Author of landmark child protection review says challenging poor working conditions for social workers is one of the ‘most important tasks ahead’
Zoë Betts is standing up for social work by bringing the profession together to support each other through hard times
Comment: The profession needs to play the hand it has been dealt while confronting the government’s lack of consultation on key changes
‘…………..By Matt Bee
Matt Bee says it is councils’ failure to value their staff that is leading social workers like him to leave local authority practice
Well this is embarrassing…It turns out the feature I was about to write, examining the deluge of social workers fleeing local authorities for the welcoming arms of recruitment agencies, has already been written. Social Work Outlaw beat me to it last June, right here in Community Care. It’s the writing equivalent of turning up to a cocktail party to find someone else wearing the same dress.
It’s a good feature by Social Work Outlaw as well. Heartfelt, frank, sincere. He or she asks why so many long-serving practitioners are deserting their employers, putting this down, at least in part, to the ‘shabby and abhorrent’ way employers treat them. I couldn’t agree more.
But I want to write this piece anyway because, you see, I am one of those practitioners. I’ve just left a local authority and hope to work for an agency. I concur completely with what Social Work Outlaw writes.
What’s surprising is that local authorities themselves haven’t cottoned onto this yet. As they watch the workforce diminish, they’re scrabbling around for ever more desperate measures to win them back. The London Borough of Barking and Dagenham will offer you housing. Somerset will do the same. The Thurrock Gazette reported recently that its local children’s department is giving would-be social workers an open top bus tour in the hope it might convince them to sign on the dotted line.
That’s all very good and well but I don’t suppose many practitioners are throwing in the towel and causing these recruitment headaches in the first place because they haven’t been given a tour of the city recently.
Bullying, aggressive, neglectful
The reality is much simpler than that and, at the same time, much harder for local authorities to stomach. The fact is – and brace yourselves if you work in HR at one of these venerable institutions – we don’t like working for you. Not even a little bit. You’ve become bullying, aggressive, neglectful, overbearing, pernickety, insensitive and overly sensitive as employers and, if we’re honest, we’d much rather leave you behind in our wake.
I realise at this point I can’t speak for all social workers. I can point you to a survey published last October which found that 6 in 10 social workers wouldn’t recommend their employer to a fellow practitioner. I can cite another survey, this time from 2009 and published in the Guardian, which found that although the vast majority of social workers were happy in their profession, over a third still planned to leave their employer within the forthcoming year.
That only demonstrates a general dissatisfaction with our workplaces, though, it doesn’t say what that dissatisfaction is about.
On the other hand, I have just spent five years working for a local authority, and worked for three others before that as well as for several agencies in between. So I can speak for myself here and maybe this will chime with your own experience, maybe not. In any event, I’ve no desire to work for a local authority again.
‘I didn’t feel valued’
And the reason is very simple. I didn’t feel valued.
At this point people usually start bringing money into it, but I was happy with my wage. No problems there. And even though there’s a big financial incentive to join an agency, this isn’t what pulled me across. The fact is I wasn’t pulled across at all. I was pushed.
My last employer and I had a very imbalanced working relationship. When it came to wielding control they held all the cards and behaved exactly like they knew it, drenching my workplace in rules, regulations, policies and procedures, and sharply questioning anyone who strayed from or dared query them. A practitioner’s own professional judgement was out; managerial directives in.
I know this is a trend seen throughout the profession – just read Social Work Outlaw’s account to see what I mean. But it felt like my employment contract was nothing more than a big stick with which to spur me on – my salary, holiday leave, sick pay, and pension were all in their hands. All I had was my notice, and they soon got that as well when their high-handed ways became too much to bear.
Escaping compliance and control
It bought me my freedom, a chance to escape that world of compliance and control. Signing with an agency will plunge me right back into it again, of course. But it’s different when you aren’t on the council’s own books. You feel more like an outsider, a spectator. When other team members wonder aloud why they work there and say they feel trapped, the truth is you don’t. You can always go elsewhere – thanks to the agency.
The mistake councils make is to think this is all about money. It’s not. It’s actually about control, and taking some of it back.
Matt Bee is a social worker based in the North East of England …………..’
‘……………By Joan Beck
Joan Beck, joint chair of the ADASS workforce network, says government should focus on resourcing social work instead of changing training
There is no pure children and families or adults social work.
Older people and people with disabilities live in families. They have children and grandchildren. Grandparents (and great grandparents) are increasingly the carers of younger children. Carers of people with disability and older people can be as young as four or five years old.
Children’s social workers work with adults (parents) to encourage positive change. They also work with perpetrators of abuse who are adults.
The mental health of the people involved in children’s safeguarding referrals is frequently a factor in their ability to parent/care for either the child or other loved one, as is the presence of domestic violence.
Easy access to post qualifying training
The current training of social workers provides students with a generalist base which is followed by the Assessed and Supported Year in Employment (ASYE). It is not meant to prepare students for every eventuality, any more than any of the training that happens in the NHS is able to.
