Social work’s public image ‘pushing people out of frontline roles and making families distrustful’

Staff reluctant to work in a 'negative and critical environment', while NQSWs say their families have expressed concern about their career choice, finds survey of social workers in London and the South East

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Social work’s poor public image is driving people out of frontline children’s roles, hurting recruitment and making families fearful and distrustful of practitioners.

Those were among the findings of research with just over 1,000 social workers and managers working for local authorities in London and the South East, carried out by the two regions’ local authority children’s services improvement agencies.

Some newly qualified practitioners reported that their families and loved ones had expressed concerns about their career choice, found the London Innovation and Improvement Alliance (LIIA) and South East Sector Led Improvement Programme’s (SESLIP) Big Listen study.

On the back of the results, the two bodies called for “a national response to address the negative perception of what children’s social workers do to improve public understanding of their work and so support recruitment and retention efforts”.

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Negative media coverage and public fear

Many of those who took part in the Big Listen research, which included focus groups, voiced concerns about public perceptions, which they linked to negative media coverage and poor understanding of what practitioners did.

One local authority-employed social worker said:

The view of the public is that social workers are incompetent. The media’s negative coverage of the job does not help. We need to highlight good stories.”

Practitioners cited examples of negative headlines following high-profile cases, while they also expressed “extensive frustration that the profession [was] poorly understood”, particularly that people did not grasp social workers’ roles in supporting families.

One council employee commented:

The fear from communities and parents are that we are just going to take their children away.”

“This contributes to a climate of fear in which social workers’ tasks are made more difficult as parents and carers are reluctant to accept offers of help, or trust social workers assigned to work with them,” said the report.

LIIA and SESLIP found that it also adversely affected recruitment and retention too, with staff reluctant to work in a “negative and critical environment” and some opting to move out of frontline roles when opportunities arose.

In focus groups, some NQSWs sharing their families’ concerns about their choice of career/

“Some family members were aware of the public perception of the profession and worried about the impact on their loved ones,” said the report.

Previous concerns about social work’s public portrayal

The Big Listen study follows heightened concerns about the impact of poor public perceptions and negative media portrayals of the profession. This includes:

These issues have coincided with a worsening of social work’s recruitment and retention challenges, with the proportion of vacant posts rising in both children’s and adults’ services in the year to September 2022.

Action on media coverage

The British Association of Social Workers and Social Workers Union have taken action to tackle the issue of media coverage of social workers.

BASW held its first journalism awards, celebrating good practice in social work coverage, earlier this year, while SWU and press regulator IMPRESS published guidelines on press reporting of the profession last year.

The union has also held discussions with the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), which regulates most major publications, about adopting similar standards and has set up a reporting line for social workers to share examples of concerning media coverage of the profession*.

While ministers have voiced occasional praise for social workers, concrete action to tackle public and media negativity from government has been thin on the ground.

Its draft children’s social care strategy, issued in February, pledged to work with Social Work England “to inform and educate people on the role social workers play within society, while promoting social work as a rewarding profession to support recruitment and retention”, but without further detail on what this would mean.

More from survey of 1,000 social workers

Other key findings from LIIA and SESLIP’s Big Listen report were that:

  1. Racism was driving black and global majority (BGM) social workers, in the terms of the report, into agency work. Check out our poll to find out whether this chimes with social workers’ experience generally.
  2. 20% of permanently employed respondents said they intended to work for an agency in the future, with a further 15% saying they might do.
  3. 36% of survey respondents described their workload as ‘unmanageable’, with this issue being worse among permanent staff (39%) compared with agency colleagues (33%). Many reported feeling that they had “to compromise the quality of their work due to the limited time available for their cases”.
  4. 69% were very concerned about the cost of living crisis, while 34% felt that their pay reflected the job they did, with both these issues being worse among black and minority ethnic staff than white colleagues.
  5. 66% felt social work staff were valued at the organisation they worked for.
  6. More positively, 88% agreed that they were able to make a difference to the children and families they worked with.

On the back of the report, LIIA and SESLIP called for “a national workforce strategy with a clear plan for a sustainable pipeline of children social workers is urgently needed”, including “a national response to address the negative perception of what children’s social workers do”.

They also urged councils to work together in regions to address their collective workforce problems and set out a series of questions for local authority leaders to ask themselves about their social work staff, including:

  • Does your authority promote positive messages about the work children’s social workers do in your area?
  • What more can you do to celebrate and build on the positivity of the children’s social care workforce and the impact they are having?
  • Do you know how many of your children’s social care workforce feel undervalued and why?
  • What can you do to build trust and confidence to make local authority employment more appealing and attractive to BGM social workers?
  • How could you redirect some of the money spent on agency staffing to make local authority employment more attractive for social workers?
  • Does your authority have a strategy and practical measures in place to help prevent staff seeking better pay through agency work?

You can find the other key questions for leaders in the Big Listen report.

