‘Secret filming is not the way to address social work’s problems’

The Principal Children and Families Social Workers Network react to Dispatches undercover investigation into Birmingham’s children’s services

Screenshot from the Dispatches investigation.

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

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11 Responses to ‘Secret filming is not the way to address social work’s problems’

  1. Jackd May 28, 2016 at 6:37 am #

    I am becoming more intrigued by this programme and the resulting fall out. What I find surprising is that the issue of editorialising is so easily glossed over. This article only briefly refers to ‘Vicky’ alluding to the fact that the final documentary was not representing what she hoped. While this might point to naivety on her part, it seems like everyone has forgotten there will be reams of ‘b roll’ footage not used. It stands to reason that Dispatches would edit to suit a particular narrative, rather than an objective perspective of the facts – why has this not been commented on more? And did no one on that programme, NO ONE, suggest to Vicky that she might be in serious breach of the Code of Practice? The whole discourse is about the ramifications of the documentary, but there’s very little about the implications for journalistic failure, yet again, to consider its own ethical responsibilities in any regard. It is doubtful there has been any positive impact for anyone out of this scenario, except those hoping to build and develop a case against the social work profession to further a political agenda.

  2. Michelle challender May 28, 2016 at 9:21 pm #

    I think the programme just portrayed as usual social workers in a negative light which is quite sad and upsetting. I never see media showing the good we do which is daily how we work above and beyond because we take pride in our vocation but that wouldn’t feed public interest would it. Maybe the government need to look at retention maybe some of this issue is about wanting to hang us out to dry at every given opportunity cut our pay and keep our pay frozen !!! But we still work on and we still do the best we can do and serve our community we are human we make mistakes at times but I do not know a social worker that set out to be negligent or not be committed to their vocation.

  3. ana May 29, 2016 at 9:41 am #

    Since when has whistleblowing become a matter for disapproval? Do you remember the BUPA 7? Yes ‘Vicky’ was under hand in the way she was portrayed but at the end of the day these issues need to be reported on and sensitively recorded. We are not looking for failure but issues highlighted need to be addressed so that the public using the services can make informed decisions about it. But also so governing bodies can set up the right and best infrastructure to support the workers and the service.

  4. chrissie28 May 31, 2016 at 11:09 am #

    That is one way to deal with a situation professionally – if you don’t like the message, shoot the messenger and take it out on the social worker who was doing the right thing by whistleblowing. If SW is to be taken seriously then there needs to be more transparency and different management

  5. Andrew Faulkner May 31, 2016 at 11:40 am #

    I, like many other qualified social workers, watched this with no sense of surprise at the bias shown by the program makers. Indeed my dissertation was written on the subject of biased reporting of social workers in the media. As this article states, to me what came over was the passion and commitment of the practitioners to their service users while trying to do a hard, thankless job. NO-ONE outside of social work recognises and understands the stresses and strains of the work that social workers undertake on a daily basis. From the ill informed public, to the biased, witch hunting media and the other agencies that use social workers as their scapegoats, we have become used to caring without thanks. For this “program” to take away the one area where we can vent, rail or just have a cry, in order to cope and carry on, is atrocious. Will social workers now be afraid to talk openly and honestly to their colleagues in case they are an undercover spy for biased media outlets? I hope the “program” makers are proud of themselves for the hatchet job they did. I for one applaud the work these people do.

    • Char Stoyles June 7, 2016 at 10:27 pm #

      You’re dissertation topic sounds really fascinating. We shouldn’t have to be venting and railing in the first place and I don’t think the social workers featured should feel any shame in being exposed on the TV. They should be proud of their hard work and passion. What do you think we can do to change the distorted image of us the public has?

  6. Gerald May 31, 2016 at 12:00 pm #

    This method of reporting is not new, it has been used many times against Private Sector Care Homes even by the BBC.
    Care Homes have been closed on account of this sort of ” Whistle blowing” Why was there not the same comments from the Public Sector on these occasions ,I wonder??

    In all occasions why were the Safegaurding Dept. of the Local Authorities not bought in I wonder, surely this would be the proper way of going about things.

    Bye the way has anyone wondered why no ones looked at the NHS Hospitals in a similar way ?

  7. Andrea May 31, 2016 at 2:28 pm #

    Vicky – how did you make contact with the programme makers in the first place?
    have you reported the various LAs you have previously worked in to Ofsted?
    Have you reported the various concerns you have about managers practice to HCPC?
    Not concinced.
    as others have said HCPC hearing to look forward to.

  8. Mike Jubb June 1, 2016 at 10:55 am #

    Whistleblowing describes an insider’s only way of smuggling out what is hidden. Vicky turned herself into a journalist , under cover of her professional identity. Her brief exposure to whatever culture prevails within the Department would have prevented any serious assessment : Vicky is a unprofessional social worker and a poor journalist, it would appear.

    • Gerald June 1, 2016 at 3:07 pm #

      Mike, if yours is the prevelant attitude with Social Workers its not suprising there are such deep seated problems, whistleblowers from winthin and without should be encouraged as long as it is well intentioned and delivered in the correct manner.

  9. Mike Jubb June 10, 2016 at 12:05 pm #

    Yes I am aware of the view that this was an otherwise missed opportunity to expose issues that are of concern. However TV journalism isn’t interested very much in solving problems so much as grabbing a headline. The public can guess what is going on from the poor quality of the social services offered.A wider enquiry into why so many people need to turn to social services in Britain would be my starting point: that Gerald might look at the political / cultural obstacles to the re-establishment of the sort of a society we would all like to live in happily: one that is both just and fair and aspirational. Britain is hopelessly out of date, politically socially and economically so that it cannot compete either in world markets or create citizens who are either responsible for their actions or responsive to the needs of others.