by Andrew Matthews*
Too often I have found that the manager I have had has shaped my working experience.
I don’t think this is unique, but for me the manager in the social work context has such an important role. However, the ideal ‘role’ of the manager, when you consider what the Knowledge and Skills Statement for practice supervisors sets out, is far from the reality.
The statement highlight how managers should be practice supervisors who promote best practice and develop excellent practitioners by using ‘emotionally intelligent’ supervision that focuses on relationships and reflection to think more about dilemmas and challenges.
The eight points in the Knowledge and Skills statement are totally on point and the manager being a champion and leader of best practice is absolutely what the profession should be working towards. The worry I have is how far away we are from achieving this and the constraints that need to be removed to allow this to happen.
I have had some extremely positive experiences of social work management; however, the more memorable experiences happen to be negative.
Lack of investment
Management at its worst in social work has none of the features set out in the Knowledge and Skills statement. In particular, the focus on promoting excellent practice is missing; there is a lack of investment from management about ‘how’ social work is being practised. The day in, day out work with children and families is sidelined in favour of compliance.
I am sure colleagues across the country will recognise punitive, bureaucratic management where a manager’s only focus appears to be timescales and deadlines.
I do not intend to lay blame, especially when the system on the whole is organised in such a way. Timescales and deadlines are ultimately a part of the profession, but I feel it is a manager’s responsibility to not let that define their roles.
Sadly this does occur and things can get worse for social workers who can feel bullied, unsupported and fearful of approaching their manager.
There is no excuse for bullying and too often I have experienced or heard of colleagues despairing or leaving local authorities because of how they have been treated.
I recall in my previous local authority a senior manager in a strategy meeting decided to question me regarding a decision that had been made, though this decision was unrelated to the concerns at the time.
They felt it necessary to point out why in their opinion I was wrong, questioning me in front of my colleagues before asking fellow professionals if they agreed. The manager continued to shake their head at me throughout the meeting. I had been qualified for around five months at this point. I was mortified, embarrassed, angry and upset.
I am not looking for sympathy, but I am trying to provide a realistic view of the context; there are social work managers in local authorities who do not meet the required standard.
A good manager is not one who is on top of their emails and data management. Too many managerial positions are filled by individuals who lack the necessary skillset and focus overwhelmingly on bureaucracy rather than practice.
This is extremely important as it is a role with power and influence; having strong management can significantly improve what a local authority is offering children and families.
Local authorities need to take stock of their management. If you invest in having the best managers working towards what is set out in the Knowledge and Skills statement, practitioners will develop into excellent social workers and retention will be much improved.
I am not ignorant of the wider contextual issues such as caseloads, which create huge pressures on managers, but this should not be used as an excuse. Managers have a responsibility as leaders to advocate for their practitioners and create an environment that is conducive to good practice.
Too often supervision is focused on statistics rather than reflection, relationships and practice.
Local authorities need to act bravely and move away from the focus on compliance in order to support managers to thrive as practice supervisors.
The individual manager is responsible for how they lead their teams, yet if they are provided with the tools to succeed through a strong senior leadership team it makes things a lot easier.
For those who are sadly experiencing poor management and it has led to you to consider leaving your local authority, look for sources of support. If there is a principal social worker in your authority, try speaking with them or speak with colleagues and consider saying something as part of a collective.
*Andrew Matthews is a pseudonym. The writer is a children’s social worker.