By Mandy Nightingale and Lee Pardy-McLaughlin
The Dispatches programme aired on Channel 4 portrayed a picture of an improving local authority, Birmingham, as being in chaos. It pointed to poor decision making and a lack of leadership.
The programme makers based these judgments largely on footage obtained by a social worker, given the pseudonym ‘Vicky’, that they’d sent into Birmingham’s children’s services undercover.
‘Vicky’ was with these services for a few weeks. Social workers know only too well change takes time to embed whether within a family or an organisation.
While the programme focused a great deal of attention on the difficulties with recruitment and retention of social workers and managers, it failed to address the impact of wider societal issues.
There was scant attention, or discussion, of increasing poverty, rising numbers of applications to courts for care proceedings, growing numbers of children subject to child protection plans, media damnation of social work and central government cuts to local authority funding.
Dispatches did refer to the reduction of agency social workers over the previous 12 months from 30% to 23.5%. Surely this is something to recognise as an achievement in a local authority the size of Birmingham with its reported historical concerns?
The report did raise some important issues. But where was the reporting of the good practice Birmingham social workers undertake? How many children are Birmingham social workers providing a good service to?
The practitioners covertly caught on camera, displayed a passionate commitment to doing the right thing for families in the right way.
The office you work from needs to be a safe space. It needs to allow you to talk about your feelings, voice your concerns and worries. This is important in building your emotional resilience, a key part of social work and an issue raised entirely separately from Dispatches this week in other media coverage.
We recognise there is room for improvement in social work practice as well as the organisational structures and leadership we work under. The principal children and families social worker network is working hard across England to support improvements. But we do not believe undercover reporting is the way forward.
In order to support a wider agenda of sector-led improvement our network has worked closely with the government in its proposal to assess and accredit social work practice across England. We have engaged with various organisations including Ofsted, ADCS, BASW, Frontline, JUSWEC as well as councils deemed to be performing well in order to share and promote good social work practice.
There are other issues with secret filming too. Social workers are registered with the current regulatory body HCPC. We have an obligation to follow a professional code of practice.
The actions of ‘Vicky’ seem to be a gross intrusion into the private lives of service users – vulnerable children and families – as well as a betrayal of trust of colleagues.
In an interview published last night on Community Care, ‘Vicky’ set out her reasons for taking part in the programme. Her comments suggest the programme that aired was significantly different to what she had hoped for when she agreed to take part.
This show was not whistleblowing. Instead it was an opportunity to negatively report on social work practice and leadership from a restricted viewpoint and one that provided little comparison to the wider issues impacting social work practice and delivery.
It is a shame that an experienced social worker felt this was the only way to raise her concerns. This is not the type of professional behaviour the PSW group is promoting or supporting.
We promote building relationships with children, young people and their families to identify strengths. We want this to help make changes to improve the life chances of children and young people whilst recognising and managing risks.
The PSW role was derived from a recommendation from the Munro review of child protection in 2011.
Munro wrote: “Local authorities should designate a Principal Child and Family Social Worker, who is a senior manager with lead responsibility for practice in the local authority and who is still actively involved in frontline practice and who can report the views and experiences of the front line to all levels of management.”
The role provides a link between practitioners and senior leadership within the organisation. It should offer an appropriate mechanism for whistleblowing.
With regard to ‘Vicky’ and her continued practice as a social worker this is a matter for the HCPC to consider her individual fitness to practice.
Mandy Nightingale – Chair
Lee Pardy-McLaughlin – Deputy Chair