This morning I read a post by Mark Neary (whose blog I highly recommend) which highlights the hypocrisy and inaccessibility of the language of social care. I am used to jargon. I have been working in health and social care since 1993 so a lot of the language comes easy to me and I can almost forget what is jargon and what is usable by ‘normal’ people. It is posts like Marks that remind me of where our sector has lost its humanity. When we talk about ‘accessing the community’ rather than being a part of it as a part of a personal budget, we seem to have lost the idea of what community actually is.
Mark’s post got me thinking about how my life would be in the care and support plans I used to write so I’m going to imagine and put myself in that situation and see what my care plan would say. It’s not quite going to be ‘me me’. It’s going to be the me who, in 30/40 years time is living with a dementia which has affected my cognition. I’m in my 80s. I’m living alone and have no children. I’m a bit of a loner because I always have been and don’t have many friends living nearby.
Because someone in an office decides I may not be able to make decisions about what care I need, those decisions are made for me. I have a personal budget, of course, because everyone does. It isn’t a snazzy flexible one because I get confused by money and finances and am not sure I’d be able to make decisions about money management. I get my £5 and my £50 mixed up and that’s got me into all sorts of trouble at the local supermarkets. Sometimes some of the local lads offer to clear my garden. I give them £100 for an hour’s work because it seems fair to me and they are such nice lads. They always smile and they come every week. So my ‘personal budget’ is managed by the local authority.
Between 7.30am – 8am I have a carer to come and give me a shower or strip wash. The carer often doesn’t turn up until past 8.30am. I’ve always been an early riser so sometimes I try and get up and dressed within her help. I don’t like waiting till 8.30am when I’ve been up since 5am. I can’t manage the shower though and she thinks it’s a shame to change me after I’m already dressed. “Carer to help with shower or strip wash”. Sometimes I’d like a bath. There isn’t enough money for that. That’s a shame. I last had a bath four years ago. I remember it sometimes.
I sit in the lounge. The carer sometimes puts the television on before she leaves. I don’t pay much attention to it. Because I’m over 65 now, I don’t get any ‘day opportunities’. The day centres have closed and I don’t have any family to visit. I sit and watch TV. It’s ok. I don’t want enforced company so I’m not so lonely. I miss going out to the shops though. Accessing the community? That would take too long and cost too much so I just have a carer come once every fortnight to do my shopping. I write out my shopping list in advance. Mostly it’s the same from week to week. I don’t do spontaneity anymore.
The carer comes at 12pm to make my lunch. Lunch is a tuna sandwich. Lunch is always a sandwich because there isn’t time to cook. It’s always tuna because I once mentioned I liked tuna 2 years ago. Now I have tuna sandwiches every day.
“carer to prepare light lunch and cup of tea. Clean up afterwards”. Sometimes I miss coffee.
It’s Thursday which is shopping day. Shopping day is only once a fortnight. So shopping is lots of instant meals which don’t need to be prepared. I wish I could go out sometimes and potter around in the supermarket. But that would take too long. You see, my allocated hour wouldn’t be enough because I’m a bit slower on my feet. It’s tins of spaghetti hoops. Bread for the freezer. Milk for the freezer. Chocolate hobnobs. Some cheese. Lots of tuna. I like all these things but sometimes I miss sushi. “fortnightly local shop. Collect list. Leave change”.
It’s nice when it’s shopping day because it means something different happens. Mostly I just sit and watch TV. That’s my meaningful activity. I have a personal budget. Look how well self-directed support works for people like me. What do you mean it’s no different? This is innovation. I know how much my care package costs now. That’s changed my world.
I can’t wait until dinner. At 5.30pm my carer comes and makes me something ‘light’. But this time it’s a hot meal. Spaghetti hoops on toast. I like that. Sometimes I put some cheese on the top but have to be careful with the toaster. I can’t manage it on my own. At least I get another cup of tea and help to the toilet. Sometimes I miss coffee.
“5.30pm – 6.15pm Prepare dinner – leave with cup of tea. Help to toilet if necessary”.
After dinner I watch TV for a while. Usually I fall asleep.
The carer wakes me up when she comes at 9pm to assist me to bed.
So that’s what the day looks like. I get up later at the weekend. That’s nice. But I like getting up early.
Now coming back to my present self, I wonder how my own care plan would look in the language of, as Mark calls it, ‘Carespeak’.
So snapping out of reality, this is my current ‘care plan’. I wake at about 5.30am and interact constructively with other household members, which is problematic to those who don’t want to be awake at 5.30am. This is evidence of my self-centred nature and need to mind my anti-social behaviours around waking early. Sometimes I don’t have breakfast. This presents a risk to my nutrition and hydration. Occasionally I might eat an unhealthy breakfast, like a croissant. This is high in fat and could lead to unhealthy habits and putting on weight which could affect my health.
I have a shower and this means that my needs related to hygiene are met. I ensure that I wear clean clothes which are appropriate to the season. Although sometimes I judge poorly before leaving the house and this means that I may not be protected from the risk of inclement weather. I don’t own an umbrella. This is a risk as it often rains in London. I am able to meet my personal care needs.
I go to work. Now, I’m accessing the community and engaging in a meaningful activity because I have economic worth. Although sometimes it isn’t meaningful. Sometimes it’s sitting in front of a screen staring at spreadsheets. It has economic value and therefore it is meaningful. Daytime activities, I have them, you see. All is good.
I might go out after work. This means I am socially active. I am engaging with my informal support network i.e people who are not paid to be with me. I can tick off my ‘social network’ tab on my care plan. I have friends.
When I get home, I should really clean the house a bit. But I sit on the sofa and fall asleep in front of the TV. This is a risk. This means that I have not been able to meet my domestic care needs. The washing up is in the sink. I am, therefore, in a house, where there is a concern that I am not managing domestic care sufficiently. This worries those people who write care plans. All is not well.
I go to bed at a reasonable time. I don’t have any problems with sleeping and am not worried or concerned by my lack of sleep. All is well.
So why is it worth considering? These two care plans say different things but in the same way. We can look at aspirational documentation and what we should strive for. I always want to strive for better. But those who are striving, don’t forget the people like me or the future me. Don’t get carried away with the language that can actually mean less than it should. A personal budget does not mean choice. Choice does not mean choice as often as not. If we want to solve problems, we have to know the problems and how they would affect us.
It’s worth considering how are lives are and how they would be in the context of ‘care planning’. Would we plan care for others, the way we would want it planned ourselves? And if not, why not? Food for thought.
I attended an event recently for newly qualified and student social workers. There were a number of speakers of which I was privileged to be one. Although it wasn’t a part of my ‘talk’, some of those speaking began by talking about how long they’d been in ‘social work’ and how they had managed to ‘stay fresh’ and counter burnout. It’s something I have appreciated more since I moved out of my social work job and moved into less intense, less stressful role. I don’t think I ‘burnt out’ but I do think I left at the right time. Things had been getting increasingly stressful at work due to the cuts and the increased workloads and a couple of incidents in the lead up to my applying for other roles made me realise it was probably a good time to take a step back.
While I can’t make the claims that some at the event did of having 20/30 years in social work ‘frontline’ practice and remaining fresh, I think there were a number of things that helped me in the 12 years that I did. I probably wasn’t helped by my having had a particularly difficult last few months at university. I sailed through the exams and modules but struggled with (and eventually failed) my MA dissertation. That meant I qualified with a PGDipSW rather than an MA in Social Work and although it made absolutely no difference to my career in the sense that I could work as a qualified social worker, it did give my ego quite a knock. In retrospect, although I’d never have said it at the time, it set off a chain of events which actually made me far more competent and able to deal with challenges, it made me realise I could fail and yet, succeed at the same time. It made me realise that intellectual achievement isn’t defined by qualifications or what particular tutors think. I did go back and retake the dissertation eventually (actually it was 5 years later) so I do have my Masters now, but at the point that I failed my dissertation, I had never failed any academic test which had been thrown in my direction, indeed, I’d pretty much sailed through without much effort.
On qualifying, I went into a fast paced adult social work team in inner city London. I thrived and was both excited and terrified as my caseload went from the six I had on placement to around an average of 45. I’ve written about these experiences previously so won’t go into details. The things that got me through weren’t so much the management because, as I’ve realised since, my first manager was the least competent manager I’ve had through my professional career. It was my colleagues. I was extremely lucky to work in a team with very experienced, very kind practitioners who were patient with me as a newly qualified, agency social work – earning more than many of them, but they helped and guided me without anything but generosity and kindness in the absence of structured managerial support, in fact, sometimes in the context of an organisation where there was bullying from ‘above’.
