Social Work Education and the Munro Report

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I won’t apologise for not having read the entire Munro review on Child Protection which was published yesterday (and can be read here)   by this morning – partly because there is so much coverage of the contents in the press –  which I know isn’t the same as reading the document in its entirety myself, but also because I don’t work directly in child protection services so my knowledge of the systems as they are currently and how they are proposed is not based on experience and knowledge so I don’t think I can necessarily add anything to the discussion which isn’t already ‘out there’.

The Guardian has a good general summary of the proposals  and there is, unsurprisingly, extensive coverage in Community Care through a number of articles.

In some ways, it has been confusing for me, as a social worker who does not work in childrens’ services to understand how the Munro report links in with the Taskforce which was, I thought, carrying out a more general assessment of social work and how the specific proposals regarding social work in the Munro report will feed back to the Social Work Reform Board.

I want to focus on one of the recommendations particularly though because it is an area that I think may have significant implications for the profession as a whole.

Recommendation 12 reads that:-

Employers and higher education institutions (HEIs)
should work together so that social work students are prepared for the challenges of child protection work.   In particular, the review considers that HEIs and employing agencies should work together so that:
•     practice placements are of the highest quality and – in time – only in designated Approved Practice Settings;
•     employers are able to apply for special ‘teaching organisation’ status, awarded by the College of Social Work;
•     the merits of ‘student units’, which are headed up by a senior social worker are considered; and
•     placements are of sufficiently high quality, and both employers and HEIs consider if their relationship is working well.

It is incredible to m e that there are not already more guidelines about what constitutes a ‘practice setting’ in social work training. Ready-to-practice Social Workers rarely emerge perfectly formed, on graduation. Yes, there is a need for more stringent guidelines in the universities regarding placements and the quality of students that pass the course but, and this is a big but, local authorities, and in fact, all employing services , really need to take responsibility for training the social work graduate to become a professional. I know there are some steps being taken in this way but it is not fair to demand statutory placements prepare a student for statutory practice and that employers discriminate in favour of those who have been fortunate enough to get the ‘right’ placements. Why don’t local authorities invest a few months to ‘create’ their own internal placements across all areas of social work, adults, children and mental health to ensure that social work graduates get broader experience rather than expecting graduates to perform immediately.

I know there is discussion about having an assessed year in practice before being registered as a ‘social worker’ but this will only happen if it is forced on the local authorities as in a climate of cuts they can’t afford to take on and train anyone who isn’t immediately capable but this weakens the profession as a whole.

I have never understood, not really, why it is the jobs in child protection social work that are taken by the newly qualified social workers. Surely it makes sense to have some kind of post-qualifying training similar to the AMHP role before taking on what is one of the more complex and risky areas of social work. I couldn’t arrange a compulsory admission to hospital for someone until I had substantial experience as a social worker and a further extensive qualification and a great deal of observed practice and had to pass an additional legal exam before I could do so. Why is it not the same in child protection work?

Cost, I suspect – but since I qualified 10 years ago, and probably for a long time previously, it was a known fact among my cohort that there would always be jobs for newly qualifieds in child protection – and then, often, comes the burnout and the move into management – not by people who have any particular management skill but the people with the ‘right’ faces or those who just want to apply in order to escape from frontline practice themselves. Being bitter or having had poor models, they perpetuate the toxic and oppressive management styles that are embedded in systems which are dependent on targets and so others come into the system with poor supervision and poorly modelled management roles and the profession deskills as no critical appraisal is required – just form filling ad infinitum.

Student units existed before my time but I’ve heard only positive things about them at Practice Assessor’s forums when other Practice Assessor’s hark back to the ‘old days’. The utter frustration of working in this profession is the cyclical learning or non-learning processes which seem to lead us back to where we started from over and over again.

The report also says

Degree courses are not consistent in content, quality and outcomes – for child protection, there are crucial things missing in some courses such as detailed learning on child development, how to communicate with children and young people, and using evidence-based methods of working with children and families. Theory and research are not always well integrated with practice and there is a failure to align what is taught with the realities of contemporary social work practice.

