and beyond! Amazing words and well written. Thank you for this! 🙂

  8. Phil Gosling May 13, 2016 at 11:47 am #

    “you’ve got it right as a profession, let’s leave things as they are and see the fruits of hard work.’”

    Are you really claiming social workers of all the professions in the world can justifiably claim they have perfected how to do their job and no reforms, improvements or changes in law or current practices are necessary?

    In 21 st Century I believe work place changes are often necessary, laws need to be updated, working practices changed to reflect best practice etc…..