Today Unison has published findings from a major new survey of almost 3,000 social workers. Here’s my take on what this research tells us about the state of modern social work and what practitioners think about the government’s programme for reforming our profession.
‘Exemption’ proposals have little support
Only 9.5% of those responding to the survey believed that councils should be able to exempt themselves from current legislation in order to ‘innovate’ (this is a major proposal in the government’s social work bill). These findings echo what I have heard from those in practice and correlate with a small Twitter survey I ran on this same topic. The clear majority are either against such changes or don’t know. I believe that the high proportion of people not knowing the answer to this question reflects the poor communication on this subject from the government.
Dovetailing with the answers to the previous question, people who were against council exemptions tended to feel that more children will be placed at risk if this is allowed to happen. With over 100,000 people having signed an online petition to prevent the exemption measure coming into effect, there is also significant public support to show that this proposal needs to be rethought.
There is a mistrust of the government’s motivations
Despite the children’s minister, Edward Timpson, assuring us all that the government will not privatise child protection or “politicise” social work, there remains a lingering fear amongst the workforce that this is the ultimate end goal of the Conservatives. This fear is reflected in only a meagre 1% of respondents trusting the government not to privatise social work functions; with just 4% believing private companies should be welcomed into the profession.
The U-turn on regulation proposals will be welcome
Going against the chief social worker for children’s message from July 2016 that a government-controlled regulator for social workers was “controversial but essential” to building public confidence in the profession, the government has now deemed their control non-essential by performing a U-turn on this proposal. Whilst this is surely a move to be welcomed by the bulk of the workforce (almost 90% wishing for independent regulation) the mixed-messages here about the need for direct government control create further confusion and uncertainty for a workforce already low in morale.
There’s a disconnect with the chief social workers
When their roles began in 2013, at the top of the chief social workers’ goals was the need to “support and challenge the profession to ensure that children and adults get the best possible help from social workers”. Whilst I have some sympathy with Lyn Romeo and Isabelle Trowler for the arduous tasks their jobs entail, the fact that only 7% of professionals feel they articulate the concerns from those practising on the frontline is a major concern. The worry here is that, without ‘getting’ the concerns about those in daily practice, there is little hope of children and adults getting the best possible help from social workers.
The reforms have the wrong focus
There’s a reason why the average social worker only lasts eight years in the career, sickness rates amongst our workforce are 60% higher than the national average and 20% of children’s social work positions remain unfilled.
For me, these reasons aren’t a lack of innovation, poorly regulated professionals, the absence of an accreditation system for social workers or the fact that councils aren’t allowed to exempt themselves from statutory legislation. Instead it is the same old tale of too many cases, too little time, poor support services, a lack of early intervention and workplace cultures that prioritises the illusion of paper-based progress over meaningful person-centred practice.
88.5% of respondents to this survey agree that the government’s planned reforms are not addressing the main concerns we are facing. The message from frontline practitioners is clear: these costly government proposals have little meaningful support from those who are expected to carry the burden of enforced change. It’s time to rethink this top-down, ideologically-driven reform programme before it further entrenches the low morale and high burnout rates in our profession.
The author is a children’s social worker in England.