The government has recently restated its intention to press ahead with reforms which may result in Social Workers being jailed for up to five years for the criminal charge of wilful neglect. At a recent NSPCC conference Karen Bradley, minister for preventing abuse and exploitation, said that too many children were being failed by Social Workers who lack ‘the professional curiosity to explore the underlying reasons for challenging behaviour, or who knew abuse was being ignored and did not speak out’. This is the latest in a long line of policy reforms which have contributed to the emergence of a dominant discourse which lays the blame for failing to protect children’s welfare squarely at the door of individual Social Workers and pays little or no attention to the circumstances in which they are expected to practice. The recent announcement of the impending closure of The College of Social Work only three years since its launch in 2012 is further indication of a profession which is clearly under fire. As an ex-social worker I am seriously worried about these developments and the impact they may have on a beleaguered workforce and the children & families with whom they work.
It is undoubtedly the case that the now established pattern of intense focus and media attention on high profile public inquiries into child death has come to define subsequent government policy responses which as Butler and Drakeford (2005) observe has seen the public inquiry process becoming increasingly controlled and managed by government ministers. This is a pattern which is evident from the first widely publicised inquiry into the death of Maria Colwell in 1974 to the inquiry into death of Victoria Climbie in 2003 and continues as seen in the cases of Peter Connolly and the recent scandal in Rotherham. All of which have resulted in an apparent expedient response by the government intended to represent its level of concern and determination to tackle the problem, which has almost exclusively focused on social work failure.
This dynamic has emerged in the context of reforms to the social work profession which have seen a significant narrowing of focus affected by politically driven agendas. In particular the election of the Conservative government of 1979 and its focus on reductions in taxation and welfare spending alongside an emphasis on individual responsibility and limited interference in family life resulted in an approach which largely restricted social work practice to child protection interventions. Following the introduction of the Children Act 1989 it was reported in the Messages from Research report (DoH 1995) that too many children were receiving a service only as a consequence of a child protection investigation and that opportunities to engage in preventative support work were being missed. This dynamic was further illuminated in the follow up report of 2001 which also concluded that resources were focused on ‘high risk’ families at the expense of promoting the welfare of a broader range of family support services (DoH, 2001). Reduced funding meant that Social Workers were increasingly expected to practice in stressful circumstances where risks to children’s welfare and tensions with carers were high.
Recent reforms of Social Work practice have sought to address increasing levels of concern around the capacity or capability of social workers to adequately safeguard the welfare of children but have undeniably focused their attention on the formation of high quality social workers. This was clearly evidenced in the Social Work Task Force report ‘Building a safe, confident future’ of 2009 which made fifteen recommendations most of which referred directly to the recruitment, training and regulation of social work practice. There was some acknowledgment of the broader issues facing social workers with recommendations around providing an assessed year in practice (with protected caseload), action on public understanding (to improve the public perception of social work) and the establishment of a National College of Social Work (to provide strong independent leadership). However, the follow-up ‘Building a safe, confident future: One year on’ (SWTF, 2010) clearly indicated in its progress report the focus of these reforms around improving professional standards and education for social workers. Even the introduction of the assessed and supported year in employment launched in September 2012 which appeared initially to be an attempt to acknowledge impossible caseloads was in effect a post qualifying professional capacities tool. The vague reference to caseload protection afforded newly qualified social workers 5% case load relief but was discretionary and subject to local management approval. Of course we already know about the fate of The College of Social Work.
All of this has resulted in a profession which is routinely criticised for failing to protect the welfare of children, where social workers consistently complain about unmanageable caseloads and manager’s report that they don’t have enough suitably qualified staff to meet the needs of children (Ofsted 2012). Furthermore, the children who rely on social work support consistently report that the lack of social work time/support and subsequently poor relationships/not being listened too as contributing to their poor outcomes (McLeod 2007, Blades et al., 2011, Ofsted, 2012).
It is possible to become quite fatalistic about the future of Social Work in the UK but it is clear from examples in other countries that it doesn’t have to be this way. An examination of systems in Denmark, France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands by the Thomas Coram Research Unit discovered that tasks routinely expected of Social Workers in the UK are managed by a team of highly skilled professionals in other European Countries (Boddy & Statham, 2009). It is also clear that the ‘blame culture’ which exists in the UK leading to ‘witch hunts’ and the vilification of Social Workers does not happen in other European Countries where child death tragedies are considered to be a failing of society and not attributable to the actions of one individual social worker. Therefore, it is clear that properly resourced social work services operating in a context which acknowledges the challenges and difficulties around child welfare interventions and a shared responsibility for child tragedies could address some of the persistent problems around impossible caseloads, recruitment and retention of social workers. However, it appears that whilst we are consistently bombarded with the same enduring message about social work incompetence, governments can continue to avoid to adequately resource these services and further marginalise an already struggling profession.
Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood Education and Care, Newman University
Blades, R., Hart, D., Lea, J. and Willmott, N. (2011) Care – a stepping stone to custody: The views of children in care on the links between care, offending and custody. London: Prison Reform Trust.
Boddy, J. & Statham, J. (2009) European Perspectives on Social Work: Models of Education and Professional Roles. Available at: http://eprints.ioe.ac.uk/717/1/European_Social_Work_Briefing_Paper_final_version_
for_print.pdf (Accessed: 26 June 2015).
Butler, I. & Drakeford, M. (2005) Scandal, Social Policy and Welfare, Bristol: The Policy Press.
Department of Health (1995) Child Protection: Messages from Research, London: HMSO.
Department of Health (2001) The Children Act 1989 Now: Messages from Research, London: The Stationary Office.
Ofsted (2012) High expectations, high support, high challenge: Protecting children more efficiently through better support for front-line social work practice. Manchester: Ofsted.
McLeod, A. (2007) ‘Whose Agenda?’ Issues of power and relationships when listening to looked-after young people’, Child and Family Social Work, 12, p278-286.
Social Work Task Force (2009) Building a safe, confident future. Available at: http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20130401151715/https://www.education.gov.uk/
publications/eOrderingDownload/01114-2009DOM-EN.pdf (Accessed: 26 June 2015)
Social Work Reform Board (2010) Building a safe and confident future: One year on, Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/180787/DFE-00602-2010-1.pdf (Accessed: 26 June 2015)