“I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganising; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralisation”
-Attributed to the Roman Courtier, Gaius Petronius Arbiter
Two weeks after starting my first social work role, I was told the council had decided on a new way of working and I’d have to re-apply for my job.
My duty team would now only deal with Section 47 enquiries. Section 17 initial enquiries would go directly to locality teams who held cases until closure.
My newly qualified status meant I couldn’t hold child protection cases. My position was untenable. “Don’t worry” I was told “you can move to a locality team, you won’t lose your job”.
In those days I was too polite to question why this wasn’t explained to me during the interview process. I accepted I’d be leaving the job I’d wanted and applied for.
I was also naive enough to believe this was just bad luck and I’d never go through such sudden changes again – changes that, even as an inexperienced worker, I knew were ill-advised (mixing 15 day initial assessment timescales with longer-term commitments of court work and care planning was never going to be effective).
‘A brand new dawn’
As my career progressed I found that level of change was far from isolated. Every department I’ve worked in heralded workforce overhauls as a brand new dawn. Mixing with experienced colleagues has taught me many new-fangled ideas have been tried before.
Split teams into local areas, then move them together again. Have a separate MASH and duty team, then combine them again. Have a triage team for referrals, then go back to a duty rota. The cycle goes on, while the age-old problems of high caseloads, recording pressures, threshold identification and low morale remain.
Social workers are currently having huge change forced on us at national level too.
We are to be overseen by a third different regulator in less than five years. We’ll face an accreditation test that no frontline staff or service users asked for. Our university training routes look like being increasingly replaced by fast-track schemes. Local authorities deemed to be ‘failing’ will have their children’s services taken over by trusts – a government-endorsed model that’s without precedent.
In May I wrote about the need for the profession to embrace the changes we could agree with (I still support plans for strengthened rights for care leavers). I also said we should compromise on some of the most controversial, such as accreditation.
However I argued that the profession and the government needed to meet in the middle in order to achieve such changes; almost two months down the line and the promise of consultation appears to have been replaced by an attitude of ‘like it or lump it’ that has left me feeling that my early optimism was naïve.
Concerns over the bill
Now that I’ve seen the legislation – the Children and Social Work Bill – underpinning the reforms, I’m wary of what is planned.
The bill is worryingly vague given it promises to hand huge powers to ministers. It relies extensively on secondary legislation for major changes – that’s a method of law making that parliamentarians have warned reduces scrutiny. And the government has shown a continual lack of engagement with the social work community. They pay lip service to us, yes, but meaningful consultation has been absent.
I’m also concerned because I’ve found myself dwelling on whether constant changes are making us better equipped to fulfil our role or moving us further away from those we’re here to help.
When you reel off the reforms it gives the impression of progress but, like the lessons I learned from my first fortnight as a social worker, I can’t help but worry about what difference this will actually make to those I support.
Ultimately they don’t care about the ideological games of the powers that be. They pray for their day-to-day struggles to be addressed.
They want their social worker to be there when they call them. They want someone who really cares about their needs. Above all, they want practical help with their problems.
Being accredited won’t make me any more likely to secure funding for a mother and baby placement.
A new post-qualifying pathway won’t bring back my admin support or social work assistants.
Our new regulator won’t be re-opening the children’s centre that provided a safety net for struggling parents or the youth club that kept vulnerable adolescents off the streets.
The government says its changes will “build public confidence in the profession”. I understand the sentiment but fear it’s too simplistic to imagine a collective ‘public’ will have their confidence improved unless services, and the support on offer, improve.
A public that has been told the same old line of ‘lessons will be learned’ after the death of yet another child that is known to services is, in my opinion, unlikely to have their confidence restored by a new regulator or the news a social worker was accredited.
I feel confidence would be better built by a positive PR campaign to explain what social workers actually do, backed by politicians that genuinely understand our profession, and the national sharing of best practice.
In the foreword to a government policy paper on the reforms, Isabelle Trowler, the chief social worker for children, suggests social workers “might have to suspend disbelief to become part of this progressive movement of change”.
To borrow a parable from the story of the Emperor’s new clothes, another time where somebody has been cautioned to suspend disbelief, we are being hit by rhetoric about how much better things will be, at the same time our profession is being shorn of what we actually need; with multi-agency teams shrinking as referral criteria get stricter and voluntary organisations fold.
Ministers urge social workers to trust the government’s intentions for our profession. Yet they seemingly don’t trust us enough to properly consult and involve us on major changes.
The art of practising social work has changed very little in the century or so that our profession has been formally recognised. At the heart of it, social work is about the simple process of helping others to lead a better life; one that is safer, happier and where people are empowered.
It’s hard to buy into the idea of a new way of working leading to better outcomes for people in the same week we find out four million children in the UK are living in relative poverty.
Sadly, like Gaius, I fear we are creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralisation.
The author is a children’s social worker and runs the Social Work Tutor site.