I’m in a lucky position in that students have come into teams I have been working in from just about every London university – because of this, and in discussion with them, I do pick up an idea of the differences between universities and yes, differences in content and quality (I can’t really judge outcomes) is massive in my own experience.

I am concerned about the focus on detailed learning related to child protection as I am sure it would probably push out learning which is already significantly limited in adult and mental health work.  I hope that universities reading this don’t forget that the training is generic. One of the differences I’ve noticed between universities is that some ask their students to specialise after one year (in the Masters) or two years (undergraduate). I’m not sure how helpful this in a generic degree where there is little enough time to cover everything anyway. I would hope that the year post-qualification when the newly qualified social worker has a position would be the time to specialise and train in a more focused way in a particular area.

I don’t think it’s fair to expect universities to pump out ‘ready to practice’ social workers. There is not time enough to do that. There needs to be more training and development in practice.

This all costs though, and there’s the rub with almost all of the proposals. Changes cost. Although of course, the cost of not changing could potentially be much higher.

So many people with and without voices have a stake in creating a good, strong and cohesive social work profession – I just worry that between a College of Social Work, the British Association of Social Workers which has decided to also call itself a College of Social Work, a Social Work Reform Board and a possible Chief Social Worker – we don’t end up with too much confusion at the top of the profession and lots of talk in the absence of any change.

I’ll try to be hopeful though because if I weren’t I’d despair.

Things can only get better.

Munro’s Interim Report on Child Protection – some thoughts

Professor Munro published an  Interim Report on Child Protection – subtitled ‘A Child’s Journey’  yesterday with some ideas, thoughts and (most importantly) hard research evidence about changes that need to be made in the child protection system and particularly in the way child protection social work operates.

As will be enormously apparent to anyone who passes by here, I have no experience at all in working in child protection services so I don’t want to comment on some of the details which relate to things that I don’t have any idea about (like ICS – their computer systems).

There are a number of points though that came to me as I read through the interim report. This is, though, from the viewpoint of someone who is very much a non-expert so do take my comments with the proverbial pinch of salt.

Nothing came as a great surprise to me. I have often felt, through conversations with colleagues and friends as well as my experience as a foster carer, that some of the child protection departments sound plain toxic in terms of management styles and healthy workplaces.

Everyone is under pressure to hit targets. I have worked in that style of team myself where you really do feel like an automaton just pumping out work of varying quality to meet targets, targets and more targets at the expense of quality interactions and interventions – or as Munro puts it more simply – help.

It does seem (and this is wholly anecdotal evidence) more prevalent in child protection teams due to the pace of the work and statutory time frames in which to work.

The report itself makes interesting reading – but I fully accept that my definition of interesting might not be a standard normative base.

It is however eminently readable which isn’t always the case with these reports and documents.

There are four chapters after the introduction.

1.  Getting Help Early

This has focus on – as it says – early interventions. I do like her use of the word ‘help’ for families rather than ‘intervention’. It reminds me how distant some of the jargon becomes and how words themselves can frame ways of working and attitudes.

She mentions the planned expansion of the health visiting role and the importance of Sure Start programmes (which the government seem to be cutting).

It’s interesting as well that she focuses on the importance of universal services to ‘catch’ children and families that may otherwise fall ‘below the radar’ – or, as she puts it – meet the threshold for statutory intervention.

She also praises and seems to support the idea of multi-agency teams. For me it’s obvious having worked in a social services team and then moving into an multi-disciplinary team. Working alongside people with different professional backgrounds and specialities is both a pleasure and a very sharp learning curve. There is nothing like meeting, working and talking to people across different services and professions to build relationships informally – going for lunch together, having a cup of coffee and casual chat – to build strong professional relationships. It can’t necessarily be forced but one thing that happens where I work is that if some kind of ‘blockage’ builds up with a particular team – we then go and shadow them and/or they come and shadow us.

There is nothing like knowing the faces behind the telephone voices for promoting better joint-working.

2. Child and Family Social Work

This is a big one. It found it fascinating to read because on some levels I understood but on other levels I was having some kind of insight into an almost parallel world.

Munro ties in very tightly with the recommendations of the Social Work Task Force to improve social work practice throughout the country.

