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