*You can submit links to, or images of, concerning media coverage about social work to the SWU at

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15 Responses to Social work’s public image ‘pushing people out of frontline roles and making families distrustful’

  1. Not My Real Name August 4, 2023 at 1:59 pm #

    The other issue is fieldwork is just not financially rewarded well enough for people to accept the stress and risk. Most practitioners with a bit of experience move to a less exposed, and better paid, role as soon as they can.

  2. Steve August 4, 2023 at 2:38 pm #

    Families and communities are right to be wary of social workers. Organisations which don’t respect their staff enough to pay them a decent wage or provide a decent working environment so they can retain them for longer than 5 minutes are not going to then suddenly do an about face and respect the families they are working with.

    Local Authority treatment of social workers and families are two sides of the same coin. The small state, low support, unequal, ‘you’re on your own’, pull yourself up by your bootstraps ideology is not changing anytime soon. No amount of airbrushing or PR will change that.

  3. Brigid Featherstone August 4, 2023 at 3:26 pm #

    At the recent Social Work Education conference in Glasgow, educators from a wide range of programmes expressed concerns about their viability due to a fall in the number of applicants this year. MA programmes have been very particularly impacted by the very well resourced fast-track programmes especially in London in the context of a cost-of-living crisis
    But all types of programmes seem to be struggling up and down the country.

    Are we finally facing the long predicted demise of University based Social Work education?

    • An NQSW August 9, 2023 at 3:11 pm #

      As someone who qualified from a Masters program I can say that University Social Work departments should rightly be concerned. I would certainly advise people that it is very expensive and stressful even with the meager bursary to be worth the hassle. If you have decent experience of health and social care work like I has prior to the masters there should be more ways to access on the job training via the NHS / local authority. A route up to qualified roles from 3rd sector providers would be useful I think.

      There are many great aspects to training at University but with hindsight I wish I’d have took more time to consider a fast track program.

      While I am on the subject I also feel that new particularly young students who’ve gone straight from school to Uni should be really really encouraged to take ground level jobs like HCA or support worker while either at uni or prior to commiting to study for social work. It seems to me from recent experiences there have been numerous students I have seen who simply are not emotionally equipped to deal with health and social care work

  4. S Sajid August 4, 2023 at 3:34 pm #

    Its a shame that central and local governments, Unions, Social work England, social work academics, media and even publications like Community care do next to nothing to promote, support and applaud contributions made by social workers to the local and wider communities. If a quarter of the time and effort was made to do so like its done for NHS, Teachers and all, this wouldn’t be happening. Social workers arent even considered to be part of the public sector, that’s how bad things are!

  5. john stephenson August 4, 2023 at 4:37 pm #

    After 25 years both as a frontline child care social worker and complaints and quality assurance manager I would be hard pushed to identify any child or family that was left better off after social work intervention than it was before.

    • TiredSocialWorker August 5, 2023 at 12:41 am #

      Totally agree. I’m completely burned out. Having worked in all services from initial assessment to cin/cp, looked after children and leaving care, I can’t stand the thought that I am just destroying people’s lives. So many resources trying to take kids nto care (the out time you get praise and recognition for “good work”) only to try in any way possible a few years later when they are costing too much and causing “too much trouble” and taking up resources to get them back out of care. Scandalous. When I voice this, the powers that be silence me only caring about the stats that will that get them a good Ofsted..

    • Tom J August 7, 2023 at 10:59 am #

      Im a tad bit more optimistic than this, but I would add that positives have arisen in spite of all the numerous agency procedures and tick boxes (i.e. fortnightly visits, tick child seen alone, assessments, panels, forms, meetings). Sometimes i’d have luck in securing some charity funding which would materially help the family and show them that I did care leading to some conversations that were genuinely restorative. I think the quote below should be pinned to the front door of all social work offices:

      ‘Telling parents what their problem is and how to resolve it is rarely successful. In fact, it can increase resistance and make change less likely to happen’ (Forrester, Wilkins, and Whittaker 2021).

  6. Wendy August 4, 2023 at 4:41 pm #

    Television shows are also to blame.eastenders programmes always gets the role of other professionals right and understanding of them I have never watch a programme where the social worker role was understood or the actors would come into a family home and say words u never hear a social worker say eg.we have to go to child protection conference ??.coronation st show issues relating of child protection issues.there was no input from social worker even when the young person was in was the foster carers??. Until the public understands the role of the social worker bad press and lack of understanding will continue. I suspect most people speak on behalf of social work .stayed very little time on frontline or don’t know the full in and out of social work I did it for’s very hard job with very little support.

  7. L Murray August 4, 2023 at 5:32 pm #

    Speaking to a young adolescence in care who said to me that social workers are not realistic as their expectations are to high. Their immediate response to situations when things are difficult is to move them from one foster home to another creating multiple moves for children in foster care or the they end up in unregulated housing for adolecence age 16 and over If the child is unhappy with their new placements this can lead to adolecence not returning and becoming homeless…

  8. Annonymous August 6, 2023 at 1:03 am #

    As a qualified social worker of 10 years who has been on both sides of the coin by virtue of my 12 year old son with autism, I can say, in all honesty, and with all due respect, that social services rarely improve the lives of the children and families social workers seek to support. I will use a few examples to illustrate my statement.

