Shoesmith, Balls and Appeals

Ed Balls, Member of Parliament of the United K...

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I was trying to steer away from discussion of the Shoesmith’s appeal against her dismissal by Haringey Council (via Ed Balls, the responsible Cabinet minister at the time) and her victory in the Court of Appeal – but having followed the case from the outset, I can’t quite resist coming back to it.

There are a few issues that have caught my attention in the press and blogs that I  have read over the past few days.

Firstly there is a confusion between the outcome (namely Shoesmith losing her job) and the process (being sacked via the Minister in a press conference on the basis – according to him, at least – of an OFSTED report, the findings of which she was not able to respond to).

I am biased although I have no time for Shoesmith. Like almost every Director of Services (Adults and Children) she is happy to take the pay without having an idea of how the services are, or aren’t being run ‘under her watch’. She doesn’t come across as a particularly sympathetic character and I think her lack of knowledge of social work  – as she comes from an education background – has come back to bite hard.

But, and this is the big but – that doesn’t mean she is suddenly an exception to employment law – and of course, that’s what the Court of Appeal found.

Secondly, Balls hung Shoesmith, and by extension the social work profession and professionals out to dry. It’s all very well saying responsibility should lie at the top  but if that is the case, why not the Children’s Minister himself? You see, the problem with the uproar following the tragic death of Peter Connolly, which led to the highly charged press conferences and shamefully manipulative exchanges in the Houses of Commons is that it was a manufactured outrage. Yes, of course it is beyond awful when a child dies following abuse and it is a failing when the systems that should protect that child break down but Peter Conn0lly isn’t the only child, unfortunately, to die under those circumstances and in the face of Ed Balls’ posturing and much as we would like it to be different, nor will he be the last one.

There was the awful tales of Alex Sutherland, Khyra Ishtaq, Baby B – and many others – so why was Peter Connolly thrust into the public consciousness such that the memories of a boy whose life was cut short are remembered by the details of his death and the photos released to the newspapers?

Well, that would probably be an interesting research project all in itself about media and the human psyche – but Balls admits that he succumbed to pressure regarding Shoesmith and the pressure was put on by the tabloid press. He even added insult to injury by throwing Deirdre Sanders, the agony aunt of the Sun newspaper onto the Social Work Taskforce which was to look at ways of improving social work practice. If anything demonstrates how he threw the profession to the baying wolves, it is that.

As for Shoesmith, however she may or may not have done her job, hers was not the hand that beat Connolly. She deserved better from her employers regarding advice although who knows if they gave her that media management advice and whether she chose not to take it or whether she was just thrown to the wolves by her employers.

The OFSTED report by which Balls condemned Shoesmith is faulty in the extreme and was altered. I wonder who might have put pressure on OFSTED to change this.

There is a lot of poor practice and poor knowledge of processes knocking around in this case. It wasn’t all to be laid at the feet of Shoesmith. It looks like the ex-minister had more to gain through his pandering to the press than anyone else and the shame is that it is on the back of a tragedy.

Shoesmith isn’t a social worker and never has been (although the Evening Standard headline seems to state it) but it’s easy for the press to make the leap because they have no idea about the actual facts nor do they check them. They want a hate figure. I am uncomfortable defending Shoesmith to a point because I am not sure exactly where the blame lies but the blame for processes should lie between the police service, the health service and children’s services.  Another Serious Case Review and more about the failings in communication between agencies. The profession really needs far more radical proposals than those set out in the Munro Report but it’s a start.

What Shoesmith was entitled to was the same process of natural justice that everyone else is- I don’t say she shouldn’t have been dismissed, that’s another argument entirely and to be honest, I think she should have been – but Balls was looking to the headlines rather than the law book when he acted to dismiss her.

For that, he should apologise rather than taking refuge in the baying crowds of populism – oh, but he’s a politician. However much I may hate the current government, and however much Osborne makes my skin crawl, I will never forget the shameless pandering to the tabloid press that Balls engaged in on the back of the death of a child.

Report Reporting

So the Task Force report yesterday was pretty much as predicted. Personally, I think a lot of the contents are very welcome with the main concern being the lack of money to implement them – but I’m willing to engage positively with the process of change in the hope that some of the issues that we have been complaining about in social care will change – it’s that old chestnut – the triumph of hope over expectation but leave me in my ‘happy place’ however briefly!

