By Sophie Ayers
While designed to address failings in the child protection system, the measures in the government’s Children and Social Work Bill have brought about widespread controversy and debate.
The first critical area of debate relates to the plan to allow local authorities to be exempted from certain statutory duties, to enable councils to apply creativity in the way they manage their practice.
The second area of debate is the creation of a new regulatory body to ensure we are managed effectively and our professional deficiencies are supported and improved.
A tone of blame
The government’s current approach sets a tone of blame for individual workers. I feel we have taken several steps back from the optimistic times when Professor Eileen Munro first published her review of child protection.
Munro’s work was revolutionary and focused upon key, pertinent issues that nearly all social workers recognised. It is widely agreed that if the recommendations were consistently applied, child protection social work would be transformed.
Therefore, it is incredibly frustrating that so many of her recommendations have not been implemented consistently through the safety of clear legislation.
It appears the government’s approach to social work is ‘top down’ and finds blame in those in the least powerful position, the frontline workers. The whole premise of the Children and Social Work Bill has been about poor social work practice, rather than understanding why failures occur.
Degrading the profession
Blame is also apparent in some of the decisions made by the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC).
This culture perpetuates the narrative that social workers do not function effectively due to their own individual failings, and further degrades the profession.
At present, social workers must adhere to the HCPC’s strict ‘standards of conduct, performance and ethics’. When social workers fall short of the regulator’s expectations, hearings are completed and workers face the consequences through various means such as a mark on their registration; a suspension or a complete removal from the social work register.
Every profession requires a body to ensure that rules are followed and workers adhere to a high level of practice. As social workers we must work to strict ethical guidelines that promote positive work practices and dictates a clear moral obligation in our own personal lives.
This is not a fact that I dispute. However, I feel that social workers’ voices have been lost in the debate in terms of how our professional body can help us move forward as a profession.
We need to build on a true learning culture within the social work profession. Not just an act of ‘tokenistic’ listening to social workers’ views. The managerialist format of the local authorities that we work for leads to stagnation rather than progress.
An improbable and strange comparison to the current social work culture is that of aviation. Within the aviation industry there is a clear system of learning from the mistakes made (even if fatalities occur) to ensure that the same grave problem do not occur again.
In ‘Achieving a safe culture: theory and practice’, a 1998 paper for the journal Work and Stress, Dr. James Reason has suggested that safety culture consists of five elements:
▪ An informed culture
▪ A reporting culture
▪ A learning culture
▪ A just culture
▪ A flexible culture
One of the most significant areas identified that is pertinent to social work practice is the area of a ‘just culture’. In that within a ‘just culture’ “errors and unsafe acts will not be punished if the error was unintentional. However, those who act recklessly or take deliberate and unjustifiable risks will still be subject to disciplinary action”.
The airline culture dictates that safety has to be systemic and it is expected that failures are shared. This is to ensure that other professionals can learn from mistakes and make sure that similar errors are not made.
This is an industry where mistakes can have an instant fatal effect. It is my view that there is a dichotomy between the social work profession and the airline industry. If an aviator does not share mistakes to ensure that an error can be discussed and rectified, disciplinary procedures will be followed.
But if you share mistakes in social work you run a significant risk of being blamed, disciplined and struck off from the HCPC register.
I believe that we need to build upon the wisdom that has accumulated within the airline industry. If children die whilst under the eyes of social workers, learning must be the ultimate position as opposed to blame, shame and retribution.
It is abundantly clear that the current media temperament favours stories of ruinous incompetence as opposed to the complicated and untenable situations that social workers face.
Social workers are highly unlikely to “act recklessly or take deliberate and unjustifiable risks”. However, candid responses relating to catastrophic outcomes are unlikely due to the HCPC’s current culture of reprimanding social workers without regard for their working environment.
It appears that it is enough to blame social workers for falling foul of the ‘standards of conduct, performance and ethics’. There is no expectation that the HCPC can mitigate its judgement on the actions of a social worker through the working environment that they encounter.
In this time of uncertainty within social work, the Children and Social Work Bill and a new regulator is looming. It is incredibly important that we actively challenge Parliament and start to take ownership of our profession.
True feedback from a range of practicing social workers is essential but difficult to obtain. Due to the working pressures of frontline child protection social workers, having the time and space to provide feedback is not easy.
Relationship with the frontline
The government needs to make every effort to rebuild its relationship with frontline staff. When looking at our future regulatory body, shouldn’t the primary stance be ‘how can we provide a working environment that leads to best practice and reduce the endemic turnover of experienced staff?’
It is odd that social workers spend their days visiting people, changing their location and consulting with endless professionals and families to form a conclusion. Why does the government not follow this approach? Sitting in Whitehall is likely to lead to two-dimensional, over-optimistic and formulaic plans.
Policy makers and politicians, please leave the office, imbibe reality and take action as you see fit. Breathe, know and be accountable for the people that you serve.
We need a regulatory body with an acute sense of introspection, emotional intelligence and an understanding of the morally turbulent narratives of our daily working lives. It is yet to be seen if ‘Social Work England’ will strive to support practitioners or perpetuate the culture of blame.
Rather than an organisation that sends out a practice certificate and card every two years, should we not be looking for something much more? How about a written newsletter from the chief executive, promoting practice and telling us how we can move forward?
There is an inherent conflict whereby a regulatory authority is responsible for the governance of our profession. Perhaps an amalgamation should take place whereby professional standards sits alongside a framework for positive practice.
Recognition of high practice standards does not need to be an exception or be held separate from the body that investigates deficiencies. Perhaps positive accounts our practice could be reported in a confidential manner alongside the negative aspects of our profession.
The bottom up
There appears to be an assumption that a strategic overview can only come from senior managers and politicians. This is a fallacy. Social workers on the ground know the details of everyday practice. Ask any frontline worker for a realistic plan to make changes in their local authority and I am sure they could offer many viable options.
At present, social workers pay £90 per year to register with the HCPC. Aside from the disciplinary aspect, I am hard-pushed to recognise any other service that is provided to the social work profession by it.
The HCPC appears to be a generic organisation that is in place to monitor and reprimand rather than to support and promote positive practice.
The rights of social workers and service users are not separate, they are inherently linked. If the government and our regulator body will start to listen from the bottom up, I am convinced that the system will be transformed.
▪ Sophie Ayers is a child protection social worker. She tweets @sophieayers1982