I won’t list all my professional experiences and teams but it did get better. I had moments, not in my first or second year of practice, but in my third, fourth, fifth year when I wondered how long I’d last. When I first qualified, I didn’t have time to stop and think – it was doing and learning, doing and learning without any space to grow. By the time I settled into a good team, with a firm but fair manager who had a strong ethical focus, I looked around me and wondered if I would ever be as ‘good’ at my job as the person who sat next to me. The key that got me ‘on track’ was taking the old PQ1. I don’t think PQ1s exist anymore – this makes me feel old – but it was the first stage in the post-qualifying process. This was before (this is where I really DO feel old!) the NQSW/AYSE-type schemes. We were expected to practise on the ‘front-line’ and then think about post-qualifying practice awards. So it was I started the PQ1 in Social Work Practice at Brunel University which was a part of a London consortium. At that time, as well, it was a generic first step. I did the PQ1 alongside social workers in children and families and mental health. We had slightly different tinges to our work as I’m sure can be imagined, but we came together to share our learning.
The PQ1 gave me an absolutely amazing mentor, who was a very experienced social work manager in the same borough as me, but in a different team. She was someone I wanted to be like. I wanted to know as much as her and exude as much kindness, thoughtfulness, generosity and competence as she did. Most importantly though, I learnt what ‘reflection’ really was about. Of course, like any social work student, I’d studied, learnt and thought I understood ‘reflection’ when I was at university. I’d studiously completed reflective diaries and written reams of essays about reflection through my course – but it was at the post-qualifying stage, when I’d worked for a few years and held a fairly hefty caseload, that I grew to understand reflection far better. I have no doubt whatsoever that the PQ1 saved my career and saved me from burnout. Having a mentor who ‘got’ it and helped me create time and strategies to ‘remain fresh’ saved me.
It was this reflection process through the PQ1 and the encouragement of my mentor, that pushed me back to university to retake my failed MA dissertation. It also pushed me to apply for a different job and that, in turn, led me into the move to Mental Health services – so it really did change my life.
‘Getting’ reflection saved me and helped me to grow. The other part of that came a few years later when I started to write this blog. This writing process, and I did ‘force’ myself to write daily over a number of years – gave me the space to consider how my work fit into a wider health and social care system. It gave me a voice that even though inconsequential on the larger scale of things, meant I didn’t take my frustrations with work, into work. It pushed me into directions I had not considered, for example, a desire to learn more about current research and policy documents. It meant I read far more about health and social care and understood my part in it. I became more active and more vocal at work in areas and became involved in BASW and later, the College of Social Work as a result, realising that influence doesn’t always necessarily need to link itself to management or leadership.
So what would I advise to a newly qualified social worker to avoid burnout? Well, it wouldn’t be the newly qualified social worker I’d be most worried about for a start. It would be the social worker 2/3/4 years into their career where I think the difference can be made. While I don’t think I’m necessarily in a position to ‘advise’, I would say, rather, what worked for me.
- Asking for help. I didn’t ‘ask’ for my mentor to turn up. She was ‘assigned’ to me but she was one of the key people who had a significant influence on my career and my life. I have never told her that. We can’t always have that handed on a plate though and hopefully there are different sources for mentorship other than people turning up at your desk saying ‘I’m here to help you’. Maybe it’s something that experienced practitioners have a responsibility for. I am no longer a practice educator, but I was, and I miss having students but I think having an oversight or interest in the careers of ‘younger’ (not through age but through work experience) professionals is something we can all do.
- However well you think you ‘get’ reflection, you can always ‘get it’ better. I’m learning massive amounts about how to develop skills to reflect on my practice and the effect that I have on other people’s lives. I had some skills which started to grow at university and through various experiences of supervision but different environments and different experiences need new skills to learn and grow all the time. I’m absolutely convinced that it is reflection that leads to good and caring practice so we need to create space and learn from ourselves in different ways. Sometimes we don’t have mentors. Sometimes we work alone. Sometimes we don’t get the supervision we should. Sometimes we don’t have environments which allow us space. So we create this for ourselves, in our own way, often in our own time to learn. It might be writing things down, it might be unpicking things internally, but it is necessary to all aspects of work with other people that affects their lives.
- Being interested in broader issues. I got involved in BASW and when BASW imploded in pique of rage, I got involved in the College of Social Work. I was and am just a ‘lowly’ social worker without any managerial responsibilities but I decided that didn’t mean I didn’t have a useful perspective to bring to the table. Indeed, in some ways, it was more useful than all the managerial perspectives put together. I found that reading and trying to understand policy issues and papers as they were published meant I could relate some of my day to day work to broader social justice agenda goals – which it didn’t always feel like on a micro level.
- Support each other. I didn’t have much management support when I first started but was pulled along through my first year by colleagues. I hope, in turn, I’ve been supportive to those I’ve worked with over the years. Sometimes it’s hard to explain the work to anyone who doesn’t do it. While work/life balance is essential of course, sometimes you need to speak and share with other people who ‘get it’ and can support from a non-managerial viewpoint.
-Work/life balance Say it often. There need to be some boundaries between work and life. I know it’s not always easy, I’m not always great at it myself but doing things that are ‘not work’ really does help!
- Knowing when to go and when to return Although it may not be for me to judge, I don’t think I ‘burnt out’ but I could feel myself getting more frayed around the edges before I left my last job. I increasingly had begun to feel I wasn’t necessarily being a ‘good’ change in the lives of the people I worked with as my work became more about telling and less about asking. As I felt I was taking away more than I was giving. I never stopped caring, I don’t think, but I felt increasingly frustrated with the amount of change I could affect and my role in the system. I became more frustrated – not with my immediate managers – who were always incredibly supportive, but of the organisations I worked in and the lack of my voice within them. I think I left at the right time. Now, I miss my old job. I think, in the back of my mind, I hope to return to ‘frontline’ practice someway, in some capacity. When I do, I expect I’ll be enthusiastic and re-energised in a way that was very necessary.
So those are some of the things that helped me. I am in another job now but the same tools help me through. I try to take time to reflect and whilst I don’t write here as regularly, I have other ways to ponder and learn from the ways I affect people’s lives. It would be interesting to know other people’s tips for not burning out.. especially if you’ve been in the job for a few years.
A couple of ‘anniversaries’ have come up recently for me. It’s six years since I published my first post on this blog. It’s one year since I left my social work job. These milestones have caused me to reflect on the nature of the profession and the sector that I work in in a number of ways. I read my first post yesterday and it drew me back to why I started writing in the first place. I’d tried writing blogs before this one. I wrote a stupid little diary as an angst-ridden teen which was much more interesting when I looked back on it than while I was writing it. I made a conscious effort here though, to write about social work and social care.
Over the years, writing and publishing posts has helped me in ways I can’t begin to elucidate but I’m going to try. I’ve written about social work and social media many many times but in looking back over the six years and learning more as the conversations grow and develop, I’m going to indulge myself again and share some of the things I believe that writing here has changed and shaped my perception of the career I chose.
What I’ve learnt about social work by writing about it.
I never really ‘expected’ a career in social care when I started working in the sector. I didn’t know what I expected to be honest – possibly because I didn’t ‘expect’ very much. In all honesty, I was grateful to have a job that didn’t involve me having to work in a shop or an office. I was grateful that I could be paid to do something that I actually enjoyed doing. My expectations weren’t exactly stellar but I never really thought about ‘career’. That wasn’t for people like me. I’ve written a few times about how I moved from a support worker in residential care to a social work student and then a social worker. It wasn’t something I was planning or expecting but a happy coincidence. My first job after I qualified was busy and I constantly felt incompetent or that I should be doing something different or better – most of the times, I was probably right. My manager at that time ranks as one of the worst I’ve had. She was, quite frankly, a bully. I didn’t bear the brunt of it though. I kept my head down, did as I was told and relied a lot on the support from older and more experienced colleagues.
I went away, returned to social work and new legislation, procedures in a much better place. When I started writing this blog, I was finishing my ASW training. In the borough I worked in, we completed the training ‘full time’ with placements in other teams. I’d moved from adult social work into mental health social work for a few years and the ASW training was the logical next step. The service needed more ASWs. I wasn’t actually too keen. I remember a conversation I had with the service manager at the time when he told me that it would probably be the last opportunity I would get (I was on the last ASW training) before the rush of nurses and OTs and the shift towards AMHP training. Last chances. They can be quite a pull. I was struggling at work too for various reasons and to be brutally honest, welcomed the idea of taking some time out to do more training. I didn’t really think too much of the thought of what it would mean in the long run.
