DfE must act to mend ‘us and them’ split with social work

There was good political reason for the education secretary to strike a warmer tone with social care leaders last week. Will it last?

As notable as the flurry of policy announcements in education secretary Justine Greening’s first speech on social work was her tone in delivering them.

Her department, she said, wanted to work with the social care sector in delivering reforms. There was recognition of the challenges facing social workers and the shared stake ministers, the profession and practice leaders have in improving care. There should, said Greening, be no “us and them” relationship.

Notably absent was the more abrasive approach of the education secretary’s immediate predecessors, Nicky Morgan and Michael Gove. Morgan largely sidelined social workers and their professional representatives in key decision making. Gove went further and actively attacked them – famously slamming social work courses for producing too many practitioners full of “idealistic” left-wing dogma who weren’t up to the job.

Greening’s warmer words will be welcomed, albeit cautiously. The test will be whether they translate into action, particularly given there was good political reason for her to appease social care leaders last week.

Children and Social Work Bill controversy

The Department for Education has been rocked by the fierce opposition to measures in the Children and Social Work Bill, particularly controversial proposals to allow councils to apply for exemptions from statutory duties to test new ways of working.

When the DfE rushed the bill out prior to the EU referendum it knew it wouldn’t win over social workers en masse, and it didn’t particularly care. But it hadn’t bargained for its plans being so unpopular elsewhere, with a lack of universal support from the major children’s charities presenting a significant headache.

With momentum against the clauses building in the Lords, the DfE has been scrambling to shore up backing from all quarters and amendments to the bill have been tabled in a bid to win over critics.

In the case of social workers this has led to a commitment to ditch plans to bring regulation of the profession under government control. Instead a new independent regulator will be set up. On the wider controversy around the exemption clauses, a tighter approval process for any exemptions has been introduced in a bid to allay fears the powers will erode safeguards for children.

The bill faces a key vote in the Lords today. It remains to be seen whether the government concessions will be enough. One certainty is that they should never have been needed in the first place.

After all, the problems the DfE say these contentious reforms seek to address are remarkably uncontentious. Firstly, social workers face too much bureaucracy. Secondly, they might be better served having a dedicated regulator.

Confusion and mistrust

The problem is that DfE never asked social workers for the solutions, it simply told them. Like the revelation that children’s social workers would face pass or fail accreditation tests, there was no consultation on the plans before they were announced, and poor communication around them in the months that followed.

At best this fostered confusion over the DfE’s proposals. At worst it fed a deep suspicion of ministers’ motives. The debacle of this year’s delayed social work bursary allocations – in stark contrast to the smooth announcements of funding for fast-track schemes, and the department’s mishandling of the chief social worker for children’s potential conflict of interest when awarding a major contract, did little to help.

There are signs of a more constructive way forward. The DfE has stepped up its engagement with the British Association of Social Workers in recent months. It has also invited the Association of Professors of Social Work and JUCSWEC to be part of an advisory group to steer the development of a new social work regulator. Feedback from practitioners is also being sought on what they want from their professional bodies.

If the talks are to work, they will require efforts from both sides.

The DfE needs to acknowledge its role in having deepened the “us and them” split Greening warned of. It should make good on promises to consult on accreditation, and soon, given it first pledged social workers would have a say on the proposals ‘within weeks’ back in January.

The department must also be prepared to listen to views outside its partners in practice councils and others who champion its reforms. Their feedback is important, but not representative. Criticism from elsewhere should not simply be dismissed as paranoid, negative, or both. Doing so creates exactly the issues the department currently faces with the bill.

For their part the sector bodies must go beyond simply calling for broad asks for CPD frameworks, lower caseloads, better supervision and more resources, and instead evidence and articulate their own vision for reform. The ‘how’ must be addressed, as well as ‘what’ is needed. Appeals for ministers to revisit the recommendations of the 2009 Social Work Taskforce will, rightly or wrongly, largely fall on deaf ears. This government wants to make its own mark on its own priorities.

The organisations must also use the strength of their memberships to identify the bureaucratic hurdles social workers face every day and how they can be eradicated. Likewise to spot the issues with the current regulator that might be avoided when the new body is created.

Because for all the mistakes the DfE has made in driving this reform programme, in the department’s defence it is investing in social work. This is in stark contrast to the Department of Health, which, aside from the good work of the chief social worker for adults, appears to have largely lost interest in social care and social work at ministerial level.

The temptation is to argue that the hundreds of millions the DfE is spending on its reforms could and should have gone to local authorities. The problem is that the sums involved – split between the 152 councils in England – wouldn’t amount to much and would be quickly swallowed up by the system. The DfE instead is trying to target its spend on projects it hopes will have a lasting impact.

