By Ray Jones
The social work profession is being stirred by the government with a good dose of shock therapy intended to shake it up.
The narrative, largely shouted from the Department of Education and by the government’s chief social worker for children, is that social workers aren’t good enough and their education inadequate. That ours is an immature profession, underpinned by weak regulation and working in local authority services that are too often ‘failing’.
The government’s remedy for the profession is to bring it under government control, through a new regulator and standards body based in DfE and accountable to the education secretary, and make more social work education fast-track and specialist.
The chosen solution for provision is to put more ‘failing’ services out to a market for third party providers and introduce powers allowing ministers to exempt services from carefully debated and designed social care legislation that offers rights and protections to children and families.
I have written before about why I believe these changes are dangerous, will leave social work vulnerable to political control, undermine children’s rights, and incentivise private companies (or ‘newcos’ as they’ve been referred to in the past by DfE) to run more services.
Social work is fighting back
There are signs social work is steeling itself to fight back. Social workers are joining and strengthening the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) in record numbers – its membership is now more than 20,000 up from 17,000 in January 2015. And BASW is active in representing social workers to oppose the government’s most damaging plans.
Criticism has emerged in parliament too. This week the education committee, chaired by a Conservative MP with a Conservative majority, delivered a damning verdict on the government reforms. It argued against the fragmentation of social work education, raised concerns over the shifting of services outside local authorities and called for the plan to set up a politically-controlled regulator to be scrapped.
It also criticised the government for appointing two chief social workers, rather than the single whole profession chief recommended by the Munro review. This, the committee concluded, had exacerbated a “divisive” split in policy that was pulling social work apart into separate children’s and adult strands.
Strong arguments against the plans for politically-controlled regulator and the controversial ‘innovation’ powers have been made in the House of Lords too. Separately, concerns have been raised to MPs by social workers, service users and others through the All Party Parliamentary Group on children’s social care.
Building on the momentum
This momentum must be built on and in working out how to fight for its future, social work can draw on its past.
The 1960s and 70s saw social work receive two major boosts. Following strong arguments that social work should be the core profession within a local authority family social service, the Seebohm committee gave the aspiration shape through a landmark report commissioned by the then Labour government. The 1970 local authority personal social services act, brought in by a Conservative administration, enshrined in law much of what was recommended.
During the same period a unified social work education system, overseen by one organisation to promote and quality assure social work training (the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work) and with one professional qualification, also emerged.
Coordination and collective action
None of this happened by chance. It was the result of coordination and a commitment to collective action.
In 1970 BASW was created. It had been planned and shaped by a Standing Conference of Social Workers, which brought together eight separate social work professional associations, such as the Association of Child Care Officers, the Association of Psychiatric Social Workers and the Institute of Medical Social Workers, to form one unified UK-wide professional association. It strengthened the collective voice and profile of social workers.
When the Seebohm report was published in 1968 social workers created the Seebohm Implementation Action Group. They organised a national campaign of social workers, armed with briefing packs and letters they could use to encourage their MPs to back the Seebohm recommendations.
They also lobbied parliament, wrote columns and letters in newspapers, and worked with key politicians in the Commons and Lords. Relationships were built with potential allies, including some of the then new pressure groups such as the Child Poverty Action Group, Gingerbread and Shelter.
The gains of this period – the unified profession, the stronger voice, the integrated education, the commitment to strong local authority run services – are now under attack.
Behind the scenes social work organisations, service users, voluntary groups and local government are once again joining forces, this time to challenge government’s damaging intentions. But it’s time now for all social workers to join the efforts of BASW and others in defending our profession.
Use BASW’s local and regional groups to champion social work and argue against it being undermined by government and those who speak for it. Write to your MP to make them aware of the changes. Make your voice heard.
There may be new opportunities to influence – we have a new prime minister who has pledged to tackle “injustices”. We also have a new education secretary in post.
What’s certain is that the same strength of collective action that secured much of what is best about our profession is now needed to defend what was hard fought for.
Ray Jones is professor of social work at Kingston university