by Andrew Matthews
I have been working as a social worker for three years and have loved working directly with children and families. From working closely with colleagues I have seen there are shared motivations for becoming a social worker as well as niche personal drivers.
For example, there are colleagues who thrive on working directly with children, and those who are passionate about advocacy and supporting those who find themselves in the most vulnerable positions in society.
I myself have developed a strong interest in how social work is facilitated in local authorities, more specifically how one’s organisation allows social work to thrive and flourish.
I think we all have a good understanding of the difficulties and barriers that are found in local authority social work. Austerity and cuts are of huge significance. Some argue without this being tackled social work will be unable to fully thrive. I tend to agree in part with this view; my reluctance to fully agree is due to the examples of excellent leadership driving local authority social work forward.
I have therefore been keen as a social worker to use my role to not only support children and families, but to try to influence and contribute to organisational change where I have practiced.
I have practiced in two local authorities, I understand some might say that this does not allow for a broad understanding of the system, which I can appreciate, but on the other hand I do feel my experience has provided me with an understanding of what needs to change. I have been keen to think about how practitioners can contribute to organisational change and have worked to act on this.
So then why leave? I have made the difficult decision to move into something different because of three main reasons.
Firstly, I have become more aware about my own thoughts and feelings about what I hold important in a job and career. It has become clear to me that it is important to feel valued in your position and for your own values to match those of the organisation you work for. I found that my values relate to ideas of innovation, child-focused practice, creativity and the importance of a social worker’s judgement.
I am sure the senior leaders of my organisation may have shared similar ideals but this did not translate to my experience. I think this directly relates to my second and third points, the quality of practice supervisors and the retention of a skilled senior leadership embedding and following through on a vision for good practice
I have had a number of managers and it is my view that direct line managers are critical to practitioner retention, morale and for good practice to flourish. A quality manager will enable excellent practice and personal growth and development even when the context of the organisation may be challenging.
This is not to say context is not of significance but a skilled leader can overcome challenges. This view is directly rooted in my own experiences of working in an environment judged to be ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted.
More recently, I have become more committed to innovation and change, to challenge bureaucracy and think differently about ‘how’ social work is practiced. I personally have been met with negativity; a fear of change which I feel has been rooted in an attitude of going back to type when things become more difficult i.e. increased reliance on process-led practice when workload and pressure increases.
This has been influenced by a revolving door of senior leaders who invent new processes and guidance, which postulates more defensive, prescriptive practice.
The pattern that develops is relatively simple: new senior leaders observe chaos and difficulty, the solution to chaos is to bring order through embedding new processes to get things on track. I understand this is often necessary but the important point is that this becomes the sole change; when stability is attained the next step is not taken to think about ‘how’ social work is being practiced within the organisation.
Additionally, the development of new forms, processes, procedures can then be followed by a critical point, which leads to senior leaders moving on from the organisation and then begins the introduction of new systems and models once again.
Therefore, there may be a constant churn of the same pattern; different individuals putting a different spin on change to firefight. I appreciate the context of high levels of need and significant cuts makes process-led social work more appealing. But, in increasingly difficult situations for councils, strong creative leadership is more sorely needed.
Frustrated with barriers
I have found that in practice I have had two strong motivators, one to do my best for children and families and a second to create and encourage organisational change. As a practitioner I have become frustrated with the barriers in working towards the latter.
I have been incredibly fortunate and privileged to recently work with newly qualified social workers and student social workers in shaping their practice. I enjoy this area of practice but find myself pulled in a new direction to try and change the system in a different way to enable better social work practice.
So with an opportunity to work on the development and management of projects/innovations associated with social care more broadly I have welcomed a change. What has been bizarre has been colleagues asking me how I feel about moving on from social work where I feel they have half expectedly me to reply with “phew, I am happy to be leaving”.
It is the contrary, I don’t feel burnt out and I have been extremely fortunate with my practice experience. The hardest thing for me with leaving practice is not working directly with families I have been working alongside for over a year. I am confident I will return to practice one day but a new opportunity has come at the right time where I can hopefully affect change in a different way.
I hope in writing this article, I have not come across as self indulgent, my purpose has been to demonstrate and share that practitioners are keen for system change. I have experienced barriers and sometimes a poor attitude to wanting things to change; I have hypothesised that as I am not in a managerial position my view as a practitioner and my capacity to influence has been somewhat disregarded.
I do think changes can be made at this level of the system but to do this alone is difficult. The values of the organisation need to be clear and concrete, values and ideals which are led by supportive, innovative and creative leadership at middle management and at a senior level. I sometimes feel that the higher context of defensive decision making and blame can be internalised within local authorities which then trickles down into frontline practice. The culture has to be right for practice to flourish.
Andrew Matthews is a pseudonym.