The course was the best I’ve ever done. Far surpassed my initial social work training in terms of quality of teaching, level of understanding, support and knowledge gained. I started writing here as my thoughts moved towards returning to work and a job I wasn’t sure I was even very good at. I’d had time out to study and I’d enjoyed it and I was worried about going back to the day to day ‘grind’ and becoming jaded. The ASW training lifted all the lingering inertia out of me. I wanted to do well. I wanted to learn. I was sad that the learning was coming to an end. So I started writing.
After the first few months, I forced myself to write something every day (giving myself weekends off). I wrote a post before work religiously for a number of years. Yes, the quality varies massively – but it forced me to find things of interest either in the news, from work or from my ‘outside work’ life to trigger. Some posts were longer than others, some more interesting than others. It was a good discipline, looking back and I don’t think I could return to it.
It taught me much more about the profession – I’d thought in terms of myself as a ‘adult social worker’ or a ‘mental health social worker’ but I hadn’t really thought about ‘social work’ per se because the work and the culture in childrens services, as I saw it, was so very different.
Then people seemed to be interested in what I was writing and I saw it was an opportunity to ‘sell’ social work. I explored for myself what being a social worker meant to me. I’ve been through the tunnel and out the other side with it to be honest. I’ve had, as we all do, those good and bad days. By writing I was able to share some of that. I was able to better reflect on what I was doing on a day to day basis and how it fit back in the profession as a whole more than my own little part of it.
As I wrote, I learnt how proud I was to be a social worker. That was something quite new for me. We joked about it but I didn’t realise, until I was writing for an ‘external’ audience, how important it was to me to represent the good work that is being done, by good people – often unnoticed – in the sector.
The blog also gave me a voice. I’ve made an issue of the fact that I’ve never been a manager. I was able to tell people who would never otherwise have listened, what it was like to work in the field and to have changes happening around you when there was no thought or consideration given to the experiences or voices from the ‘coal face’.
I was, and still am, amazed that people listened to me. Me. I’m not anything or anyone special. I don’t have any particular professional status. I haven’t written reams of peer-reviewed papers. But people seemed to read, listen and respond to me. That helped my confidence as an individual and as a practitioner enormously. So this blog and the other things I’ve written over the years, have given me confidence and have helped me to reflect on what it is to be a social worker, what it is to work in social care – and health services – and to realise that I could use my voice in different ways, even if I couldn’t always say things to my managers or in the Trust or local authority I worked in, someone, somewhere might listen and make things better in some ways.
I learnt a lot from blogs and comments from people who use social work and social care services particularly. I could never have the same interactions with people I worked with on a day to day basis because however pleasant and approachable I think I am, there is an undeniable power that I had in my statutory role. Reading about how people feel when they are detained under the Mental Health Act or have treatment forced on them, is an insight which – while hoping I was always sensitive – I could not get from other sources. Listening to how people felt when they experience crappy social workers or crappy carers or crappy systems, reinvigorated me to stop feeling so powerless in relation to the organisations which I worked in and realise the immense power I have in other people’s lives and to make sure I used it well. I may not be able to help those who have experienced the worst of statutory powers but my growing awareness of the impact would, I hope, help those who crossed my path.
Ultimately, and ironically, writing about social work, understanding its important and having more confidence in my own voice and opinions is what led to me having the confidence to leave it behind me. Isn’t life funny.
What I’ve learnt about social work since leaving it
I’ve written my ‘goodbye’ piece to my Trust and local authority so won’t go over that ground again. It’s been an interesting year as I’ve left behind a specific ‘social work’ job and moved into a job that doesn’t require a professional registration. In some ways, it’s solidified my determination to identify and pretend I’m still a ‘social worker’. It’s also though, allowed me to see the profession ‘from the outside’. When people meet me now, they don’t necessarily know what my professional background is so I have heard some interesting perceptions about social workers and can distance myself when I choose to.
A few weeks ago, I was at a meeting with various people from various places. When we drew to a close and had that brief chat before we headed off in our separate directions – we were talking about some of the difficult situations that had arisen. The person sitting opposite me said “You should try being a social worker”. In the skip of a heartbeat, I responded “I am… I mean, I was.. er.. I’m still registered”. Then I realised, coldly, that of course, no one in that room apart from me knew that. That was an odd feeling. I had, so long, identified as a social worker than having it not be either immediately obvious or relevant was another step away for me.
I get pangs of wanting to go back. Particularly, I miss some of the day to day work with people that I don’t get now. Then I try to remember what it was like, last summer, when the cuts bit hard and the stress levels were enormous. I’m happy where I am now, really I am but it’s not quite the same as sitting in someone’s front room – building a relationship with them and their family – and being ‘there’ to help see through some of the complications of ‘services’ to make things work out a bit better. Or meeting someone in hospital – or when you rock up to carry out an assessment and being able to follow it up through discharge to a better place. I have to admit i’ve occasionally glanced at social work jobs just to see if they tempt me back. I wouldn’t say ‘never’ but the longer I am away from the ‘coal face’ the harder, I think, it will be to go back. Maybe I’m kidding myself into thinking I will. I need to have that comfort blanket of believing that if I applied for my old job tomorrow, I’d be able to slot back into it.
I’ve learnt that social work is about so much more than local authority social work or social work within the NHS. I knew this, theoretically, of course – but now, as one of the ‘outsiders’ I see how important it is that social work doesn’t become pigeon-holed into only meeting statutory social work with a job title that includes ‘social worker’ in it.
I am using all the skills I gained through my training and my experience in my current job. Being a social worker, I believe, with my knowledge of assessment processes, experience, use of legislation and value base make me able to to what I do. Could someone without that do it as well? Yes, they can and they do – sometimes far better – but for me, it’s a good fit.
I now have a little distance from the profession which allows me to cast a more critical eye too. I was incredibly frustrated by the battles between BASW and the nascent College of Social Work back in the day. I see some kind of impasse has been reached now but I do wonder how sustainable it is to have two organisations – in a profession which has never particularly clung to representative organisations – battling for the same space.
With initiatives such as Frontline and the posts of the Chief Social Workers (who, it seems, have turned out to be mouthpieces for the govt – but I wait for them to prove otherwise to me) it has become really important for social workers to help define social work and not allow it to be defined for us by the Department of Health and the Department of Education. It isn’t only about child protection social work. It isn’t only about statutory social work. I am still as much of a social worker as I was last year, even though I don’t NEED to be a social worker for my post – perhaps I need to convince myself of that too but if we allow others to define the profession too narrowly, we will all lose out by it. In a world where I see the profession increasingly fragmenting, the real strength and voice can only come in unity. That’s what I’ve learnt.
In all, I remain incredibly proud to be a social worker. Although I was desperately sad to leave my last job and can’t help feeling tinges from time to time about whether I did the right thing, I can’t go back now. I have landed on my feet and the amount of learning I’ve done over the last year has been enormous. Mostly it’s about building on the skills, knowledge and values. You can’t be a social worker without all three of those. I’m still working on all of them and so very much locate myself within the profession. Will professional organisations, voices and representatives acknowledge that? I hope so.
Social work allowed me to create a ‘career’ when I never really thought I would have one. It’s allowed me to build confidence in myself so I can better represent and advocate others. It’s given me a great gift and I never expect to lose sight of that, forget the opportunities I have been given and stop fighting for the necessity of good social work. That’s done together though and we can build a better ‘social work’ with more voices.
That’s what I’ve learnt.
As I move on with both the writing and the career, I can’t help but feeling rather self-satisfied too. I am proud of what I have achieved so far but know there’s a long way to go. Pride isn’t particularly pretty but I’m hoping the confidence I’ve gained can be used to better represent, advocate and drive improvements for others as well as for me, rather than allow me to sit in a self-satisfied space and relax.
I read a lot about ‘leadership’. Tips on being a great leader. How to lead. Even, rather comically in my view, on the Frontline site, something about social work being a ‘leadership profession’. Most of the advice comes from other leaders – or people who claim to be leaders. I’m not a leader. I’ve not read or studied anything about ‘leadership’. I’ve not, and can’t honestly believe I ever will go on any ‘leadership’ programmes. It’s not who or what I am about. Perhaps that gives me more of a vested interest in good leadership because while I am very contented to be a follower, there’s nothing more I want than to be led well.
I’m fortunate to have generally, in my career, had good managers with a few notable exceptions. It’s above that first-level management position that I want to consider how we, as competent professionals are led and thought it might lead to some reflection on what I would like to see in a leader. There’s an ongoing contention that leadership and management are different. I’m not entirely convinced by that. Leaders have a ‘position’ and management gives that role a concrete base. Managers are told to lead but people are drawn to leaders – perhaps that’s the difference. I’m yet to be entirely convinced by people who say that leaders can lead from without a management or authority position.
So what would I like to see in a leader in order to feel that I am being ‘led’ well.
