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My 10-point plan for better social work by Sophie Ayers

Posted on 18/10/2016 by


Social workers would love the opportunity to offer their ideas for sector reforms, from increased emotional support to more accountability

By Sophie Ayers

In a recent blog, a social worker argued that we, as a profession, need to discuss solutions rather than just gripe about our problems. I’m not sure it’s fair to say we only complain – and our voices are rarely heard in the media or in government anyway. But since you’re asking, here’s my own list of proposed solutions for better social work:

Reinstate additional support

Workers without a social work qualification could assist with the increasing demands of casework. At the start of my career, it was common to have two social work assistants within any social work team. Now these posts have generally become extinct. But tasks such as completing minutes, driving service users to appointments and labelling envelopes could be completed by individuals without a social work qualification, freeing up time for more meaningful service user contact.

Let senior staff have a hand in daily practice

Senior management (including directors) should be working on at least one case at all times, so they fully understand the system they are accountable for.

If managers were able to directly experience the IT system, the duplication of work and the admin tasks expected of social workers, I suspect progress could be made immediately. It is likely that this direct experience would challenge, and surprise, those at the top.

Allow whistleblowing without fear

Social work reform groups express concerns about the consequences of whistleblowing. There is a real fear that if social workers articulate concerns to management or external sources there will be severe consequences.

This concern is intrinsically linked to Ofsted inspections. I have seen the amount of pressure applied by senior managers to toe the line at inspections: there is an excessive amount of communication to staff dictating exactly what should be conveyed and said. Instead, there should be an opportunity for Ofsted to meet frontline social workers as part of a confidential feedback session.

Make an effort to retain experienced staff

It’s important to retain experienced staff, rather than allowing them to burn out and constantly replenishing the workforce.

But I am concerned by the recommendations to solve this put forward by the chief social worker for children, Isabelle Trowler, in the government’s recent social work reform report. She suggests local authorities with good retention rates share their experiences. This is a simplistic resolution and does not address endemic and abusive working practices in the field.

Uphold workers’ rights

In the social work reform report and in previous guidance there are clear expectations identified regarding an employer’s responsibility to social workers. But the compulsion for local authorities to abide by these conditions is flimsy and isn’t explicit in employment law.

But there must be a clear process where employees can report unjust working practices. Any guidance set out by the government is needs to be legally binding and enforceable.

Provide emotional support

Social workers face challenging and bewildering experiences every day and supervision alone is sometimes not enough to cope with the severe emotional and physical events that are part of the job.

More creative thinking must be applied to improving the emotional health of the workforce. I suggest that immediate access to counselling or therapy following particularly disturbing events should always be available. There must be no shame in acknowledging the impact of the harrowing work we experience.

Remember the bigger picture

A culture must be developed in which individual social workers are not blamed for systemic failings. In some disciplinary processes, there is often little regard for the working environment of individual social workers.

If social workers don’t adhere to statutory guidelines, of course accountability for that must be brought.However, if a social worker is unable to meet rigid timescales due to their overwhelming workload, senior managers must accept responsibility.

Counter bad press with the truth

When unfair media reports are made of social work, I believe the government has a moral duty to investigate and respond with a more accurate analysis and portrayal of the decisions made.

While the social work reform report recognises that negative media portrayal must be challenged, it doesn’t say how. Rather than politicians jumping upon the “social work battering train” perhaps they could present a more objective view of this complicated area of work.

Be honest about the workload

Business consultants could be a useful here. Let’s start understanding the actual amount of time it takes to complete specific pieces of work. Arbitrary numbers relating to caseloads are not acceptable and don’t reflect the intensity of some situations.

Let consultants evaluate social work, speaking to workers to help provide an objective answer about the number of hours required for each piece of work. This could lead to a caseload management system that accurately reflects the modern social work world.

Listen to us

The government and local authority managers must “actively listen” – seeking views is not enough. Please let’s change the culture of viewing social workers as idealistic moaners and recognise that this academically able and multi-talented group of professionals can help transform and guide future reforms.

The government must understand the monumental and emotionally charged role we deliver, start talking to the frontline workers and start to listen to the abundant surveys, research, literature and anecdotal evidence available to shape a more successful future.



Source: The Guardian