Maggie Atkinson

An opportunity crossroads: The challenges facing the social care workforce

October 5, 2015

girl reading

On October 6th iMPOWER and Penna will host an event exploring the recruitment and retention of adults’ and children’s social workers.  The BT Conference Centre by St Paul’s will see us grapple with the difficulties services are facing in this crucial area.  For every comfort of a venue, there must be some headache inducing problem solving. The day will provide both.

The day will feature policy makers and commentators, consultants and colleagues from Penna.  It will give a platform to leading Directors representing ADCS and ADASS, whose members lead services through troubled (some might say stormy) waters. Demands constantly morph in ways professional training may not keep up with, or even recognise, until the moment arrives.  The media, politicians, and the public including some service users, struggle to understand the complexity of what is needed, at what levels, by whom and when.  Pressure to perform and to conform (not least to inspection expectations that may not reflect reality) assail those trying to do this job with the most vulnerable in society.

I am looking forward to being part of the problem solving, not least because a room full of people from such wide ranging perspectives should make valuable, trenchant contributions.  So here is my take as a former DCS who has stayed close to the system, and as the chair of the 2020 Children’s Workforce Strategy Group for the last Labour government.

Recruiting, retaining, recognising, valuing and rewarding social care workers, their leaders, managers and service shapers, has not become difficult overnight.  Sorting out the issues faced by this multi-faceted workforce will take time, honesty, generosity of spirit, the toppling of some boundaries and the deliberate abandonment of some cherished beliefs about who does what, especially for children and young people.

It remains my belief that we need to look afresh, and regularly, at what the future will require. We need to train all social workers to develop a mind-set – their own and influence others’ – based on adaptability, flexibility, partnership working.  These should become their default ways of working and not an afterthought or a ‘nice to have’. My career has been spent with children, young people and the many services they need. It has always struck me (and in straitened financial times it comes home still more forcibly) that too often and too easily we build structures that end up stopping the neediest and most vulnerable from getting what they need. We seem to conclude that we manage demand best by having professionals work more on thresholds and referrals rather than on partnerships or on reaching across boundaries to focus on the child and the family and not just ‘the system’.

Children’s social workers, their leaders and managers, talk regularly in the profession’s media about the twin pressures of data gathering and entry, and the likelihood of being inspected, judged and graded. They know they are accountable; they expect and want to be. They know good data supports that accountability however too many feel the data tail has come to wag the practice dog, leading them short of time to do professional work with children and families. They are concerned that all their work might be judged against the small elements that Ofsted actually inspects.

Equally they lament the fact that those in other professions, working with the same child – school or college, youth or health professionals – do not inhabit a shared space with them, or provide a seamless offer to keep that child safe at home and in the community.  Social workers know the work they do can be difficult, even dangerous, and that it relies on sophisticated analysis and assessment of risks to themselves and the client.  They know they stand on contested ground: championing the child whilst serving a statutory system.  They know they need strong, readily available supervision. They know from the start the job will be stressful as well as rewarding, and they strive to balance the two. But need, demand and case by case complexity all continue to rise while resources for prevention continue to shrink. For many (even the most experienced) the stretch across a divide between need and meeting it is a stretch too far.  The responsibility on their shoulders is immense, the rewards for success are not, and the possible castigation for mistakes is immeasurable.

What to do?

I continue to believe that “send for a social worker, for truly only they can keep this child safe,” and the resultant cry “you can never get one when you need one,” beg two questions:  “Why do you – and the system at large – think you need one?” And “What have you done, in your own practice, to ensure you don’t need one, but somebody else instead?”

These are questions at the heart of the early intervention and prevention thinking we are all continually encouraged to do. It features in reports from Munro to Laming and back again, and is voiced by organisations across the voluntary and statutory sectors.  It features in work the iMPOWER does to question and advise Local Authorities and health bodies.

My challenge to the children’s services world rest on the following notions. My current work crystallises them all afresh.

  • Safeguarding is in fact everybody’s responsibility. It is not something to be passed like a parcel;
  • Social work is a highly trained, highly specialist profession, not a “first-or-always-call” service;
  • Localities need critically to examine who turns up at their service front door, and how to stop any headlong rushes to the escalator that lands at the top with a statutory assessment of a child who, had we intervened differently earlier, might have come nowhere near;
  • Analysis needs to examine who’s in care, and what should have been done to prevent that;
  • Social workers need deliberately, determinedly, to reach across the divides between themselves and other services;
  • Other services need to understand what is and is not social work’s domain; what is their responsibility and not somebody else’s if by “somebody else” they mean somebody further up the escalator;
  • Everybody needs to examine the language they use, and the understanding arising in their own worlds and those inhabited by others. So:
    • Let’s call a child a child rather than a “pupil/case/client/patient”
    • When is “a threshold” really rationing, and what are its justifications if it is not? And what helps others to understand?
    • When should everybody’s efforts be applied to keeping a child off social work’s books and on those of other services, closer to that front door, or even the other side of it, in the community?
    • For the others: when is “a referral” really a means of getting a problem off your own hands so the child is no longer your concern?

These, and the others we might ask, are not easy questions to answer. They can cause anxiety, in closed spaces they can lead to argument rather than debate, and a hardening rather than a softening of barriers and boundaries. But we are at an opportunity crossroads and the choice of direction we make, the redesign and reshaping that will follow, are surely crucial.

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