I have to feel that the person who leads comes from a position of authority. Maybe that is a management perspective but I am more considering an element of expertise. They have to be able to know what they are talking about. In health and social care, I think this is where there is a strong push for patient/service user/carer leadership can come from because the expertise is in the understanding not just the processes of services which are delivered but having experienced them and working through them. In most ways, the expertise garnered in being at the end of services is the most precious one that some ‘professionals’ find hardest to garner. That feeling of being powerless in the face of the powerful state leviathan – whether it be the hulking hierarchical health service or the unfathomable processes lurking within the local authority and being victim to its resource allocation systems. Experience isn’t the only base for expertise, although it is a uniquely precious one. Leaders could be experts in a particular way of working, communicating, understanding or interpreting. There has to be a basis of authority though based on knowledge – although that knowledge can be achieved through many different strands.
As well as knowing what they do, they have to be good at actually doing it. I have often reflected on the days I started working in social care, firstly as a volunteer, then as a support worker. I did ‘hands on’ care work for a number of years before I moved to do my social work training. When I was working in residential care and in care management, I’d often say that we should never be asked to do something by someone who wasn’t prepared and able to do it themselves. ‘Hands on’ care shouldn’t be ‘above’ anyone and certainly not above any so-called leader. This worries me somewhat about people who ‘fast track’ into leaders. When I went out to review people in residential homes or to review home care packages, I knew what the constraints on time for staff were. I knew that you couldn’t provide someone with a dignified shower and breakfast in a 30 min call. Although I couldn’t always change the local authority commissioning, at least I was able to empathise (for what it was worth) with the people who were using the service and the care workers who had to carry out the tasks which often institutionalised poor practice through the lack of time. Of course, I’m not anything special but extrapolating out, in my previous job, I knew my manager was not just a competent social worker, she was an excellent social worker and I saw her at work from time to time and remained (and still do) in awe of her competence. So I followed and took advice and strived to be as good as she was and is. My main sadness is that was rarely acknowledged from ‘above’ for her. I wasn’t as convinced that our Assistant Director was a competent social worker because I’d never seen him in a practice environment and suspect it had been many many years since he had ever come close to face to face practice. How could I be effectively ‘led’ if I wasn’t sure of his competence, not in the management role but in the tasks the organisation was being asked to achieve. Of course, I’m not unrealistic. I wouldn’t expect every Chief Executive to be able to do all nursing tasks – especially if they aren’t nurses but I would expect a deep understanding and appreciation of the work done by everyone in the organisation, from the person cleaning to the catering staff to those out in the community.
This is where I think these graduate ‘leadership’ programmes slip up because I think a good leader needs humility. They need to be aware of their own power and the effect that has on people. I feel a little intimidated by power and yet, simultaneously, I can be unaware of my own power at times. In some ways that’s what I see as humility. It is an appreciation of both the power that the leader has and the effect that has on other peoples’ interactions with them. The conversations I have about work with someone in my team who I see as a peer, are very different from the ones I might have with my manager, which, in turn, are different to those I might have with a director or chief executive within the organisation I work. So likewise, an awareness of that power I think, is very important to lead as well as an understanding that learning comes from different sources and is rarely a top-down process. One of the great blessings of social media in my view is that it has reinforced my learning from different angles and has weakened my inherent respect for the assumption that learning has to come from ‘teachers’. That’s something I’d extrapolate to ‘leaders’. You who lead can and must learn from those who follow in order to lead well. Just because you have a higher paid salary with greater position and power doesn’t mean the expertise you have is broader than all those ‘below’ you. A dose of humility is needed because without it, none of us can continue to learn and grow. I see this on Twitter sometimes when you see who some of the so-called leaders follow and interact with. There are those who will not deign to converse with those whom they assume to be ‘below’ them. I imagine their learning curve is more shallow than those who are open to conversation, learning and interaction from all-comers.
4) Reflection and Empathy
I see reflection and empathy in the same bracket because I believe that critical reflection leads to empathy and the two can’t be separated. A leader who is in a position to be able to ‘make a difference’ has to be able to consider their own role in systems that sometimes work and sometimes (perhaps more often) don’t. They can’t delegate constantly but sometimes need to think through what they can do to make changes. It might be something little or something major – depending on the position or the context. Then, they have to be able to look back and consider if they acted in the way that best served those who are being led. They have to be able to accept and learn from mistakes and acknowledge them. This is a key part of growth and understanding. This is a key part of being able to retain the confidence of those who follow. This is what I want from a leader. When things are being done or have been done badly, I want honesty not fudging. Reflection is a part of that where we learn to understand our own motivations and influences in the choices we make. Empathy grows from that as they begin to learn from others and understand better how it is to see things from different angles.
Perhaps this is the most difficult to define but I think it’s a core difference between leaders and followers. This explains some of my lack of faith in ‘leadership programmes’ because I’m not convinced that inspiration can be ‘taught’. It is the ability to move people in a particular direction because they believe in you and want to work towards your vision. It’s people having faith in you and your decisions. Maybe I’m not able to define it well but I think it is definitely an area that can be refined but it has to be genuine and honest. You can’t read a book about how to inspire others and expect to learn from it. You have to learn it, I think, and as is very clear, I’m far from an expert, by truly believing in what you do and having a passion for it.
So there’s my very uninformed and personal plea to leaders in how to lead me. That’s what I want from you. I don’t want to be a leader, but more than anything I want to be led well and I want to feel we want the same things, you and I. We want to make things better and we want to work together for those whom we serve. I don’t want to be engaged in battling against the organisations I work in to feel that I’m serving those who use the services to my best. I will feel well-led when we move in the same direction.
I understand leadership is tough. That’s one of the reasons I don’t want to do it. I’m lucky that I feel well-led now and there’s no better feeling as a member of staff than to have that utter confidence that we move in the same direction and have the same goals. I realise that’s a very good place to be. Lead well and we will follow well and with all our hearts and you will have much more power to achieve those great outcomes with committed and focused followers behind you, supporting you all the way.
Frontline is a scheme dreamt up by the IPPR who published a report – which has since been embraced by the government and opposition – which builds on the Step Up to Social Work model of social work training and Teach First which has proved to be a popular want to pull graduates into teaching, focussing on ‘difficult’ schools.
The idea behind it, based on research done with a focus group made up of people who had been teachers on the Teach First programme saw that there was ‘something wrong with social work’. A part of me says ‘tell us something we didn’t know’. Seriously. There have been proposals to change in the way that social work is taught which have stemmed from the Social Work Taskforce and then the Social Work Reform Board.
So what is it that will make ‘Frontline’ different? The initial paper linked to above, makes reference to Oxbridge and Russell Group graduates who aren’t choosing to go into social work and seeing that as a ‘problem’ for the profession.
According to the Frontline website
The Frontline training programme will last two years. Specifically
- An intensive five-week residential summer institute;
- The first 12 months as intensive on-the-job training and education;
- At the end of the first year participants will be qualified to practice and then undertake a second year as a newly qualified social worker.
Participants will be paid over these two years and will be based with the same local authority. Participant will complete a Masters over the two years of the programme.
The 12 months will be when people go to local authorities to be trained by a ‘consultant social worker’ who is basically a glorified practice educators who have their salaries augmented by ‘Frontline’ – which, incidentally, is either a charity or a social enterprise – depending on what you are reading. The social worker trainees will be working in ‘tough’ environments.
The idea is that these people will be ‘qualified’ social workers after one year and the second year will be the AYSE year. One year (or 13 months, I believe cos these whizzy geniuses sure can count).
So who is Frontline looking for?
Frontline will look for two key features in recruits. The first is high academic ability required to be an effective social worker. Social work practice requires analytical thinking, assessment skills, critical reflection and excellent written and spoken communication, which is why applicants must have a 2:1 degree or higher.
The second feature is the attributes, skills and values to be a successful practitioner. These range from emotional resilience, respect, good judgement, inter-personal skills, and humility
I love the intense irony that humility is written right at the bottom. I’m not one to rubbish academic rigour. I’m all for it but I think it’s interesting that it is the first thing they emphasise. People develop intelligence in different ways and having a 2:1 degree from a Russell Group university is only one indication but that’s their standard so fair enough. Just interesting emphasis.
So that’s the scheme and what’s not to love? I have a number of issues that have concerned me, none of which have been addressed by Frontline PR machine. I’m concerned that while they have said they want to engage and talk to social workers about this, there has been no evidence of them speaking to anyone except on their own terms, without actually answering questions of substance. Meanwhile, the PR machine flounces around the press with the ‘they just don’t understaaaaaaaaaaaaand’ us referring to social workers who don’t ‘get’ their new model without actually addressing the very real criticisms.