Instead, social workers should have easy access to post qualifying training as do nurses (most of whom now do masters’ degrees) so they can specialise in their chosen subject.
Indeed, the approved mental health worker training and the proposed training for best interest assessors is a good model of this. Specialisms in dementia, safeguarding and palliative care could all be treated in the same way.
Resources are needed, not more change
Failures to protect children or vulnerable people are rarely down to the action of one professional – but of the system surrounding that person.
Rather than changing social work education and training, yet again, the government should see what happens if they give social workers in both children’s and adults services the time and resources to do their job (the job they have been trained to do) properly.
This means time to build a trusting relationship, time to work for positive change in people’s lives, time to intervene appropriately and at the right moment, before the crisis occurs.
This means resources to combat loneliness and the feelings of being overwhelmed by the problems life is throwing at clients. Resources like computer systems designed to enable the work and that social workers can see the benefit of using.
Generic skills are key
To separate the training of social workers ignores the broader aspects of safeguarding and the responsibility of everyone involved in that.
Who better than social workers to understand that the way we recruit and train staff; the way the receptionist talks to someone seeking help; the speed of the response to a broken window is all part of safeguarding.
Social work is about working in a team and understanding how to get other professions to work constructively in the best interests of their client.
Social work is about understanding cultures and demographic change and working within it.
Social work is about enabling, encouraging, coaching, walking alongside. It’s about understanding the pressures of daily life for individuals and it’s about helping them to create positive change.
Social work is about trusting relationships and a genuine desire to help someone; it’s about caring. It can also be about using legal powers appropriately and being aware of others responsibilities within the team.
These are all generic skills.
We have to be able to rely on flexibility within the workforce with social workers being able to change their initial focus depending on where their career takes them.
Work in relation to transitions and all-age disability, for example, relies on generic social workers being able to cross imaginary boundaries.
Frankly, at a time when integration between health and social care is high on the agenda it is nonsense to dis-integrate social work training.
Joan Beck is the joint chair of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS) workforce network.
‘………In the last in a series of reflections on the state of children’s social work, Ray Jones turns to the current inspection and intervention regime
By Ray Jones, professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London
This is the last in a series of reflections on the state of children’s social work. This week, I am exploring an issue that is significantly distracting and disrupting children’s social work within local authorities
Over recent months, I have had close contact with three Ofsted inspections. I have also spoken to many others who have had inspections in the past year. They spread across councils rated by Ofsted as ‘good’, ‘requires improvement’ and ‘ inadequate’. I don’t have views from a council rated ‘outstanding’ as Ofsted have not awarded this rating to any council.
Distribution of judgements is skewed
Indeed the distribution of judgements has become skewed, with councils previously rated as ‘good’ now being squeezed into the ‘requirements improvement’ and ‘inadequate’ end of the continuum.
Where on this scale would we rate Ofsted itself? It has been stated to me that the regulator is ‘dangerous’ and one of the greatest risks to the welfare and safety of children across England. This comment is not directed at individual inspectors and their commitment but about how Ofsted’s single inspection framework, the SIF, now operates.
The Spanish Inquisition?
Why is Ofsted seen as so destructive and damaging? Firstly, inspections are experienced as belligerent, bullying, battering and bruising. Interviews feel like an intensive intrusion and interrogation, with the intention to identify weakness and failure.
I have reflected long and hard before making the next statement, but Ofsted now feels like the Spanish Inquisition: turning up with no notice, presuming poor practice and guilt – which must be hunted down, flushed out and admitted by the inspectees.
The process has been described as ‘a living nightmare’, leaving behind ‘a seething anger’. These are quotes from two different authorities, both rated by Ofsted as ‘good’!
Secondly, the blinkered focus on children’s social services in the local authority means that little attention is given to other services working with children and families. Bizarrely, in areas where inter-agency working is well developed, with an increasing maturity, confidence and well-founded trust across services, Ofsted have sometimes criticised the authority because concerns about children are not always allocated to a social worker for a single assessment and then held on a social worker’s caseload as a child in need.
The contribution of others, and the lead role they may play in overseeing and assisting children and their families, is denied and denigrated.
Risk aversion may be an insurance for Ofsted against future criticism if some terrible unanticipated event occurs (as happened with the death of Peter Connelly in Haringey whilst rated ‘good’ in 2007).
Overloading social workers’ caseloads does not improve protection – it widens the child protection net with little benefit for children and families
Nowhere is this now truer than child sexual exploitation. After the embarrassment for Ofsted of Rotherham (rated as ‘good’ until the media and political onslaught following the concerns about networked sexual exploitation and horrific abuse), inspectors seem to take the view that unless a young person is allocated to a social worker, there is little acceptable action in place to build trust and a relationship with them, and to collect information and intelligence to protect the young person and to track networks.