The best chance of achieving that will involve listening to social workers about what they need, not simply railroading them into reforms with little warning. But if and when the invite comes, social work’s leaders must also have their own answers ready on how the funding might be better spent than what’s currently on the table.

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4 Responses to DfE must act to mend ‘us and them’ split with social work

  1. Hilton Dawson November 8, 2016 at 2:13 pm #

    There’s nothing so eloquent of the hapless state of English social policy than your statement

    ‘Appeals for ministers to revisit the recommendations of the 2009 Social Work Taskforce will, rightly or wrongly, largely fall on deaf ears. This government wants to make its own mark on its own priorities.’

    Incoherent, reliant on Whitehall whim rather than evidence, changing tack to suit whatever the next Minister thinks will help them make their mark .

    Let’s learn from the devolved countries – bottom up democracy, sustained and committed long term planning, service user and frontline worker inspired and a real commitment to helping people improve their lives.
    These are people who brought us ‘Troubled Families’ !!
    Let’s have some regional democracy for England and please let’s stop wasting our time and resources on nonsense that won’t work and endlessly prevaricating when something comes up that will

    • Tom J November 9, 2016 at 4:52 pm #

      well said

  2. MrMoonx November 8, 2016 at 8:07 pm #

    The further issue is that the chief children’s social worker is ineffective at challenging any of this, she is simply just another politician and is removed from the actual profession. The role of chief social worker should fall outside the DfE and should be challenging ministers not bowing down to their every demand in oppressing the profession.

  3. Ellie November 10, 2016 at 1:00 pm #

    We appear to be missing something when it comes to highlighting the TRUE problem faced by Social Workers. We can talk all day about caseloads, bureaucracy, training, bursaries, accreditation… These things are all very important, but are nothing like the real nature of the problem that afflicts Social Work. Indeed, it is a problem that afflicts ALL of the Public Sector professions to some degree, or other. It is this…

    The POLITICIZATION of the job. The TRUE problem is the extent of political dabbling in the Social Work profession. In all Public Sector professions.

    Whilst it is true that our country has Governments, and that, according to constitution, these Governments are elected and thus may change every five years, it is much harder to accept that (during their term in office) each successive Government dabbles in Social Work, and in the other Public Sector professions. True, there ought to be some Governmental oversight, because there is Government involvement in funding these professions. Clearly, this calls for a level of accountability from those who receive the funding.

    Unfortunately, much as the above may be so, the problems with political dabbling in Public Sector professions cannot be overlooked. Whilst it may well be that each Government believes that its intentions for various Public Sector professions – its “vision” for the profession, so to speak – are only going to benefit the profession, the reality may be somewhat different. This may not be deliberate, but it is still something that really ought to be given consideration.

    Successive Governments are often those of opposing political parties. Because our electoral system works the way it does, the expectation is that a party is generally in power for no more than five years (until the next election). Sometimes, they are in power longer, depending on election results – but five years is realistically the timescale to consider. Thus, our country may find itself in a position where, every five or so years, its political leaders change, and its Government is comprised of a succession of different (and often opposed) political parties. For example, Conservative may follow Labour (two opposed parties) into power, but at the next election, labour may regain control. This is BOUND to have implications for the way our country is run, because different political parties can have very different political aspirations and ideals; they can have very different visions for how they would like our country to be. Sometimes, we may see a coalition Government (as per recently), but this has its own inherent problems.

    If we consider the fact that we may see changes every five years in our Government, we must then accept that Governments do not realistically have all that much time to put in place their vision for our country. Think about it! Five years may seem a long time; but when it is five years in which to ensure that the NHS, Social Services, Education, Policing, Prison Services, Fire Services… are all adequately funded and running smoothly… When it is five years to bring a country out of a global recession, or deal with spiralling inflation, or cope with a housing or banking crisis… When it is five years to tackle an influx of refugees… Alas, the issues faced by Government are matters that can take MUCH LONGER than five years to resolve. That alone is a significant problem.

    Added to this is the fact that, as noted earlier, opposing political parties may have vastly opposed ideologies, and thus visions for our country. This cannot really be helped, because – we should all remember this – opinion is opinion, and everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion. Thus, different political parties have developed to represent different opinions. We should also note that, in the eyes of a person holding a given opinion, that opinion is generally seen as right. So, what we have in this country is a number of opposed political parties, all representing different opinions, and all invested in the belief that their opinion is right. NOW can you see just what kind of an impact this is likely to have, in a country where, every five years, there is a chance that the political party forming the Government may change!

