Children’s principal social worker role ‘has failed spectacularly’

A leading social worker has claimed the future of the PSW role in children’s services is at risk

Photo: Prachid/Fotolia

The principal social worker role has “failed spectacularly” in children’s services and could “disappear” in the next year, a leading expert has said.

Tony Stanley, chief social worker at Birmingham council and a former principal social worker, said the PSW role in children’s services was weak and at risk of being weakened further as local council budgets shrink.

He said: “I think organisations will say ‘You aren’t able to enlarge your offer to the system, you are additional to what we are doing’; and that’s a problem.”

Stanley said the adults’ PSW role was better defined and the inclusion of it in statutory guidance underpinning the Care Act 2014 had helped this group be more effective in articulating their importance to the system.

Speaking last week at Frontline’s Consultant Social Work Conference, Stanley told social workers that children’s PSWs had been “pulled in every direction” since the role was recommended in Eileen Munro’s 2011 review of child protection.

He said PSWs had become entangled in a debate about what the role involved for too long.

“We need to move away from a debate about who does what, because all the time we’re debating this the PSW is caught up in a squabble about what they do and how they do it,” he said

“Unless PSWs say ‘We are important’, as adults’ social care are beginning to do, then [the role in] children and families will disappear off our landscape I think in the next 12-18 months.”


Stanley said PSWs were “fantastic” and trying their best. But he claimed, as a network, children’s PSWs had failed to have a national impact by debating key topics and making public comment on social issues.

“I think that the PSW promise [was] to understand the architecture, understand the system’s architecture and make comment about where that was weaker and where that was stronger,” Stanley said.

He added it became clear “after the first year” this would not happen, as PSWs were being tasked with a range of different things by local authorities, which prevented them from focusing on the role as it was intended.

He said some councils were still failing to carry out social work health checks, a key recommendation of the Social Work Reform Board, which ran from 2010-13 and whose role was to drive improvements in the profession.

“I think that’s a key role of the PSW, [without it] how on earth are we able to marshal an argument about the culture of our workplace, about the experience of our practitioners?” Stanley said.

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10 Responses to Children’s principal social worker role ‘has failed spectacularly’

  1. Roy Morrison June 21, 2017 at 11:44 am #

    I agree whole heartedly, there are some LA who have no appointed PSW.

  2. John Stephenson June 21, 2017 at 12:51 pm #

    As social care complaints manager I made my concerns about P.S.W Role from outset,it was obvious the role was untenable and was just a cost cutter role to reduce numbers of Team Managers.

  3. SW Clara June 21, 2017 at 7:59 pm #

    Don’t fully agree that this is solely the fault of the system when the lead for the children’s network is ineffective and unreliable. He has no clear way of taking the network forward unlike colleagues in Adult services. His inconsistency has played out in so many forms that it has hindered the potential of the network A vote of no confidence is what is needed

    • Tony stanley June 25, 2017 at 6:32 am #

      Pity that in my raising healthy debate about a role designed and initiated to lead and help transform social work practice, unhelpful personalised criticisms are propergated behind anonymous vitriol. Does nothing to advance debate, in fact feeds the concern that our own act is far from together, locally, nationally or collectively.
      Tony Stanley

  4. James Webb June 21, 2017 at 9:45 pm #

    Whilst Tony’s comments are well made, as long as the role is owned and promoted by senior managers it can have a great impact in CYP. It has had less of an impact nationally as, frankly, the DfE does not like uncomfortable truths coming from the front line.

    PSWs need to carve out a space for themselves and prove themselves useful to the organisation. Given Ofsted’s correct focus on practice an influential and impactful PSW who makes a demonstrable difference really helps and will do even more so in the new Ofsted inspections.

    Tony will be pleased to know I have just appointed a new PSW after the retirement of the previous post holder – she was fabulous and the new one will be too!

  5. Tony Stanley June 23, 2017 at 7:29 am #

    PSW Colleagues,

    The recent reporting in Community Care of comments I made at Frontline’s leadership conference has generated a great deal of discussion and some consternation. Raising questions about the divergent roles we have in our workplaces must include a healthy questioning of the PSW role, and our distinction or growing convergence with workforce leads, learning leads, quality assurance leads, consultant social workers and others. The presentation argued for teaching partnerships as a new and exciting way forward for practice leadership. I celebrated some excellent local PSW achievements while questioning the lack of a national driving force for reform. After five years in the PSW role, my reflections invite questioning, and by exploring achievements, the gap of a driving force of system reformers is illuminated, and for me that was always the promise of the collective and national children’s PSW cohort.

    Tony Stanley
    Chief Social Work Officer, Birmingham
    Chair West-Midlands Social Work Teaching Partnership

  6. Too old for this stuff June 23, 2017 at 12:23 pm #

    Too often the PSW role lies with senior managers, who cannot effectively represent the SWs. it’s a conflict of interest.

  7. lee pardy-mclaughlin June 24, 2017 at 9:02 am #

    Tony has raised some important points on the role and impact of the PSW, whilst challenging the the role he also recognises that across the regions and nationally there has been some significant work which has been led by PSW’s; who understand the need for practice leadership, and for improving the system for social workers. The children’s psw network has been involved in a range of campaigning, and challenge and discussion with government on a range of policy issues that have been proposed. This includes the provisions within the Children and Social Work Act 2017 particularly. PSW’s campaigned on the measures and challenged from a strong position rather than taking to social media and other platforms. Impact has been in ensuring that government and the Dfe heard and understood what the profession was saying, and more importantly what was important to improve services for children and young people. This lobbying and direct work at the policy level certainly influenced and led to govt. reflecting on some of the provisions that had originally been proposed.
    The work undertaken by PSW’s is sometimes not recognised at the national level, and it is right for Tony to ask the question. I can also see why SWClara is making a view here, I would be very happy to have a discussion and to walk Clara through on the range of work that colleagues and myself have led on, contributed to and indeed demonstrated impact.

  8. Jonathan Ritchie June 26, 2017 at 9:51 pm #

    As far as I understand, in reality Principal Social Workers are Political Commissars whose job it is to push forward the political agenda of Comrade Trowler.

    Political Commissars did not help in the Soviet Union; only real leadership makes a difference.

  9. jacqui westbury June 28, 2017 at 4:50 pm #

    The role of the PSW is complex in as much as it is uniquely interpreted within each different local authority and therefore expectation’s on what that role should deliver might seem unclear – however it is also simple in that it is about Promoting excellent professional practice, leading on practice improvement and providing a bridge between professional and managerial responsibility, to influence the delivery and development of social work practice.

    The key to ensuring the PSW role is effective is to allow it to have the space and focus required to drive forward social work practice – In my opinion this works well by having a stand-alone PSW role – and not combing it with other roles so that agendas aren’t conflicted – Southampton LA have recently invested in a stand-alone PSW and from the feedback so far this is making a positive difference.

    Locally and nationally there is a real commitment by PSW’s to make a big difference – and this is happening – but I think the network needs to get smarter at how the good work that is being completed is shared – Maybe a quarterly section in community care to show what difference locally and nationally the PSW network is making would be a great way to communicate effectively.