It was one Friday in August 1994 when a journalist called Wiltshire council’s social services department for comment on a story that had been building up for the last five months.
Taking the call, Ray Jones was unaware he was about to become the focus of a tabloid splash covered around the world – and known as “the crazy social services director sending a delinquent on holiday to Spain”.
The ‘Costa kid’ story was about a 14-year-old boy in care with a history of petty offences, who social workers had “very sensibly” sent to spend a fortnight with his grandmother in Spain in an attempt to keep him off the streets during the Easter holidays, Jones says.
“I received abusive correspondence, letters from the Philippines, New Zealand…a friend from Canada called me up to say ‘hey, you’re on the news,’” he adds.
Jones had to go ex-directory – but he says if there’s any relief it is that he became the target of the press, rather than the social workers.
“At the time I didn’t know how to cope, but you cope because you have to.”
‘Voice for social work’
His own brush with the tabloid press is perhaps less well-known than the work he has done to support other social workers who found themselves in the glare of the media spotlight, most notably in 2008 following the death of baby Peter Connelly.
At the Social Worker of the Year Awards last November, Jones was honoured for his outstanding contribution to the profession, praised by a colleague for having always been a voice for social work, unafraid to speak out for what he believes in.
He says becoming a spokesperson on the Baby P case was due in part to his proximity to London while working at Kingston University. Being a professor gave him the freedom to speak, but he was motivated by the fact that being a social worker is a strong part of his identity.
“Professionally, I am a social worker. I’m not a professor of social work, I’m not a director of social services, I am a social worker and that’s been the thread that has run through my adult life in terms of occupation – so that was one part of it.
“Secondly, there hadn’t been that many voices for social work within the media and because I was willing and able to make those comments, they came to me.”
‘Child of the welfare state’
Another integral part of Jones’ identity, he says, is being a child of the welfare state.
Born in Cornwall – both his grandfathers were tin miners – Jones spent his early childhood living in a rural slum, with no running water, heating or toilet facilities. The family were then rehoused in a council house – a part of the post-war commitment to public housing.
They later moved to the Close Hill estate in Redruth, which hit the headlines in 2008 for being the first area in the country to impose a curfew for young people.
“It was a stigmatised estate and that was a big national story,” he recalls. “My mother still lived there at the time.”
Jones “crept into grammar school and stumbled through the lower stream”, failing his A-levels first time around. After working at a hostel for people with learning disabilities and mental health issues, the idea of a social work career took hold and he went on to study social work at Bath University during the first year of its formation.
“It was still being built around me while I was there,” he says.
He graduated with first class honours in 1972, as the new social services departments were being formed, and headed to Berkshire council for a social work post working with adults with disabilities – or so he thought.
Jones was originally recruited to spend half his time creating a register of disabled people in the community. But instead the council enlisted the milkmen for that – and he became the court officer and social worker for teenage boys.
“I remember those boys with some humour now. There’s always the ribbing you get from the kids you’re working with, and it’s being part of that, having that rapport.”
Three years later Jones returned to Bath as a lecturer, at the same time the late Bob Holman was appointed as professor of social administration. The two became friends and Jones credits him as an “inspiring man, with tremendous integrity”.
“I wrote a couple of books while I was there, kept involved in practice – doing group work with young offenders a few nights a week and I always helped Bob with his project on the Southdown estate during the summer holiday period,” he says.
“But in 1981 I decided there was a danger of not having had enough experience and becoming trapped in an academic role, so I left to become a team manager.”
Jones managed a team of 26 in Wiltshire and says it is one of the best jobs he had. It still influences his work today, especially when speaking at conferences.
“I always say the most important people in the audience are frontline managers and I ask them to stand up, because they are the people who determine the day-to-day quality of practice and experience for people coming to work.”
After a stint at Barnardo’s and assistant director roles at Surrey and Berkshire, Jones returned to Wiltshire in 1992 to become director of social services. During his 14 years there he was responsible for driving the integration agenda, joining health and social care services together across the county.
“You can’t be a director of social services for 14 years without a child dying on your patch, or older people wandering away from a care home,” he says. “We would have had our tragedies and incidents and there were times when it was difficult.”
There were stresses to staff, he adds, sometimes the media was on their back, but there was never a time when he wanted to chuck in the towel. There have been times where he wishes it was different – and leaving this job was one.
Jones “had a bit of a spat” with the council when the health service withdrew the integrated agreements and left social services with a £12 million bill, so savings had to be made in one year. He felt the savings should have been made “more sensibly” over two or three years and it was decided he should leave.
“It was a difficult time…the work we had done together across health and social care fell apart very quickly, within weeks.”
There are times, Jones adds, where “we do not recognise what is being achieved, and we allow it to drift through our fingers, despite the effort that has gone into it”.
“I’m very concerned about that today in terms of the impact of the cuts – they are taking out services that have taken a long time to build and are valuable. It takes no time to close them down, but it will take a long time to build them again.”
‘Austerity and cuts’
Jones later became involved in safeguarding inquiries, carrying out a management inquiry into the death of Stephen Hoskins, who was killed in St Austell, Cornwall, and working with Worcestershire police after the death of a mother and her disabled son.
He joined Kingston University and St George’s, Tooting in 2008, but tried to keep a hand in practice, by chairing the children’s safeguarding board in Bristol, and supporting the Department for Education’s improvement programmes for councils rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted.
He stopped this work three years ago, “by which time I think I was so out of sorts with what was happening in terms of national government and policy, that I had probably moved myself beyond the pale really”.
He is referring to speaking out against “politically-chosen austerity and the targeting of cuts at poor people and public services”, and the handing of contracts for the government’s social work reform agenda to the private sector.
“That [all] makes me very angry,” he adds. “It does not have to be like this, it’s immoral.”
“More people – disabled people and children and families – are not only being made poor, but the intensity and depth of that poverty is increasing as well – and then there are those who spot the chance to make a private profit out of the awful misery being created.”
Jones continues to work with the media – he says it has become a major part of his working life – and in his spare time is “obsessed by rugby”, enjoys travelling to parts of the world off the beaten track, and looking after his grandchildren.
When asked if he has plans to retire, he says there will probably come a time when he’s “past his sell-by date”, but it won’t be due to a lack of commitment or energy.
“My experience growing up was very important in terms of me feeling deeply concerned about what is happening to some families today.
“I see what is happening to children like me now and it’s not good, it’s not necessary, and it shouldn’t be happening – that’s what really fires me up still.”
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