‘Good social work is the answer to some of the big problems we have’

Mark Harvey and Rob Mitchell, co-chairs of the adults' PSW network, talk social work reform, demand pressures, and progress with the PSW role

The Adults' PSW Network supports initiatives like last year's Mental Capacity Act action day, where it encouraged social workers to create 'walls of unwise decisions'. (Pictured here at Calderdale council.)

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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3 Responses to ‘Good social work is the answer to some of the big problems we have’

  1. Hilton Dawson July 13, 2017 at 1:25 pm #

    Very well said
    So important to have & repeat that message that ‘good social work’ is an answer to so many issues – and it’s there right under Govt & Councils noses

  2. An Experienced Social Worker July 13, 2017 at 9:03 pm #

    As an experienced social worker in adult care it is about time that we had voices like those of Harvey and Mitchell to stand up for the profession. For too long adult care has been seen as a poor relation to children’s social work. It isn’t. Work in adults involves more complex and nuanced work in term of enabling risk, assessing capacity and upholding rights than most outside of adults understand. The Principal Social Worker in my Local Authority has made a big impact in making sure our voices are heard. The recent AMHP Day which my team got involved with was a chance to really stand up for social work and I hope that we see more of this type of thing. Leadership matters.

  3. Corrine July 13, 2017 at 11:29 pm #

    Added to a Social work group on fb.
    Comment on the article?? Make a comment?

    Let Social Workers be SW
    Care Managers be CM?

    Let SW practice be as we signed up to be..empowering change…where CM go and do that battling..for off the wall crazy costings…of Really 4sure Really..high profit margins..setting up Panel needed papers for the SW and Crew: service user..parents..family ..friend..provider..bring too in Health..(CM)..making them the One Team..that is to be carried around the neck? How about Partnerships in Practise..is that not what we SW about?
    Up then with Asset Base Practice..done it for years..we have a history on taking from and giving back to the Town..how communities got better cause of the midwife got out there..as well as the nurse..and to that SW…finding common ground?
    It really did get better when Trust did grow in Town.
    So look and see..it is now reported…that needed SW is crap Exhausted..no more admin to support..pls call P gp..i need it made next week..Yes..Exhaustion sits along with Expectation..you lot we mixing you up..calling especially on the Newly Qualified SW..we now have given you two titles..u can manage them both..we know its not what ur social care studdies ‘bought’ u out for..but in addition..and what a mission…
    You can also manage finance assessing..work that one out?? And you get praise for getting the best price..wow for watching our purse strings..its a business too u know? And these are vulnerable people..u know..and dont forget you lot are Accountable for Practice…is why we place straight in to NQSW thing! We know u studied for 3yrs..u come to us with that understood Degree..instead on showdering supporting those well Practiced on the ground..getting best support back..and so we get back you nqsw in 3yrs top..u by then will make mistakes..and then will get it done..Reflect on processes and our expectations..with CM right behind you..on building the trust; working it all out..with sound Supervision of the best..cause they too did it too..got the best and better training as all done above..?
    Look and see..on how many losses of the Above that could be supported; they so far removed on whats true so needed..on the Beings..so very mentioned through the New and Very Good Care Act..that speaks of new beginnings, best interests , Well-Being..is so needed most..stuck at a desk..letting us work it all out..2 jobs in 1…no greater pay…but we give u good perks..when ever..in doing 2 persons work..for the same pay; it needed to be said twice? Now..it may not be too nice..but we..the powers that be..say it will work? Safeguarding and Care Managing we have thrown it all in…those vulnerables..will just have to wait.? And we such a caring council..some i cannot disagree…but those others Above..counting the pennies..with homes out priced..kinda moving the real good SW on and out their work..bringing in the robots of class 2017..and those that have to or need to Conform???
    Let Social Work be SW
    Let Care Managers be CM

    We still be a Team..all working in Partnership..and not this New Extreme…let SW Practice..with that Person Centered Approach..allow them to build that foundation is must..so much more positive results…we are teachers of social care..we should be in the schools..working with HV..so we too get key skills..but in reality we are not let out..governed by..all in my opinion..greed..but that aside…it so needs to change..signing up for an agent of change..whatbreally is going on with higher managment..who promotes this double act..where best workers going..where new ones are not being grounded..on whats going in in the said community..mixing it with that family..gaining trust; building knowledge; working it really out..complex cases.. passing on the skills..to support the value of change..they then to better survive..with that collaboration of the One Team..paper work in place? All in their divisions..valuing diversity..all in their stations..to aid that one in need?