I thought it was interesting to consider how some of the press reported on the publication of the Task Force report which in it’s full glory can be found here. I was about to print it out at work to read later when I realised it was 71   pages and thought that was a bit much –  more trees saved.

The Independent focuses on the tagline of ‘better pay’ for social workers but no money to fund it – which is the crux of the problem really.  Similarly, the Times also looks at the ‘elephant in the room’ – namely funding for the additional money that might be spent to implement the recommended changes.  The comments though are a little disheartening. There seems to be a perception that anyone with a bit of ‘common sense’ and ‘life experience’ can be an effective social worker. I think there is so little understanding of the importance of training that it is almost frightening.

The Daily Mail meanwhile go for a whiny

‘Social Workers to be given pay RISES in the wake of the Baby P scandal’ which is a disgustingly ignorant headline. Their capitals by the way. It is a plain misrepresentation which panders to their insufferable readers. The comments are enough to make my stomach churn. I would love that reporter to come to my office to see the work we do on a day to day basis.

The Sun’s agony aunt, Deirdre Sanders who actually sat on the Taskforce tells her readers

How we can stop another Baby P’

She seems to put things in patronisingly simplistic terms but it gets the general message across although I think that relating all the changes to a single child’s tragic death is not entirely a fair explanation of the scope of the work done. There is a generalised thought lingering in my mind that there should be a wider understanding of what we do as social workers in adult and mental health services rather than the focus solely on child protection issues as the Task Force was to concentrate on social work as a profession rather than one aspect of it.

Meanwhile on the safer arms of the pages of the Guardian, there are a number of articles addressing different parts of the report.  From the details of the report to opinions by Peter Beresford who discusses the long term commitment needed across the political board for the reform process to Ray Jones who writes in praise of the taskforce – although not without a well-aimed kick towards Ed Balls (and quite rightly in my opinion) who

followed through on the tabloid-generated victimisation of social work and social workers by himself vilifying those who gave their professional lives to protecting children. Not surprisingly there were then major problems in recruiting and retaining social workers, and the workloads for those who stayed increased. Who wants a job where, when a tragedy occurs and the going gets really tough, you and your family are hounded by the paparazzi and hung out to dry by politicians?

I was applauding in my chair as I read that!

Community Care, a magazine aimed specifically at those in the social care sector in the UK, unsurprisingly has a lot more in-depth coverage – from their own discussion of the main components to reactions from ADASS (Association of Directors of Adult Social Services) and ADCS (Association of Directors of Childrens Services) which understanding question where the money is going to come from to their own views (via the Group Editor, Bronagh Miskelly’s blog).

Personally, I think the issues around training and recruitment are far more important than the pay issue but I accept it’s because I’m not unhappy with my salary – although more is always good..

One of my favourite (and I mean that in an ironic way) quotes comes from the Independent piece where Tim Loughton, the Conservative shadow children’s minister says

“The task force makes some sensible suggestions for improving social work and child protection, many of which we proposed some time ago.

“Ultimately the success of these proposals must be judged on whether they improve conditions on the front line. This Government has strangled social work with 12 years of bureaucracy – it is important that it now acts to improve the situation.”

Sorry, but a Conservative shadow minister saying the government has strangled social work with bureaucracy? Shows very little understanding of the last Conservative administration… and the one before that, and the one before that.

I am no fan of the government and couldn’t despite Balls any more than I do at the moment but the Conservatives are hardly speaking from a position of authority after seeing what they did with and to the profession.

But in general, I am left with a warm buzz of excitement that changes might be implemented to benefit the profession and most importantly those who use the services provided by social workers in the future.

Dear Deirdre

Dear Deirdre

I suppose you are making an effort with your survey on the Sun website asking readers to tell you all that is wrong with social work.

Personally though, I find it insulting that you were given a place on the Social Work Taskforce that is to report on changes and improvements to be made to Social Work. Although apparently more front line workers are being included, unfortunately, Deirdre remains.  And no, justifying her position because of a Sun petition is not a defence, it is even more of an insult. Let’s put this simply – I say this for the following reasons:-

The Sun organised a campaign which included false reporting of social work – victimised individual social workers and questioned the mental health of a social worker. Now, they are claiming ‘victory’ in successfully causing the dismissal of a social worker and social work managers. Fine with the managers, but honestly if I live and work in a country where red top journalism and over-hyped dishonest media campaigns can lead to dismissal rather than incompetence in the workplace then it isn’t doing very much for morale – don’t you think?

