Ministers must stop dishing out “unsubstantiated criticism” of social workers in the media and start engaging them in reforms, the British Association of Social Workers has said.
The professional body, which represents around 20,200 social workers in the UK, said high-profile criticism was damaging morale among frontline practitioners. It called for ministers to change tack and engage professionals in an “honest conversation” about planned changes.
BASW made the comments in response to the government’s announcement that a new children and social work bill be introduced. The bill will legislate for significant reforms to social work and the care system, including a new social work regulator to oversee accreditation of children’s social workers.
Ruth Allen, BASW’s chief executive, said: “The profession needs to have a serious discussion about reform and we want to see a change in approach from the government. We want to see an end to unsubstantiated criticism of social workers and their professionalism in the media which harms morale and ultimately harms services.
“We need an honest conversation with government about their plans for reform. There is currently a lot of discussion in social care about ‘co-production’ as a key concept in the development of public services, when services work together with people who use services and carers to harness the expertise of all.
“We need a similar approach between government and professionals such as social workers. We would welcome the opportunity to meet with ministers to start these discussions.”
Last weekend Prime Minister David Cameron said the government would have “zero tolerance of state failure” and had to “reform the social work profession”.
Writing in the Sunday Times, he said: “Social workers are unsung heroes…But prospective social workers are spending too much time in the classroom studying thousands of pages of guidance, and not enough time in real-life, on-the-job training.
“Instead of rigid rules and processes, we need them to use their experience and common sense to make good judgments, and to have confidence to take decisions much earlier, rather than allowing so many to teeter permanently on the edge of care.”
Cameron’s comments build on similar statements in a Department for Education briefing for the education select committee. The report said the “capability and confidence” of social workers needed addressed and claimed “too often social workers are poorly trained and not ready for frontline practice when they leave social work education”.
High-profile criticism of the quality of social work education started when Michael Gove was education secretary. In a speech in 2013 he claimed too many frontline social workers had been filled with “idealistic” left-wing dogma that viewed people as victims of social injustice. Gove vowed to “strip this sort of thinking out of the profession”.
Reforms ‘need social work knowledge’
As well as calling for an end to the criticism, BASW’s Allen urged the government to “reach out” to practitioners in shaping its changes.
She said: “Government reforms need to be driven by social worker knowledge and skills. The further development of social work and public confidence in social workers can only be achieved through the profession shaping change and leading on its own excellent practice.
“No profession can be created by government; it must be owned and developed from evidence, ethics and the reality of day to day practice. As the professional body representing social work across the UK, BASW and its members expect to be fully part of policy proposals and reform.
“The focus of any reform from government must be to support the profession to own and lead change for the benefit of those we serve. We already have excellent social workers in the profession and their views must be taken on board. Training courses are producing well skilled and ambitious new social workers.
“The junior doctors dispute should be used an example of both the need to involve professionals in management of change and also of potential impact to both services and people if communication breaks down.”