So what are the criticisms?
1) It is based on an elitist model where some universities are ‘better’ than others. The initial document refers to lack of entrants to social work training from Oxbridge and Russell Group universities being evidence of its lack of appeal. I’m not sure about ‘evidence’ for this. I don’t think the university you go to defines your quality of potential for social work or your intelligence and ability to critically analyse and reflect. Sometimes it’s based on income and family circumstances. Sometimes we go to the university that is nearest home. Sometimes we go to the university that offers the best course which may not be a Russell Group. It shows an enormous amount of assumptions (which, incidentally, are very bad in social work) to take otherwise
2) Lack of involvement of social workers in developing the model. Now Josh MacAlister, the so-called ‘brains’ behind the scheme has recruited some social worker managers and academics to ‘support’ him but that doesn’t refute the lack of involvement in the initial research of social workers. Yes, spokespeople from the College of Social Work and BASW have involved themselves but they have shown no effort to engage views other than those that agree with them or work on the base of the Social Work Reform Board which particularly looked at social work education and build the new professional capability framework. This falls outside that. It also hasn’t built on the Step Up scheme which makes no sense.
3) Compressing social work education into a year, even if the practice days are similar to the amount they are now, ignores the process of learning that needs time. There is a great post which I highly recommend which covers this far better than I can. Social Work is not analogous to teaching and somehow I think the model of Teach First doesn’t ‘fit’ as nicely as the government ministers would like to think it is. It displays a lack of understanding of social work. Teach First replaces a PGCE which is a one year course in a specialist subject (which is taught).
Social Work is a generic qualification. One does not ‘train’ as a child protection social worker or even a children and families social worker – but as a social worker who then specialises in working in a particular sector. This model doesn’t allow space and time to gain an understanding of what social work is. The fear is, it will breed process-driven staff who are able to fulfil functions within a child protection team but without a deeper understanding of social work as a profession which touches the lives of adults and children in different ways and at different stages.
Moving initial social work training – not least in an organisation which doesn’t understand social work, clearly, is, I fear a mistake. One of the figures behind Frontline told me that this was a poor argument as ‘there had always been arguments about genericism’. In my view that doesn’t mean we can’t still have the discussion. We need to have an understanding of personhood and social work as a whole profession because if we don’t it becomes two, or three professions. Does that matter? I think it does because we can’t work in isolation. Mental Health, for example, covers all areas of social work. Families don’t exist in isolation. Is one year (13 months) enough time to do this alongside placements? Personally, i don’t think so. I’m consistent in this as I also don’t have a lot of time for the Step Up programme.
4) Evidence base – why wasn’t there a hold on developing a new scheme until there had been a few years running of the Step Up Scheme? I was a sceptic of Step Up and I’ll accept that the first evaluation of the first two cohorts was more positive than I was assuming but there were some issues raised and what we really need to understand is retention rates which will need a few more years of evaluation. I’m willing to change my mind in the face of evidence but developing a programme before we had some data seems foolhardy but entirely consistent with government policy making. The one issue which did arise from the Step Up scheme was access and success rates of people from minority ethic groups who were disadvantaged. The Frontline team looks very white and very male. I wonder how this will be addressed explicitly.
5) There is no mention at all of user voice in the development of the programme of education. This is a massive gap but I will wait for details of the programme. It’s all about developing leaders. Frontline’s website says
Since the start of 2012 we’ve undertaken extensive consultation with the profession to inform the Frontline proposal. Employers, universities and professional bodies were included in the process and much of their feedback is directly reflected in our plans.
No mention of people who use or have used social work services, children who have been or are involved with social work or their parents and carers. Nothing. That evidences a lack of understanding of social work education and ethos as, quite rightly, user involvement is crucial to all social work education programmes.
6) Leadership. There is a focus on this being about ‘leaders’ and developing leadership. I have a bit of a difficult relationship with the term and with some of the ‘leadership’ training. We all want and need to be ‘leaders’, don’t we? But who are we leading. Here are some of the statements made on the Frontline site.
Frontline is focused on transforming the life chances of vulnerable children by recruiting and developing outstanding individuals to be leaders in social work and broader society
So is this about fast-tracking people through the actual ‘frontline’ work as a stepping stone to management and management consultancy? I rather suspect it is. I want to know more about what they see as leadership? Ah, they heard me, look at their FAQs
18. WHY DO YOU CALL SOCIAL WORK A LEADERSHIP PROFESSION?
We describe social work as leadership because it needs people who are able to bring together a wide range of agencies, set out a vision for a family and convince them to act. The ability to adapt and deal with change, set clear priorities and deliver action for children under extreme pressure demands leadership qualities which we would like to see recognised more widely in society.
Note: There is no understanding or explanation of social work that happens which doesn’t involve working with children. It’s about ‘convincing’ a family to act? Really? Is that leadership or is that using statutory power to impose. There is nothing in this bumpf about power that a social worker has and the understanding of the use of power. No, they emphasis ‘leadership’ and ‘leading’ but as a statutory social worker in child protection, you have all the cards in your powerful little statutory hand and I’m not sure it takes much ‘leadership’ to ‘convince’ families. Again, it’s a complete misunderstanding of the social work role and selling an untruth to those who take on the role. So if Frontline ‘breeding’ leaders or are we all leaders? Bit fuzzy but then this is to sell social work to people who would otherwise consider Teach First.
7) The rhetoric of those involved with the PR has been very much ‘we need excellent/better social workers’ ‘social work education is failing’ and it’s interesting how many academics have jumped on this bandwagon. Er, guys, you’re the ones doing the training?!
Seriously though, it’s not exactly going to endear you to a profession by saying that current social workers and social work students aren’t adequate. I see that they’ve backed down a bit from that but that was definitely the initial thrust behind their PR campaign – we need ‘better’ social workers. What they are creating, I fear, are people able to work through processes in particular local authorities effectively. Is that social work at all? Does doing social work tasks make one a social worker? Unfortunately I suspect the answer is yes because that’s what employers want.
8) Local authorities should take a greater responsibility for the ‘failure’ of social work training. They want ‘cookie cutter’ ready-to-practice social workers immediately from university without investing in the process of training on-the-job. In my view, and I say this as an ex-practice educator, placements are training to be a social worker but should not be used to train for a particular position. Students need space around the placements to understand processes, power and to analyse their own changing roles as they move between being students to being practitioners with power. What local authorities want, and through this scheme they get, is more akin to apprenticeships where social workers will be trained in their own systems. There’s an advantage to that. There’s also a potential disadvantage as one of the things I found most valuable in moving from being a student to a practitioners was being exposed to different systems, different organisations and different people who had different views about the same statutory function.
9) This has shifted the focus away from post-qualification training and towards pre-qualification training without any evidence about retention. It seems to me that a better focus would be to invest in training and retaining social workers who are qualified already. I say this with a little bitterness as a social worker remained in local authority/NHS practice for 12 years before moving away. I think there needs to be more thought specifically for post-qualification training in child protection with perhaps, a course akin to the AMHP training in mental health with better pay and status – and a need for greater experience before going into these roles.
In my opinion, one of the failings of the social work system we have is that often newly qualified social workers go into child protection work. Surely it makes more sense for there to be career progression and more experienced workers to be in this field but no one wants to stay so there is a rapid turnover. Maybe that’s something that should be addressed with the money Frontline generated instead of making the problem worse.
10) Frontline seem obsessed with social work’s ‘professional status’. They want social workers to be one of the most respected professions blah blah. By focusing on ‘leadership’ and recruiting ‘top graduates’ this will happen. Right. I’m more sceptical. I think it will only happen when social workers don’t obsess about their/own status and when we speak up for people who use social work services – without our job role and outside and show how useful we are. We don’t need validation and we don’t need to be ‘loved’. We don’t need documentaries so people ‘understand’ us. We need to do our job well and not wait for others to find the respect for us. If we tell people what we do well, if we concentrate on developing a profession where we can respect ourselves, then we will be respected and some people will always hate us because we use state powers to control behaviours. That’s life.
I hope someone from Frontline will respond to these ten points in turn. I wait with interest.
In the bold move towards a transformation in adult social care, it feels from where I sit, that control has completely overtaken any pretence of ‘choice’ in the so-called move towards more idealised ‘person-centred’ care and support planning.
I hope I’ve been clear over the years in which I’ve expressed a remarkably consistent view that I love the idea of people being able to choose the support plan they like from a wide menu of options with ‘professionals’ taking less of a role. I am a massive fan of direct payments. I want people to have more personalised care and more creative care. Desperately. The options just aren’t there yet for people who lack capacity and that is a terrible disservice and inequity that is being served throughout the care system.