What experience do you have of social work? Seriously. What knowledge beyond what your colleagues report? Where has there been any will to engage –  I see you pulled out of the Community Care Live event? Can’t take the heat, eh, Deirdre?

Fine, if the taskforce wants a media representative – there are many worthy journalists from Community Care or The Guardian who have consistently shown a knowledge and appreciation of the wider issues within social work but AN AGONY AUNT FROM THE SUN??? Who on earth is going to take Social Work seriously if they think that newspaper agony columns offer some kind of expertise in social work?

I don’t want to be trialled and judged by media – I want to do my job well and effectively and be supported by professional organisations and relevant government departments – not held up to some kind of media trial that you seem to be creating by surveys.

If the task force was REALLY interested in views it would have made the meetings for social workers actually more accessible rather than bunching them in with a few days notice and filling up within hours. I desperately wanted to attend one of the feed back days but my only possibility in London was about a week after I found out that they existed because the other date filled up within a day. Hardly feasible for the front-line workers who, you know, have work to do..

Well, I’ve made my views clear but lets try and get to Deirdre’s ‘survey’ and give her some of the opinions she so  obviously wants from Sun readers.

For the record, Deirdre, your first question on that survey, you know where you get one answer and have to say if you have ever had contact with a social worker or you are a social worker.. you know, sweets, those two things aren’t mutually exclusive.

I am a social worker. My foster child has a social worker, myself and my partner have a supervising social worker, my father who is, himself, elderly (sorry Dad, I know you are reading this!) has a social worker. So what on earth made you think that no social worker can possibly actually USE the services of social workers for your oh-so-helpful survey.

Bleh.  Oh well, I guess it makes a change not to see the pressing issues of infidelities or what to do if you’ve impregnated your next door neighbour’s daughter on your problem page (although I suspect that’s only in the online edition).

image gene hunt at Flickr

Go and fill it out though, guys, and let her know exactly what we think.

Oh and Deirdre, if you do ever find your way here, I’d love to hear your defence.

Wow, I sometimes have grumps but don’t often have a full-on rant. Sometimes it feels quite good.

Of Public Image and Social Work

Community Care launch their ‘Stand Up for Social Work’ campaign today. The aim is to focus on poor media images and misconceptions of social workers and to promote positive social work stories to the media and possibly even, dare I say it, the general public.

It comes in the wake of what can be seen as some kind of wide-spread demonisation of social workers in the press and having a profession that invokes such widespread disdain and mirth spreading to the level that recruitment increasingly difficult.

We don’t go into social work to be loved or even respected. But the tirade that greets me in some of the more virulent right wing press (The Sun and the Mail in particular) leaves me solely with the realisation that the journalists know absolutely nothing about social work at all or what social workers actually do on a day to day basis.

So I’m thrilled by the campaign that has been launched.

The campaign goals are

Campaign goals
The Stand Up Now for Social Work campaign is demanding RESPECT for social workers:

Responsible, balanced, fair and accountable reporting
End to inaccurate and misleading coverage
Support from employers
Positive images of social work’s successes
Equal media treatment with other professions
Commitment from government to support social work
Training to improve media relations

To achieve this, it is calling on:
● The media to portray social work in an accurate and balanced way, be accountable for the information they provide, and agree and adhere to guidelines for reporting on social work
● The government to do more to support and promote respect and positive images to enhance the professional standing of social work, as it has done for teachers with the ‘If you can, teach’ campaign
● Social services departments to improve their PR and media relations skills to help improve interactions with the press and increase opportunities for positive coverage

I can certainly concur and applaud those aims.

I hope the focus though broadens from strictly a child protection focus to the work that is done in other areas and fields of social work.

So far the campaign has drawn support across different political parties although I have to say my stomach turned  as I read the interview with Ed Balls by Community Care – where he tries to wheedle away from his previous panderings to the Sun and excuses his appointment of the Sun agony aunt to the Social Work taskforce  pointing out that she communicates with Sun readers on a daily basis.

Sure, she does communicate to The Sun readers – in fact, today she is communicating about.. er.. what to do if your lover has an STI, what to do if your boss demands sex, sex with brother was a mistake (!!), why did my girlfriend cheat? – as you can imagine, all valid ways of communicating serious messages – gee, thanks Balls. Must try to stay away from anything that relates to him now, it makes my blood pressure rise.

