On 30th of October, the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Social Work heard evidence from two frontline practitioners about the current state of social work. The APPG was launched earlier this year and was established following lobbying from the British Associate of Social Workers (BASW). The APPG is chaired by MP Ann Clwyd and vice chair MP Mike Wood. This was the first of three sessions examining the current state of social work across the UK and was chaired by MP Mike Wood.
Bridget Robb, Acting Chief Executive of BASW set the tone of the meeting by outlining some of the key findings of the recent BASW report on State of Social Work. The report, which was produced based on 1,100 responses from social workers across UK, notes how cuts are affecting frontline services with 88% of social workers stating that they believe “lives could be put at risk by cuts to services.”
Bridget Robb explained how the climate of cuts combined with some of the recent changes the profession has experienced have made it increasingly difficult for social workers to carry out their role and to adhere to social work’s fundamental values and its mission of contributing to greater social justice.
Two frontline social workers (the first witness, “Frank” (not his real name), a senior social worker with 23 years experience in family and children’s social work, and the second witness, Janet, a social worker working in a therapeutic setting) gave evidence at the meeting highlighting the extreme conditions under which social workers operate.
System driven maze of Social Work
Frank noted that social workers need to be accountable and transparent practitioners. However, explained that the current ICS system is more of a tool for managerialism then actual social work. Frank criticised ICS claiming that the focus was on inputting of data and jumping through hoops as opposed to building up a meaningful picture of a family and child’s lived experience. Frank likened the process to a computer game: “A lot of social workers feel social work is like a computer game – you have to complete stage one to move to stage two – you feel as though you are following a computer rather than using your own discretion.”
He also noted how the system repetitively asked the same questions and/or information in different ways, and emphasised that the system created a focus on the completion of paperwork rather than the quality of the reports: “Although you complete the paperwork it does not necessarily mean that your assessment is good”. Social workers feel they are held hostage by the computer system, and it is the computer system that often drives the social work instead of the other way around.
Although Frank spoke in a personal capacity (not representing his employer) he wanted the group to know that his experiences were not isolated incidents: “Any social worker sitting her today will tell you the same thing.” Indeed, Frank’s narrative and concerns are not new to anyone familiar with social work. Frank provided an outline of his concerns around child protection services, social work interventions, referrals and management of new referrals, restructuring and its’ effect on staff and organisational culture, unmanageable caseloads, and lack of resources.
Losing a generation of social workers
Frank also expressed concern for newly qualified social workers dealing with complex cases and noted a shift in the case complexity accompanied by a lack of understanding that some parts of the media and society demonstrate towards the ever evolving and deeply complex nature of social work. He stated that increased complexity of situations meant that social workers needed more time to build effective relationships with children and young people and to establish trust and facilitate an environment whereby the child or young person feels safe to disclose the abuse or a particular family dynamic that may be harmful to the them. Such trust is essential in order to provide the appropriate support for children and their families. Frank also reminded everyone that some parts of the media and society forget how complex social work is.
Dangerous time for social work
Janet, the second witness, raised concerns around newly qualified social workers not receiving enough practical advice and support during their degree programmes and that “more than books” were needed “to help students understand the complexity of social work”.
Janet echoed Frank’s concerns that as a consequence of the cuts, many social work organisations are going through reorganisation and that such reorganisations can represent dangerous times due to a climate of uncertainty accompanied by reduction of resources and services. She also expressed concerns that we may be losing a generation of newly qualified social workers who come into the profession and are shocked and disappointed by social work.
She spoke about the importance of sharing practice wisdom and experience with newly qualified social workers, saying “you can’t just learn it through books.” She added that newly qualified social workers should be accompanied in their home visits.
Doing Social Work in between the cracks
Indeed, if we want good social work then we must invest in social workers’ education as well as personal and professional development and to ensure that they are supported and guided in their journey.
The points raised by both witnesses highlighted cultural, structural and systemic problems within social work. It reminded me of what Frank said earlier in the session: “… people do social work in between the cracks, they do social work in spite of the system rather than through it.”
Indeed, social work is like the flower that tries to grow in between the cracks of a concrete pavement. It is beautiful and embellishes the concrete yet it stands isolated and unsupported. The flower is constrained by the rough and hard “concrete” of politics and procedural rigidity and remains vulnerable to the stumping fancy of political exigencies.
Yet, without knowing whether there will be enough rain or when the next wind of scapegoatism will break its stem, the flower stands committed to a more humane society. And everyone who takes a moment to come and know the flower can’t help but marvel at its singular beauty and its’ solitary and unappreciated dedication.
By: Claudia Megele (@ClaudiaMegele).