Removing care planning from my role doesn’t concern me – unlike those people on the training courses who bang the drums blindly about how wonderful and bright it looks when we allow people to choice whatever they like to put together packages of care, I don’t want ‘retain control’, I truly don’t believe that I, as a professional ‘know better’, but likewise I know that with the user group I work with, it is rare that I can just hand someone a support planning tool and a list of potential providers and tell them to ‘get on with it’.
That is as far from reality now as it was 20 years ago in my work. While I can say that everyone I care co-ordinate who has a ‘package of care’ is now officially on a ‘personal budget’ and some even have direct payments, it hasn’t really increased choice or control for any but a couple of those people.
If anyone for a moment wants to ponder the duplicitious nature of those in policy making ivory towers who dribble down policies which they want to couch in ‘soft’ language so they are difficult to challenge, one only has to read a fantastic piece of research conducted and published on The Small Places site.
It is worth reading through the piece in detail. Lucy, the author, made a number of requests to local authorities to ask about how their Resource Allocation Systems (the link between the ‘assessment’ and the ‘cash’ – basically) was calculated. She seemed to come up against a wall of obfuscation but it’s worth looking at her research in detail.
This reluctance for me, seems to relate to the lack and reduction in spending on care and support – the key ‘missing piece’ as to why a council can ‘reassess’ someone as needing less ‘cash’ than they did last year with a more traditional care package.
My personal experience is that the council I work in (and this is similar to things I’ve heard from people in other councils) probably doesn’t want to share it’s RAS because it’s ashamed of the utter dog’s dinner that it’s made of it. It doesn’t ‘work’. It doesn’t make sense. It is frequently changed. There is more emphasis on physical health needs as opposed to mental health needs and while there can be manual adjustments, some of the figures that are ‘spat out’ just seem nigh on ridiculous (and that works for sometimes calculating care ‘too high’ as much as a figure which is ‘too low’). It comes down to everything needing to be qualified and fitted onto a spreadsheet when actually the needs of two people who might fill out a self-assessment with the same ‘tick boxes’ might have very different needs in reality – no RAS can account for that. One person might under-score because they are embarrassed by the process and don’t want to admit to being incontinent on an initial visit from a social worker because they haven’t been able to tell anyone other than their GP – another person might be anxious and think they can manage less well than they can. Sometimes and this is what local authorities and health services seem to find hard to account for, you just have to treat people and their needs as individuals rather than the subject of outcome measures, tick box performance indicators or resource allocation systems.
Shouldn’t personalisation be about putting the user at the heart of the system? Every user should have a copy of the RAS and how the figure was determined. Which questions are weighted and which aren’t. Without that, there flow of money and the control rests solely with the local authority.
I’m fully against ‘traditional’ care packages. Having someone anonymous and constantly changing pop in for a 30 min welfare check once a day isn’t about improving the quality, control and choice in someone’s life, it’s about a local authority doing the absolute bare minimum that they can get away with to fulfil their statutory duties of care.
The lack of openness about the ways that the RAS shows the true colours of the reasons for these pushes towards the Eden of ‘Personalisation’.
While I have no doubt that for some people, as I keep saying, those with advocates, family or who are able to voice their own needs clearly, have and will continue to benefit enormously from having direct payments – it’s worth remembering that direct payments have been available and accessible for many years now.
Forcing everyone onto personal budgets has only discriminated against those with carers by reducing the amounts of money they are entitled to through the RAS (that’s my own experience of how our local RAS works) and has discriminated against those who lack capacity by promising all sorts of ‘creative’ ways of exploring third party management of support plans but without providing any real ways of accessing it (this is my current bugbear as I have been requesting assistance with this for months for service users I work with but have been told it is not possible for older adults yet as only those with learning disabilities have budgets large enough to make it cost effective – thereby clearing discriminating on the basis of age and type of disability).
I have changed from a fervent advocate of a system which was supposed to be so much better for everyone to a bitter opponent of a system which favours some kinds of disabilities over others, some kinds of service users over others, some kinds of carers (those who are willing to put a lot more time in to manage and support plan where necessary) than others and all to provide fewer services under the guise of choice.
No wonder Burstow is pushing everyone towards direct payments. He is pushing everyone towards a system which masks the way that payments are determined and discriminates openly against people who lack capacity or who have the ‘wrong’ kind of disability or family support.
Now we know that the local authorities can hide the way they make financial calculations, it becomes much more obvious to see behind the facade of the ‘Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ who promotes choice as the final goal to achieve at all costs.
I feel tricked and betrayed by the implementation of the personalisation agenda and the lack of any of the services around it to tackle directly with the problems at it’s heart.
I was deeply disappointed, for example, that the Mental Health Foundation’s ‘research’ and work with people specifically with dementia only focussed on people who either had capacity or had family. Their advice talks lovingly of setting up trust funds, appointing brokers – well, that is a fantasy rather than a reality and exists only on paper as a choice. They merely replicated a lot of work which was done when direct payments were rolled out around lack of take up for people with dementia and they hadn’t said anything new (I happened to write my dissertation about the lack of take up of direct payments for older adults so did actually do literature researches at the time..).
Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.
For now, I think it’s important that we who see through the cosy policy makers congratulating about a ‘job well done’ speak up and speak up loudly for those for whom the system is a further barrier for true individualised care because these self-same policy-makers see them as ‘too difficult’.
My title explains that the personalisation dream is dying but it isn’t dead yet. To be brought back to life, all those involved need to embrace the principles of honesty and openness and not blind themselves to their successes if they can’t see the continuing barriers.
Please forgive the blatant self-promotion in this post but it’s Friday and I’m feeling a like I have a bit of a cold coming so I’m less ‘perky’ than usual.
Dorlee from Social Work Career Development has published an interview which she did with me and it concentrates on what I do at work and some of the ways it differs from Social Work in the United States. Excellent work, if I do say so myself – but joking apart, it is a good way for us to learn about social work in other countries.
Shirley Ayres has written a fantastic post for PSW, the BASW magazine (yes, I know.. ) and it includes some gems from myself. It’s a piece about social media use for social work specifically and is definitely worth a look. The PDF is available here
As for my twittering on last week about wanting to work collaboratively on more online social work conferences/learning/interaction – well, it’s VERY rudimentary, but I’ve set up a ‘holding site’ here
Feel free to nose around as the whole point is to emphasise openness, conversation and working together on something that can be led by social work and improve social work without having a cost barrier to entry and that allows all who want to learn and contribute to do so. I’ve also added a very basic forum just to collect ideas.
I don’t have any great desire to ‘run’ this project and if anyone with greater technical skills wants to volunteer them then please please do but it’s a start and I hope someone will – even if it isn’t me – because I think something that adds value to our collective, international knowledge base and moves learning out of universities and into practice will be a real ‘hook’ in convincing more practicing social workers to engage with social media and new technologies.
Enough from me, the forum is here. Do join and share ideas.
(Don’t be scared that there isn’t much there yet.. everything needs to start somewhere!)
I am not going to add anything to this post. After I wrote a post explaining why I left BASW, I was sent this as a response and agreed to publish it. I’ll leave the questions and comments for others and I have asked that someone from BASW respond to any questions or comments that arise from this post but obviously they are very busy so here’s their post. – cb
I’m disappointed that you are leaving BASW and, as head of communications for the Association and editor of PSW, I’m equally disappointed about your assessment of this magazine.
BASW is fortunate that more members have been joining than leaving for some time now but retention is just as vital as recruitment so any loss is frustrating.
Most members leave because their circumstances have changed – they might have lost their job, left social work or retired. On those occasions when someone contacts us to cite a specific issue for why they no longer wish to remain a member, someone from within BASW will usually correspond with them to at least try to respond to their concerns. Whether it makes any difference isn’t really the point – the main thing is to secure a grasp of what we’re doing wrong and how to do it better.
Your departure, inevitably more vocal and more public, is no different except that it seems appropriate to respond equally publicly, given the platform you have employed to air your views.
You cite BASW’s launch of the Social Workers Union (SWU) as the reason for now deciding to leave the Association. Clearly, the odd gripe apart, you are happy with your union and with your local representative. Fine. Really, fine, BASW has no intention of encouraging social workers who are happy with their trade union to up-sticks and join SWU instead.
We hope members in this position will still reflect on the range of member benefits being part of BASW offers, and will want to be part of their professional association, but in no sense is it making a play to poach you and others like you from other unions.
There are two reasons why SWU can be a good thing for the social work profession generally without impacting on the social work membership levels of Unison or any other union.
Firstly, there are well over 40,000 social workers in the UK who are not a member of a trade union or a professional association, so have little of the security such membership affords a practitioner in need of support – from basic advice to prolonged representation. By no measure can this be a welcome fact.
