Ofsted’s director of social care recently published a piece outlining characteristics that make for good practice leadership in children’s social work.
Too much of it amounts to little more than a list of platitudes. Leaders need to ‘understand good social work’. They must be ‘passionate’. They must be ‘courageous’. This kind of stuff could scarcely be less meaningful if it said ‘nice people were nice’ and ‘nice people do nice things’.
To be fair other qualities listed are more concrete. Good practice leaders closely guard social work caseloads, we’re told. They create opportunities for staff to reflect. They make sure high quality supervision is in place.
Few would disagree these are desirable qualities. But there is a problem. Ofsted’s list feels devoid of insight about the context in which our work takes place. Yes there’s a cursory reference to “choppy waters”, rising demand and less resource at the end of the piece, but it is the briefest of mentions.
To redress the balance, here are some of the factors I feel are impacting practice leadership day-to-day.
The system is at straining at the seams
Referrals to children’s services are increasing. Alongside this there have been widespread cuts in support services that might have addressed or even prevented some of this need, for example the closing of children’s centres.
Other cuts have more directly compounded the inequality and disadvantage experienced by our service users. Changes to housing benefit and legal aid are two such examples.
These factors may seem abstract but they make for a situation where maintaining manageable caseloads is extremely difficult, no matter how well motivated leaders are. They also create a climate in which achieving positive outcomes with clients is much harder.
Recruitment, retention and ownership
Partly because of the above issues there are well established problems with recruitment and retention of social workers. Other factors that contribute to high turnover include cost of living, media pressures and an environment of frequent, often ill-conceived, change.
Issues with recruitment and retention are often self-perpetuating. The result is often instability and higher caseloads, which in turn lead to higher levels of agency staff who can leave at short notice.
This can all create a climate wherein ownership of, and investment in, the quality of the service are undermined. In my authority for example there was a period when all managers in the duty and assessment service were from agencies. Six months later, none of them are there.
Ofsted say good practice leaders should be willing to “rock the boat”. I agree. But at both a national and local level it appears you have to be selective about how and what you challenge.
In my experience, certain areas or topics can be off-limits for boat rocking and there can be little tolerance of questioning. These areas are often defined by national government and media agendas.
In my authority, for example, vast resources are currently targeted at child sexual exploitation of girls and ‘radicalisation’ of Muslim young people. When working with such issues, questioning views are often shut down.
We’ve seen a recent example of how such selective curiosity operates on a national level. Natasha Devon tried to create an honest dialogue about children’s mental health in schools. She was axed as the government’s mental health champion after speaking up.
For leaders and social workers this issue can create a climate where our creativity and autonomy are not consistently valued. If the government succeeds in its apparent desire to impose direct regulation on social work the impact of this could be greater too.
Other competing priorities
Work is constantly prioritised and reprioritised in social work. There are powerful processes that can impact hugely on efforts to maintain a team or service that provides consistent quality support to all its service users and staff.
In children’s services two prime examples are the court and Ofsted. On several occasions in recent months my staff have had their proposed dates for completion of assessments rejected by courts with little rationale other than the inexorable court timescale.
Many readers will also be familiar with the organisational anxiety that grips authorities in relation to Ofsted inspections and the immense amount of time and resources invested in preparation.
Dynamics such as this contribute to a situation where certain kinds of work are difficult to prioritise. In my work this is most commonly ‘children in need’ but work with children in long term care suffers too. Such processes also undermine staff self-efficacy and job satisfaction, squeezing out time for things such as reflective supervision.
Ideologically driven investment
There is money to spend on social work. We know this from the funding made available for the Frontline and Think Ahead programmes and the Department for Education’s £200 million Innovation fund.
What seems clear is that such investment is tied to schemes that suit the government’s agenda. Investment in fast-track schemes alongside reducing funding for university programmes has left legitimate questions over the government’s committment to developing a workforce rooted in the values, theoretical and research knowledge our profession is built on.
The innovation fund has councils desperately grasping for money to fund ‘innovative’ projects rather than resources being invested in paying for sufficient staff.
Getting sufficient staff in place may not seem innovative I know. But it is what we need in order to sustain a culture in which workers and managers at all levels can both do the job well enough and have time to lift their heads up, look around and think about their work.
At the end of the day I’ve met few leaders who would disagree with a lot of the desired qualities listed by Ofsted. Most aspire to such things and achieve many of them daily.
However we also fail often and given the pressured context we operate in this is not surprising. Indeed when organisations in children’s services and their leaders get hit by bad ratings or are publicly condemned as ‘poor’ leaders my first instinct is to think ‘There but for the grace of god…’.
I would put good money on that being the case for many, many workers and managers at all levels within social work.
The author is a manager in a local authority social work team and runs the social work manager blog.