I see positive developments towards creating knowledge about young people who may be vulnerable and about others who might seek to exploit this vulnerability. In some areas, multi-agency and multi-professional practice and services have been developed and embedded within communities, involving police, youth workers, schools and others, with professionals proactive and engaged with taxi companies, hotels and fast-food outlets.
It looks impressive and inspiring to me, but to Ofsted inspectors with their restricted focus on children’s social work its value goes unrecognised. When challenged about their myopic view, one inspector is reported to have said “we are only interested in children’s social work”.
This is then reflected in inspection reports – they only have recommendations for local councils. Forty years of learning about ‘working together’ and multi-agency working in child protection has been abandoned by the national inspectorate.
Thirdly, Ofsted judgements feed into the Department for Education’s intervention judgements. If Ofsted rates a service as ‘inadequate’, the secretary of state will issue (in escalating order of threat): an improvement notice, an improvement direction, or a decision to remove the responsibility for children’s services from the council and from local accountability and scrutiny.
The most extreme actions to date have affected Labour controlled councils – Doncaster, Rotherham, Slough and Birmingham – but in my experience, poor political governance and leadership is not only an issue in Labour controlled councils.
Climate of threat and fear
The consequence of all of the above is that local authority children’s social services operate in a climate and culture of threat and fear. An Ofsted inspection is itself harassing. Inspection reports are front-loaded with criticisms and concerns, so that even in areas rated as ‘good’, media coverage is damning.
To be rated ‘requires improvement’ (what used to be termed ‘adequate’), is itself a demoralising judgement. And an ‘inadequate’ rating is destructive.
Confidence across all agencies is lost, thresholds become very low and triaging inoperative, the workforce implodes and becomes unstable, and there is a heavy dependence on agency workers.
Stability is lost and of knowledge of children, families, communities and partner professionals and agencies decreases. Workloads increase, become overwhelming, backlogs of assessments build up, cases are unallocated and corners are cut. It then takes at least 18 months to two years to regain stability and to rebuild confidence.
What happened to improvement and development?
It should not and does not have to be like this. It was not like this. I have held senior management and leadership roles in the sector over 25 years. I have experienced external review and inspection from the Department of Health’s Social Work Service (which became the Social Services Inspectorate – SSI; the Audit Commission and SSI major joint area reviews; the Mental Health Act Commission; the National Care Standards Inspectorate and the Commission of Social Care Inspection (CSCI). All were focused on improvement and development.
‘Hit and run’
The SSI and CSCI, in particular, stayed close to councils to track and promote change and progress, and were recognised as having expertise and wisdom. In its annual reports CSCI was seeing and assisting improvement across councils. By Ofsted’s own judgements and annual reports, children’s social services are deteriorating with its interventions and under its watch.
There are strengths not to be lost in Ofsted’s focus on the experiences of children (and families), the child’s journey, and front line practice. But Ofsted has become a hit-and-run inspectorate – creating crashes wherever it turns up, leaving a trail of trauma and turmoil, hastening to move on, and not looking back. It doesn’t recognise the practice chaos and professional carnage it leaves in its wake.
We needs the (re-)creation of an inspectorate for children’s services which would work with other inspectorates, including Ofsted for schools and colleges, CQC for health services, and HM Inspectorate of Constabulary. It should focus on improving, enhancing and developing rather than what is experienced as rubbishing and derailing. It is time to urgently stop the damage and destruction.
Dr Ray Jones is professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London. A social worker and former director of social services, for two days each week he oversees child protection improvement in areas rated as ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted.
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More from Community Care
An extract ‘
When I qualified from my master’s degree in social work with distinction last November, I would never have predicted that, after two years’ hard study, I would be cleaning in a residential children’s home.
I have always been a hands-on type of person, but I feel my skills and qualifications are not being put to good use. I feel frustrated as I know that I am more than capable of being a good social worker –doing a job I really love, and supporting children and families in crisis –particularly when I hear they’re in such short supply. …………………’
So much is being said or not said in this article. Yes it indicates that newly qualified social workers are having difficulties finding social work positions, even though social workers were leaving positions and therefore there was a demand for others to replace them. But the authorities were requesting social workers with at least 1 years operational experience to apply.
What was not said was why social workers were leaving, but this could be due to retirement and so not being available on the job market. Was it stress related and therefore they may wish to progress down a different job track. It could also be down to austerity cuts, but then this would limit the amount of vacancies available and could mean the authorities wishing to recruit could assume there was a large pool of experienced qualified social workers looking for new positions, thus this would be making it difficult for newly qualified social workers to apply.
But sooner or later the pool of experienced social workers will diminish, so the newly qualifield have to be given the opportunity to gain this experience. Then will the newly qualified still be there, for if it is seen that there are no prospects for newly qualified, this could mean many will not even consider this area to gain qualifications.
So then what would be done, would this be another area where will try to recruit from abroad, not only would they not have the expeience and if they had it would not be UK experience.
This, all in the long term, is only going to cause extreme problems, as can be seen from other occupations that have already been through these similar situations.
Now is the time to consider all options, not in the future.