To date, a standalone BASW, acting solely as a professional association and without a union arm, has not attracted these people into membership. Nor too has any trade union appealed sufficiently for them to consider subscribing. BASW’s launch of the Social Workers Union offers these people something else, another option which some of them, just some, might choose to take.
Secondly, and most pressingly, there is one significant factor in BASW deciding to establish SWU that shouldn’t be ignored. A number of local authorities were increasingly unwilling to allow our Advice & Representation officers to attend internal disciplinary or conduct hearings. Although in contravention of ACAS guidance, this was leaving some fee-paying BASW members without access to the sort of expert representation they were entitled to have.
The ACAS guidance, it would seem, is just that, and if you are not a trade union then you don’t have guaranteed access to represent members with employers in the way we would want. By launching SWU, for no extra cost to members, we ensure, among other things, proper protection for local authority staff. This has to be a good development for social workers.
And let’s be very clear about which social workers. You describe BASW as ‘less relevant to me as a local authority social worker’ and ‘focused on either students and newly qualified social workers or independent social workers’. Yet SWU is, more than anything else, about ensuring we can support local authority social workers fully and properly in the increasing number of cases we are sadly being presented with where members are being poorly supported by employers.
You do allude to something very interesting though on the issue of how BASW represents local authority social workers and where we can do better. You suggest that the one thing you would really welcome is the chance for informal social networks – ‘safe’ places, physically and virtually, where like-minded people can discuss the future of social work. It’s a very strong concept and one BASW has recognised but could do far more in developing.
In this instance it is fair to say that we have gone much further down this road with independent members than local authority workers, as illustrated by the number of very successful independent groups holding regular meetings around the country. These aren’t controlled propaganda exercises – BASW staff usually only attend the first meeting to help get things off the ground – but informal meetings of independent social workers which BASW helps facilitate and that participants themselves then take forward.
We have staged a host of ‘tours’ within all UK countries over the past three years, many of which proved to be useful two-way discussion sessions, but facilitating networking groups within local authorities would be a good step for our members and should be explored further, and soon.
One of the most notable aspects of your blog, and the one I felt most keenly, was your assessment of PSW magazine. In particular, you referred to ‘pages and pages of propaganda’ and that there is ‘no space at all for any kind of dissenting or alternate views’. I will respond to this at some length but in brief I do not feel this is an accurate assessment of this magazine or BASW’s approach to dissent.
I have worked for a trade union where the members’ magazine became solely a propaganda device, where every editorial item was utterly patronising and where opportunities for dissent gradually dissolved to the extent it was untenable for me to remain with that organisation. I don’t miss it and I wouldn’t go back into that same environment or remain in an organisation that developed such a mindset. BASW is not that kind of organisation. Not even close.
Look at page 11 of this month’s PSW and you can see that one of the three letters is a direct attack on the magazine for publishing an article the correspondent loathed about lessons to be learnt from the Baby P case. I might disagree with the contributor but his was a valid member’s view which we published without hesitation.
Go back to March when we published a double page spread of comments posted by members online after BASW launched its own College of Social Work (as you will know, the name has since been dropped as BASW and the SCIE-sponsored College work to establish a single organisation for 2012) and you will see two sharply critical views and one far from convinced about the move. As a proportion of the 200 or so responses we received online this wasn’t just a fair reflection of dissent, it actually represented a higher proportion of opposing opinions than were actually posted.
Go back even further to the fall-out from BASW’s decision in early 2010 to hold a referendum of members on the kind of college members wanted to see. We carried letters from one BASW Council member who had resigned and another from a member at the end of his term, both of which were sharply critical of any move away from the SCIE college. No censorship, just publication.
It may surprise you but we actually don’t get a massive postbag of alienated members wishing to air their ire. Far more correspondents focus on something specific they have read, respond to requests for comment on a particular topical issue or, to my inevitable frustration, highlight minor errors of fact or grammar.
As for ‘reams of pages about how important BASW’ is, this is a tougher one because to some extent you have a point – we didn’t used to highlight the Association’s work that much in PSW at all. And people would complain that they didn’t know what BASW did.
People used to wonder why they were paying their membership fees if BASW wasn’t more publicly prominent, more vocal about the issues that mattered to them. BASW is definitely more assertive, more opinionated and, sometimes, more bolshy and for a lot of members that is a good thing.
Now, should that entail using the magazine for endless self promotion? No, in my view it should mean members get to read what BASW’s position is on key issues, whether on the riots in England, adult protection laws in Scotland, funding cuts in Northern Ireland or a consultation document on the future of social work in Wales.
As a monthly title PSW can’t present you, in print at least, with the very latest news, but it can reflect on the past month’s developments by offering the facts and adding a BASW view. This doesn’t change the facts but it does enable members to see what BASW is lobbying for, using the membership subscription fees they pay each year.
News is only a small part of the magazine though, so too is The Chief, where the chief executive is free to write what he wants to the BASW membership. Elsewhere you can read content including features, book reviews, advice columns and interviews, none of which offers a BASW view or seeks to evangelise.
Incidentally, though not without relevance, 345 members replied to a survey on our communications output in early summer and 92% said PSW was either a welcome or very welcome member benefit. It’s not scientific and there are plenty of members who haven’t expressed a view but it’s not a bad statistic considering it is an anonymous poll and I haven’t stood behind anyone’s back twisting their arms.
And just to go back to the issue of self promotion, only a couple of days ago, after reading your blog, I noticed a comment within a Guardian story about research it was co-sponsoring into the causes of the riots, in which the editor-in-chief waxed lyrical about the ‘great strides in the field of data journalism’ The Guardian was continuing to make. Possibly true but certainly self promotional.
BASW is an active, growing organisation that is constantly developing new services. We need to talk about this if we are to sustain our growth as, to borrow from your blog, there is ‘strength in numbers’ and the more members we have the more we can represent the interests of the social work profession – whether you are a student, local authority worker, independent or anyone else.
As for those Annual General Meeting numbers you wanted. Around 230 people attended the Practice Symposium in the morning and 164 remained for the actual Annual General Meeting. Of these, 134 supported the launch of SWU, 21 opposed the motion and eight abstained. Proxy votes totaled just nine, with five opposed to the launch of SWU and four in favour.
Would we like more members to take part in the decision about the future of their organisation? Absolutely and we are trying to learn lessons from our attempts to promote the AGM in May. Several advertisements and e-bulletins actually attracted the biggest turn out at a BASW AGM in my time at the Association, around five years, but we must continue to try and up the numbers further as clearly those who attend the event are clearly a minority of our overall membership – though this isn’t particularly unusual for any union or association.
Considerable effort will be made to alert members to the next opportunity to shape the future of BASW on 1 November when an Additional General Meeting in Birmingham will be asked to determine whether BASW should transfer its assets into a new College of Social Work. This will commence in earnest once BASW Council meets on 21 September to consider the latest position ahead of the Additional General Meeting.
Magistrates and crown court judges could be asked to dock benefits from convicted criminals under preliminary proposals being drawn up by the government in response to the riots, the Guardian can reveal.
Ministers are looking hard at how benefits, or tax credits, could be taken away to show criminals that privileges provided by the state can be temporarily withdrawn.
Under the proposals anyone convicted of a crime could be punished once rather than potentially facing separate fines – first by a magistrates court and then a benefit office. By giving powers to the courts to strip benefits, the Department of Work and Pensions would not be required to intervene in the criminal justice system.
Yesterday, a little tardy, I know, I listened to the podcast of Pienaar’s Politics which I tend to really enjoy and I did except for the presence of Kelvin McKenzie and an odious interview with Iain Duncan-Smith in which he discussed this.
(Iain Duncan-Smith who, incidently, laughingly claimed at his constituency of Chingford and Woodford Green was ‘inner city’. Really? Waltham Forest is inner city? Really? Have I missed something? Anyway, back to the programme).
Let me explain why it is so odious if I need to.
Firstly there are the assumptions that all those who rioted are claiming benefits. Yes, I know there are links to poverty but will how will there be an equivalent punishment for someone who commits a crime and does not claim any money from the State. This is an intentional scapegoating and targeting of poverty.
The riots were awful but the causes run much much deeper and broader than ‘gangs’ and ‘benefit fraud’.
Duncan-Smith in a truly odious and preaching manner seemed to make links between ‘generations of joblessness’ and the feckless claimants. He emphasised his joy in ripping away support for those who received Invalidity Benefit and while me gave a cursory nod to those who might have caring roles – he mentioned them solely in terms of the money that they save the government.
How about truly visionary leaders that display integrity and leadership rather than those who pander solely to the lowest common denominator of cheap ‘kicks’ at those who need to claim money for support and those who are not able to afford the lives they see the privileged lead.