    Its a blame-culture especially when you reach out for help. When i reached out for support for my son who has complex needs and a multitude of SEND diagnosis, I was judged.

    I previously had to leave a role because social work managers wrongfully wanted to shift blame on an innocent parent. I advocated and stood up for her with hardcore facts and evidence. Had it not been for my zeal, transparency and values, an innocent mother would have had her child removed.

    How do you justify why in specific teams within a service, depending on who the manager is, there are high levels of cases that are escalated and others whereby a more humanistic approach is taken? Why should there be such big gaps? How can this be acceptable? How can outcomes be dependent on who your social worker is or/and who their team manager is?

    It shows that for the most part, social workers simply cover their backs rather than support families.

    The mistrust of social workers/social services cannot simply be put down to negagive media publications. The negative publications, are as a result of the thousands of people whose real-life experiences of social services and some of its workers as being nasty to say the least.

    Ive had this nasty done to me amd my son, ive heard the narratives of familes who have had this nasty done to them, ive had to call colleagues out to not do nasty to families, ive heard the way some colleagues have talked nasty about families even when its more about giving parents the education they need concerning specific matters, they think its funny. For example, a colleague who didnt know i have a child with disability was complaining about a parent who asked for respite because they genuinely needed it saying she just wants handouts. I am a social worker but i can honestly say ive seen lots (not few) of bad practices.

    Even the way social workers treat each other is concerning – the bullying, the gossiping, fations, back-biting, racism.
    If i knew then, what I know now, I wouldnt have gone into social work.

    Before we attribute blame to the media, lets have a real look at the system called social services and make a change by revamping it entirely. Its always easy to shift blame. Lets not do this as it will never solve matters nor turn the peoplea hearts to regain trust in us.

    • Maria Nicholson August 6, 2023 at 2:26 pm #

      Well said. You sound like an empathetic social worker with real lived experiences so well done for telling the truth.

    • Anonymous August 7, 2023 at 5:50 am #

      Thank you for telling your story and showing empathy towards families.

  9. Linval Hermitt August 7, 2023 at 8:41 am #

    I have been reading this recent survey and generally- on racism driving BGM/Black workers moving to agency and needing to respond.

    It continues to be sad news that the sw profession remains having to defend itself. This is from negatives forces within and external. I am a male black sw aged 61. I have worked in various roles across most of adult services. Commencing, including early c&f, older people, policy, community projects and latterly returing in a community mental health team. It is particular worrying to hear of the tension and defensive behaviours of how services treats and in some circumstances, can responds to its own workforce. This includes to the comments cited and sadly ‘nasty’ behaviours said exhibited to client groups being served.

    While there is a backdrop story to my own circumstances, I am inclined to say history seems to be repeating itself. That is, little has changed in the challenges and experiences pertaining institutional, organisational and media tension. As a profession, ‘social work’ has always been walking the delicate tight rope of being,’ dammed if you do and dammed if you dont’.

    It’s a profession which requires bravery, courage, skill, resillience but also a sence of calling with applied and or lived experience. It can be isolating, yet espouses strongly on the values also of professional autonomy. Supervision and vitality of supportive team working in risk management decisions remain essential. That being said, it does not give licence for internal organisational bullying, harassment when things become difficult. Similarly, neither for opportunistic or social media negating on the positive work which the profession clearly does.

    I have said elsewhere (over 20 years ago) with the advent of UK digital and technological innovations, the profession is a challenging one especially and always for frontline workers perspectives. As social workers, we need and deserve all the help we can get. We are not helping ourselves or our clients if we cannot truthfully advocate – this with without making life more difficult for our selves.

  10. Chris Sterry August 9, 2023 at 9:34 am #

    As a former family carer I do have some understandings of the problems in all of social care be it in Local Authorities, private providers, paid carers, unpaid family carers and more.

    There is much that is wrong in social care and a lot is down to social care being severely underfunded and in my view has always been underfunded and never respected. Of course, the funding aspect became much more of a problem due to Tory austerity cuts from 2010 and still mainly to this day.

    But the negativity around social care is also part of the problem for we never hear of the good being done in social care, which is vast, but only the negative because bad makes good press while good doesn’t.

    In addition to the underfunding from governments past and present and maybe future there is government attitude to social care, and that they rarely even mention social care. If they do it is mainly with regards to care homes for the elderly and while an important part so is all the other aspects with regards to children and all ages of adults, in home care, supported living, respite, hospices, etc.

    The funding problems also affect staffing numbers and also pay scales both in Las and private providers and in all areas pay rates need to be increased greatly, perhaps even more so in respect of care workers, which should be around £14/15 and not the £11 currently. But working conditions also need to be greatly improved both in LAs and the private sector. Only then will more people wish to engage in social care.

    So not only does greatly increased government funding, improved pay rates and working conditions have to take place urgently, but the government and the press have to undertake to stop concentrating on any negative aspects but more on positive aspects of social care. Then the public image of social care will start to improve but will take some time due to the low base of the negativity.