Anyway, back to the campaign.

Dave Prentice – the General Secretary of Unison – the union that probably a majority of social workers belong to (or maybe that’s just my very limited straw poll of people I know!) writes a piece for Community Care in support of the campaign and the Social Work Blog carries a piece highlighting some of the more inaccurate reporting that takes place from, what a surprise, The Sun again.

And Simeon Brody writes a piece at Journalism.co.uk explaining the campaign to a wider audience.

I hope it picks up and certainly think it has an opportunity to breathe some life and support into a profession that seems to be used as a constant political football and dumping ground for all of society’s ills.

I have long thought that the poor perception of social work relates to the poor perception of those who seek support through social work interventions. It is easy for society to want to pour scorn on those who remind them of the less favourable aspects of the communities we live in.

Doctors, nurses, teachers and policemen are for all of us.

Social Workers are for everyone else.

I hope the campaign goes some way to look at the wide variety of work and scope that social work covers – and tries to explore and explain how social work is for all of us too.

It might not be always obvious, but I am immensely proud of my job and my choice of profession. While I can live with thoughtless jibes, I am saddened most of all to think that potential social workers could be deterred from a wonderful career path through misconceptions and misunderstanding about what it is that is open to you as a social worker.

Follow The Sun

Yesterday the make up of the shiny new government Task Force on Social Work was announced. This is a focus group who are to be involved in the ‘root and branch’ review of front-line practice of the Social Work profession as a whole in the UK.

The ‘team’ has been put together by the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families – Ed Balls and the Secretary of State for Health, Alan Johnson and are due to report back to the government this summer.

That doesn’t leave them a lot of time. Of course, I am sure there can be a million different views about the rightness or wrongness of the composition of this committee. Social Work runs across childrens’ and adult services. Social Work covers a wide gamut of interests and experiences. It is difficult for a committee which is small enough to function effectively to be large enough to address the differing aspects of the profession so the hope is that those groups not having a place specifically on the task force will be considered and represented by those who do have a voice.

The task force (I don’t know, that just brings back memories of the Falklands Invasion to me) has the usual members, some front line workers, some academics, some chief executives – but there is one member whose presence really is staggering.

Deirdre Sanders, the agony aunt of The Sun – remember, the same tabloid newspaper that carried out a vitriolic witch-hunt against individual social workers and organised a petition against them – has a place on this Task Force.

image mysza831  at Flickr

I’m sure Deirdre is a wonderful human being. She writes very sensible letters in the newspaper (so I’m told). Am I the only one to be staggered that the social work profession has to engage journalists to discuss the future of their profession though at this level? Sure, if it were a task force on the ‘perception of social work’ or ‘improving the way that social work is reported’ she would be a valuable member of the team –  but honestly, a committee which is tasked with making changes to the social work profession?

It feels a bit like Ed Balls playing (again) a public opinion game with a profession that has had too much political interference for its own good.

Emma Maier considered this at The Social Work Blog and looks at both the positives of Deirdre’s appointment, namely that

giving The Sun the inside track on the taskforce could be a clever because it is always more difficult to slate something you are involved in. Having the popular press on side would help convey some of the important messages to come out of the taskforce. And the rest of the taskforce seems to offer a good spread of stakeholders from children’s and adults’ services.

It is something I hadn’t considered initially but then, why should a team of professionals who are conducting a serious review of the needs of social work in the 21st century have to get ‘popular press’ onside. Why should we, as social workers, need to work hard to involve tabloid journalists in our professional goals and developments. We should look at how social workers can work most effectively and beneficially for the public good and for the individual users of services rather than pandering to public agendas created by popular journalism.

Can we imagine a task force of any other professional group involving an ‘agony aunt’? OK, excepting a task force of journalists.. I guess that would work.. User involvement is represented quite rightly on the task force so why appoint a paid employee of the Sun newspaper. Will her presence, as I’m sure she is extremely articulate and able, overpower and detract from the serious discussions that need to take place about social work. Is this a true and honest attempt to improve and create a fundamentally workable system or is it a publicity stunt by Ed Balls. Again. Who seems to like using social workers are political footballs.

As for me, I feel honestly, insulted that my profession cannot be given the respect should command by the government.

I await the report in the summer with interest and no little trepidation.