This week we have seen our millionaire cabinet members talk about the ‘feral underclass’ (Kenneth Clarke who was one of the few Tories I had a smidgeon of respect for previously). Really?
Yes, the people involved in the riots may well have been some of the poorest and most disengaged but that doesn’t mean the cause of the riots needs to look solely at those who were out on the streets looting. If it does, it allows the cosy middle classes to look on from the suburbs (or in IDS language ‘inner cities’) to preach from their own comfortable positions of superiority.
These riots, this inequity, it is the problem of ‘other people’.
Surely the riots, the way that culture has become so consumerist in its nature, the dishonesty and the lack of censorship of anything other than ‘getting away with it’ the lack of inherent understanding of right from wrong in any other terms – that is not a problem of the poor and it is not a problem which is solved by taking away ‘benefits’. That merely pushes all the problems of a society onto one particular class that will match with the photofit of ‘problems’ that rest most easily in the middle-class heads. By looking at analysis of ‘who rioted’ or rather ‘who was caught‘ and looking at lists from magistrate’s courts we provide a very narrow view of what was responsible in our society for creating a moment when people thought they could ‘get away with it’. The riots were not about who was rioting. They were about what is and has been happening within our society from top to tail and by concentrating reasons and solutions on the lower end, we allow those more privileged to get away with all kinds of poor behaviours and excuse the problems that their behaviours have caused which have led to such strong feelings of disillusionment.
Personally and I base this on no research base other than my gut feeling, I think the problem and the problems in society must be examined in a much deeper and more fundamental way. In England, at least, we have seen successive scandals and betrayals from the finance services through the collapse and deceit in the banking system, the MPs fiddling expenses compulsively, the Press through the phone hacking scandals and the police for bribery.
While politicians lament of a world where people loot ‘because they can get away with it’ and only refrain from crime not because of an inherent ethical desire but because they will not be caught, it is impossible to separate those who loot shops from those who loot the public purse. Those who sit in their comfortable suburban (sorry, inner city) homes.
How can we, as a nation, allow our poorest people to be scapegoated by an establishment (financial/political and media) that has been equally deceitful but who will never feel ‘benefits’ being taken away because they are all wrapped up in each others’ collective pockets. They will never be evicted from their council houses because of the behaviour of their children because they are fortunate enough to own their own homes and they will never suffer from having child benefit withdrawn when their kids truant because they aren’t reliant on child benefit and their children have trust funds.
How can we allow this to be the voice of ‘reason’ in the country?
I truly can’t understand it but I know it makes me angry.
- Response: It’s wrong to blame fatherless families for Britain’s ‘moral collapse’ (guardian.co.uk)
- We must become ‘nation of the second chance’, says Iain Duncan Smith (guardian.co.uk)
- Kenneth Clarke says broken prison system which failed to stop ‘feral underclass’ to blame for riots (telegraph.co.uk)
I felt a tinge of sadness when I finally decided to quit BASW (British Association of Social Workers). I’ve been an advocate and member for a good few years and I have a great deal of respect for a lot of people who work there. I advised colleagues to join over the years amid general waves of apathy. I wanted to ‘make a difference’. I wanted to contribute to the general good of the profession as a whole and I saw my membership and support as the best way.
I can understand some of their irritation with the way the College of Social Work has been established but what I couldn’t understand and believe me, I tried to, via their own forums and press releases, to get to the heart of what their anger about was about UNISON (the trade union that linked with the College of Social Work) , with the College, with SCIE – who were charged with setting up the College on behalf of the governmentwas all about.
I know it was partly about control. BASW had initially thought to propose the idea of a ‘College of Social Work’ and probably felt that they should have been charged with running it. The problem was and remains that BASW members remain a minority of social workers. I remained a member though. I enjoyed being a part of the professional association. I thought that it added ‘something’ to my arsenal and allowed me, theoretically at least, to hold a stake in the present and future ‘state’ of social work in the UK.
However, for me, BASW seemed to become less relevant to me as a local authority social worker. They run events but they seemed to be focused on either students and newly qualified social workers or independent social workers (I’ve been told that this is a faulty perception but it’s the perception that I have regardless).
I looked at their magazine and I saw what appeared to be page after page of propaganda for their own campaign to disassociate from the ‘official’ SCIE led College of Social Work. There was no space at all for any kind of dissenting or alternate views. It felt like some ‘official party’ magazine. Sure, there would be some interesting articles but it would be one or two amid the reams of pages about how important BASW was. This is a membership magazine going to people who are already members. The writing felt patronising in the extreme as if we were just being exposed to a propaganda machine and were incapable of independent thought.
I am a member of UNISON as well as BASW. I never saw the two as being mutually exclusive. I certainly haven’t had UNISON bad-mouthing my professional organisation in its literature but BASW seem to find the idea of UNISON so difficult that they have press release playing ‘number games’ with their figures – forgetting the obvious point that some people (like me) are members of both organisations so comparing numbers becomes less.. helpful.. when you consider that some are counted in both ‘fields’.
I think their move towards creating a Trade Union is wrong-footed. I was unable to attend their AGM and when I asked about proxy voting, I was told that they only count the postal votes if those present dissenting reach a certain threshold. With that I realised that my vote against the Union would be discounted as those who would attend would be much more likely to vote in favour. I felt genuinely disenfranchised because my vote would not be counted unless I was able to attend in person.
I am deeply disappointed by both BASW and the College and their lack of engagement and innovation as regards trying to find new ways to build social work links and make progress in an increasingly social world. The same people are being appointed to the same committees to discuss the same issues. It very much feels like that from my point of view.
I was willing to continue my membership to BASW through their gripes and through my increasing concerns with the way they were moving.
However when they pushed out to promote their new ‘Social Workers Union’, that’s when I decided to leave.
They seem to be pushing their union as ‘added value’ to their current members. It would add no value to me as I already have a Trade Union. In fact, in their membership booklet, it even says that they encourage social workers who join to also join a trade union – and so I did. I know my Shop Steward and I admire them greatly. We link very well with the Health members of Unison as a lot of the issues, for me at least, in a Community Mental Health Team, are very similar regarding employment issues.
I’ve had my gripes with UNISON in the past as well but knowing how the local authority is minded, I would rather ‘stick my oar in’ with my colleagues regardless of whether they are ‘social workers’ or not as opposed to being in a union which exists only to support social workers. Currently our jobs are at risk. UNISON is working very hard locally to establish links within the local council and NHS trust to consultation and they are created with being an established partner and union who has members across the council. With unions, however right or wrong it may be, I think there is strength in numbers and I dare not quit my union membership in these current times. If BASW are focussing on ‘being a union’ and I don’t want to be a member of ‘their’ union – why should I pay for it? Especially when I am content with the union representation I receive from UNISON?
I felt sad to pack in my BASW membership and may be back in the future if they steer towards a more conciliatory path. I would still recommend membership for students, I think, because the fees are lower and if they to incorporate the union membership it may well be a good ‘deal’ to assist through difficulties with placements. I would also recommend membership for Independent social Workers as they have good networks and frequent meetings and events for Independent Social Workers and have good insurance packages (so I’m told).
For me, though, I need to see more and mostly I need to see more positivity. The organisation increasingly feels very defensive and negative and that makes me sad.
Ultimately what I would like from a professional organisation/college is more local groups/social groups. Spaces both physically and virtually to discuss the future of social work and ‘safe’ places to bring together issues that affect social work as a whole. Not just a forum, online forums are ‘old hat’ but there are more ways to discuss and find space.
I think regional groups would definitely help build connections and membership.
I know there are good people in BASW and that they want the best for the profession but I couldn’t justify continuing to pay over £200 per year alongside my union membership as they move in a path I no longer agree with and in tough financial times, you have to ask ‘Is it worth it?’.
Personally, I felt it wasn’t.
My hope is that there is a move towards more collaboration with the College of Social Work but that those within the College will push away some of the apparently self-obsessed cobwebs from BASWs eyes and create and evolve an institution that can really work for Social Work rather that what appears to be their own ends because unfortunately that’s sometimes how it feels from the ‘front line’.
Committees arguing for their own continued existence. I’m sad to say that but that’s how I feel.
Just one aside, when playing their numbers games and trying to ‘outmanoeuvre’ Unison in claiming to have more ‘Social Work’ members, I commented that I would like to know two things
How many members attended the BASW AGM?
How many people voted in favour of the move towards a Trade Union (numbers not percentages)?
I haven’t been given these figures but if there is anyone from BASW reading, I’d really like to know.
I’m not saying at all that I’ve left forever. I really hope I will be back at some point but I have to see more effort and will towards promoting the profession rather than BASW itself.