by Ray Jones
The Channel Four Dispatches programme targeting Birmingham City council’s children’s services and social workers delivered, as anticipated, all that might have been expected from programme makers focused on creating a story to shock.
For the public at large they may have been switching channels well before the repetitive and poorly filmed programme ended, with what seemed like canned noise backing the secretly and surreptitiously filmed conversations with social workers making it hard to watch and hard to hear.
But what of those who were the central contributors to the documentary? The programme which was broadcast we now know was not the programme the undercover social worker thought she was a conspirator in making.
There was nothing on the national context of an 80% increase in child protection workloads at a time of 40% cuts in government funding.
There was nothing about less help for children and families because government cuts were leading to the closures of children’s centres, youth services, and of assistance provided by organisations like Home Start.
And there was nothing about the progress in difficult circumstances being moved forward in Birmingham, with the time-lag since the secret filming taking Birmingham back rather than forward. And now the programme has contributed to the major disruption and distraction ahead as children’s services and social workers are moved outside the council.
Was the undercover social worker naive? Was she herself exploited? Did she not see the programme in advance of the broadcast? Did she have no opportunity to influence the editorial line which was being taken – a story line of a council with poor leadership and management and of demoralised social workers whose incompetence led to the deaths of three children, and with the distress of families being drawn on to dramatically add to the programme?
Hopefully the undercover agency social worker will now move to a permanent practice post and contribute to the stability and continuity needed to deliver good social work services to children and families, albeit what has been left behind for Birmingham’s social workers is more change and churn.
And what of the contributions of the ‘social work expert’ and the NSPCC senior manager which were featured throughout the programme? Did they not require the opportunity to shape the editorial line running through the programme? Did they agree to contribute to a programme without any control over how their contributions were used?
As they were filmed making their damning and critical comments were they not reflecting on how they could be edited and used in contributing to a programme which has undermined social work and social workers and with no balance or positive perspectives?
Did they not think providing a national and political context to what is happening to children’s services across England was necessary and important? Did they not spot the dangers of a destructive programme which will have undermined good people doing difficult jobs in difficult circumstances?
The public at large may have watched a programme about Birmingham, but may also then have generalised their views to encompass social work and councils more widely.
For understandable reasons, including doing demanding and distressing work and then being professionally and personally attacked in the media, it is increasingly difficult to recruit and retain social workers, managers and leaders in statutory children’s social work services. Maybe the expert commentators in this programme would want to deploy their knowledge and wisdom by taking on these crucial but challenging roles.
Today Birmingham’s social workers and managers will be back at their desks and out on the road working very hard to help families and protect children. They may have the Channel Four programme thrown in their faces by challenging and confrontational families where they are having to follow up concerns about the welfare and safety of children.
The referrals of children and families will be flowing in. The Section 47 child protection investigations will be stacking up. They will be busy and probably feeling bruised and battered. Their feelings may be shared by many colleagues across the country.
But they will also be supporting each other and should know that they also have support across the community and profession of social work. Thank you for all that you strive to do and for what you achieve every day. A difficult job done by special people.
Ray Jones is professor of social work at Kingston University