    On the one hand, this five-year-cycling of political leadership could be considered highly egalitarian – it offers the chance that many different views will gain representation at the highest level. On the other hand, in practice, it makes for a country in which anything and everything that Government chooses to become involved in, or to have an impact upon, may be subject to almost constant change. It leads to inconsistency.

    Which leads me back to the REAL problem for the Social Work profession. I’ll put it very simply…

    If Labour are first in power, and their vision for Social Work is “X”; but then five years on, the Conservatives gain power at the next election, and their vision for Social Work is not “X”, but “Y”; the clear impact upon the Social Work profession is a change from “X” to “Y”. This may seem simple, but in reality it is anything but. For a start, the first Government may, despite having five years, not even have been able to implement all their plans for Social Work. The Social Work profession may therefore be in a state of flux. When the next, different, Government comes to power and seeks to make changes all over again, the Social Work profession is left reeling because it has not even caught up with the previous Government’s agenda. My point being that REAL LIFE CHANGES take time to make, and even more time to bed in. Even a change that was made fairly quickly can take considerable time before one knows if it is having the desired impact or not – if it WORKS, or not.

    Perhaps you have not understood what I am getting at? It is this… I am NOT specifically blaming any Government. It is likely that each successive Government believes that their vision for the Social Work profession is a good one. The problem is that, as Governments change, so does the overall Governmental vision for the Social Work profession – and because real life changes take time to implement, and to become effective (or not), a profession made subject to never-ending change is a profession cast adrift. HOW can any profession operate effectively, and cohesively, if its value-base, its protocols, its training, its legislation, its regulator, its recruitment, its funding, its procedures… are forever subject to enforced change? And I say enforced, because the change comes from OUTSIDE, rarely from within the profession itself. The change is enforced with each successive change of Government, and their differing political and social agendas.

    Whilst I understand that different political parties represent different views, and want to see their views made concrete when they come to power; I also see that – in acting this way – they lead to a situation where those matters (those professions) which are directly impacted upon by Government get left in a constant state of flux. In my eyes, this CANNOT be healthy for a profession, because it needs stability from which to operate.

    Perhaps the remedy would be for the various political parties to come to an understanding, and agreement, that change every five or so years is not necessarily good for Public Sector professions like Social Work. Instead, maybe they need to accept that a longer-term vision is required, and that this MUST work and be effective irrespective of whatever political party is in power. Might it be that COLLABORATION between the various political parties is necessary, in order to secure a stable long-term vision for professions like Social Work? A vision to which all political parties have contributed – via ideas, discussion, dialogue – and to which all have agreed? This vision should also be based upon collaboration with practitioners of said profession, itself. THEIR input and understanding is vitally important, for they are the people who have to make the vision of their profession come to life, and work.

    My feeling is that, whilst we may still have elections every five or so years – and that, as a result, our Government may change – there are some issues that ought to be viewed from a longer term perspective. Whilst each political party may wish to have its say, there are perhaps better – and less de-stabilizing – ways to do so than allowing for each successive change of Government to bring with them a change of ideas (sometimes a sweeping change of ideas). Rather, it could be that Parliament allows for the collaboration of the different political parties – encourages it – especially where this means that all are contributing to a stable, effective and workable long-term vision for institutions such as Social Care, the NHS, Policing… This might mean changes to the way in which our political system, and our individual politicians, work; but if it means that an effective long-term vision for Social Care, or the NHS, or any other important Public Sector profession can be arrived at, then is it not something maybe to consider?

    I feel deeply saddened, and indescribably hurt, in saying this… for I feel that I have been turned into something that I never was. I am not a political person, in the sense that I have strong affiliations to any party; nor have I ever felt such a strong need, in the past, to ask that my views be heard. I was content, in the past, to accept that our country was the way it was. However, experience has taught me that, sometimes, a person may be incredibly “political” even though they wish not to be – that some of us who have never been politically inclined, may actually be highly politically-minded. That, sometimes, a person may unintentionally say something that has huge political significance. That, sometimes, a person may be blamed, or criticized, for having done so – even though their intention was neither to be political, nor significant.

    Still, what’s done is done… And, if I am capable of saying anything at all that is of benefit, or of value, then I am only grateful for having had the opportunity to do so. It is high time that “politics” for the average person on the street became about something more than merely the supporting of a specific political party. Even those of us who have no particular affiliation still have opinions, some of which may be highly useful, and highly valid. Ought we not to have a chance to speak out? There are those of us who take the time to appraise issues from the point-of-view of various, opposing, parties; and may see areas of value in each different argument. We are not stupid, or apathetic or disloyal for not wanting to cast our lot in with one political party only. We are, rather, people who see the BIGGER PICTURE and ask that collaboration be considered as the way forwards.