One of the most important roles in adults’ social work came out of a landmark review into England’s child protection system. The author, professor Eileen Munro, recommended that principal social workers be set up in children’s services to champion social work practice, relay concerns and provide challenge to management.
Six years on from Munro, principal social workers are now also established in adults’ services. One notable difference is that the adults’ PSW role is enshrined in the Care Act guidance, which clarified its responsibilities to quality assure practice, support effective supervision and advise directors on complex or controversial cases.
Mark Harvey and Rob Mitchell, co-chairs of the adults’ PSW network, say there is now only one council without an adults’ PSW in place, and where the role works well it has led to closer working relationships and “pure community-focused” practice. But despite the statutory guidance, the role is still not properly embedded everywhere, they add.
One of the reasons some areas will have struggled is because of the “unprecedented cuts” in adult social care, which have put services under pressure, Mitchell says.
“I think we’ve also suffered because many PSWs tend to be more experienced social workers who have been around for a while, and we’ve seen a number of them leaving councils, retiring or taking a redundancy package,” he adds.
‘Practice, standards, and delivery’
Another issue is the lack of understanding among some directors, says Harvey.
He recalls handing out an easy-read explanation of the PSW role at the national children’s and adults’ services conference last year, and directors “didn’t even know who their PSW was, let alone understand the role”, which he says was disappointing.
“I think some directors still struggle to understand where they should embed the role – should it be in operational services or a standalone role,” he says.
“My view is it doesn’t really matter, it’s what works for your authority.”
The ambiguity surrounding the role has also created a “genuine fear” among directors that PSWs are a form of trade union rep, Harvey and Mitchell say. But they both agree that being a PSW does not mean you are a “cheerleader” for social workers.
“PSWs are there for the social work,” says Mitchell.
“As a consequence you want to support your colleagues who are social workers, but it’s the practice, the standards and the delivery of social work to the person that should enthuse and motivate the principal social worker.”
He adds that by using the PSW role to raise the relevance of social work and get across to employers what good social work is, things will improve for qualified social workers because “people will understand their role and value it better”.
‘The people unite us’
Mitchell and Harvey have led the principal social worker network during a time where social work has been under increasing government scrutiny. Earlier this year, the Children and Social Work Act became law, bringing with it a raft of reforms to the profession, including the creation of a new social work regulator Social Work England.
The main issue with the legislation is it didn’t reinforce adults’ social work, the pair say.
“It’s very much about children’s social work, and there’s very little in there for adults’ social work other than the new regulatory body,” says Harvey.
“I think people read into that in the bill and there is some narrative out there about ‘well if you can’t meet the children’s standards you can always go to adults’. A more robust statement reinforcing the positivity of adults’ social work would have been useful.”
The greater focus on children’s social work has led to concerns about a split in the profession, but this doesn’t seem to faze Harvey and Mitchell, who say there’s a clear difference between the two as it is, and the overlap is where they work with families.
“The crucial thing that actually unites the profession, regardless of the pathways we might come from, is that we are working with people at all times,” says Mitchell.
“Even if we ended up with separate professions or degree qualifications, I genuinely believe social work would always come back together around the person.
“We are one profession and it’s the people we support that make it one profession.”
‘On their knees’
One of the most high-profile social work reforms is the introduction of an accreditation system for children’s social workers. The government has said the process will give employers assurance that children’s social workers have the skills they need and build public confidence. Similar plans have yet to be extended to adults’ social work.
Harvey and Mitchell say anything that gives “further accountability” to the role social workers play shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, but warn against having “accreditation for the sake of accreditation” in adults’ services.
“The nature of adults’ is different and you could find yourself having to be accredited for three or four different things, so we do need to think about that,” says Harvey.
He adds that adults’ social work also already has a long tradition of accredited practice, giving the example of Approved Mental Health Professionals, who are accredited “because they’ve got a ridiculous amount of power and how they use that power in a value-based way is what we’re accrediting – no social worker would argue with that.”
“I think people fear the terminology and the perception. Social workers are on their knees at the moment to be honest, the work is huge, so it’s about messages I think.
“Accreditation can mean so many different things – from local sign off that your value base, practice and ethic is correct to a horrendous exam-based process. So we need to measure it and make sure we are giving the right messages.”
‘Good social work is the answer’
As Mitchell and Harvey say, adults’ social workers are currently working in “unprecedented times”. Budgets have been slashed significantly at a time when councils are trying to implement the Care Act, as well as manage the rise in deprivation of liberty cases following the landmark Cheshire West ruling. But these pressures are a “double-edged sword”, adds Mitchell, they are difficult, but “not necessarily a bad thing.”
“As one of my colleagues said recently [about the MCA and DoLS] – yes we are mowed under with it, but actually we don’t want to get to a stage where we’re arguing that we don’t want to be out there talking about enabling human rights and making sure the right safeguards are in place.
“That’s not the kind of demand that social workers should be shying away from.”
He adds that how councils respond and deal with some of the pressures, including lack of resources and implementation of the Care Act, will be variable. Some will be creative, but those “stuck in the traditional care management approach” will struggle.
“I’m sure those councils that haven’t changed their approach are not dealing with demand and I’m sure the social workers there are on their knees,” he says.
Harvey adds that using good social work to stop making people dependent on “our fairly poor care delivery systems” is vital going forward.
“I strongly believe the answers to the big problems we’ve got at the moment are good social work and actually, we’re in some of the messes we’re in because councils got social workers to do some really bloody awful things, some poor social work,” he says.
“So whether it’s an integration system, ADASS, whoever, once they see that some of the answers to these questions are social work, it will make a big difference.”
*Mark Harvey is the PSW at Hertfordshire and Rob Mitchell is PSW for Bradford.
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