It seems she has worked closely with members of the prospective College of Social Work (the SCIE one – sigh – that is getting boring having to differentiate). I wonder if that’s why BASW have been so quiet about the report.

Munro tries to focus on the expertise that social workers bring to child protection work and particularly to the nature of the relationships that they build and how that is and can be affected by some of the borked systems that are in place – it is what she calls a ‘rational-technical’ approach to social work.  This is a term for the manageralist leaning of social work practice dependent on procedural manuals and completing reams of paperwork at the expense of the face-to-face work with children and families.

Paperwork can be faultless but does that mean practice is any better? Recording of course, is important but as she says it is often the actions that are recorded rather than the thinking and reasoning.

It’s a fair point and there may be other places to record the processes behind decisions being made. The importance is that THERE IS thinking behind the decisions and reasoning and that it does not become process-led or defensive.

There are some thought-provoking paragraphs about the importance of intuition and expertise in communication – evidenced throughout – as one would expect of a professor with a research base.

I’m glad that Munro mentions time and managers giving staff the time to develop their skills and practice. I wonder how this will be possible in a world of contracting and contracting out local authority roles and functions.

But this is a report which recommends an idealised version of practice.

Munro also considers the career path of social work which currently heads straight from front line work to front line management to senior management. There are no ‘professional experts’ within teams and few, if any, promotion or development prospects if you do not want to be a manager. That’s somewhere I’ve arrived myself actually. I’m quite happy to be a practitioner and have developed in the sense that I’m a Practice Assessor, and AMHP and a BIA but that’s probably as far as I can go without a managerial role that would take me away from front line practice. And I have over 30 years to go until I retire. If I ever retire.

I’ve pretty much exhausted available post-qualification training that is open to me at the level which I am at.

Actually, that’s quite depressing when I think about it. I’d love to study more. I sit with my nursing colleagues who are working on research projects, my occupational therapist colleague is also currently engaging in research, medical colleagues are conducting their own research. Why can’t I, as a social worker, take that path (while practising – I don’t WANT to leave the front line to do research work full time)? I can’t because the local authority have no training budget and I can’t afford to fund myself.

I hope that’s something that is picked up on. I would love to be an ‘expert practitioner’ type! Oops, got off the topic a little there.

3. Managing Front Line Social Work

Munro starts this chapter with a great line that I’ll paraphrase by saying that social workers have spent so much time on guidelines and regulations and concentrating on good reports from Ofsted that they have lost sight of the needs of the child in the process.

The bureaucratic monster is proverbially eating itself and forgetting who it is meant to serve.

Munro highlights a blame culture that seems to permeate the sector. It is hard not to feel that when you have ministers like Ed Balls showing so little support to the profession. But that was yesterday (I’m  not going to forget that, Balls).

The front-line manager often creates the culture of the organisation to their staff. This is crucial and managers need to be very good at managing and not just experienced professionals who have reached ‘their turn’ at promotion. Perhaps poor management is a reflection on the levels of progression for social workers. People might feel pressured into managing when it isn’t what they want because that is solely where the career progression lies.

Colleagues of mine often comment about me not being a manager or a senior practitioner because of the amount of time I’ve been hanging around in the service. It is rarely positive comment – something along the lines of ‘oh, you’re still in that job’. It doesn’t bother me because I have an idea of what I want to do but I can see it would play on the mind of others.

Munro also mentions the process of supervision and how it  has become a task based run down of management issues. I’m very lucky to have professional and management supervision separately.

I meet with a senior social worker in a different team and we discuss my professional development and issues away from my office. She knows my managers and colleagues but mostly just by name and it allows for some distance ‘from the ground’ and discussions about issues in social work, use of theories – it is something more like the supervision I might do for a student than the type of supervision I tended to get prior to this as a practitioner.

My manager still supervises me for case discussions and to see where I’m up to and I would go to her for advice about managing cases but being able to talk about the wider issues of social work in a different setting has been a real breath of fresh air in my practice and my enthusiasm for the job and the profession. I can’t speak highly enough of the split and I hope it is something that is promoting throughout the sector. It does take time though and partly works so well because I get along with my supervisor (which is completely random – I had never met her before she was ‘allocated’ to me). She tells me she gets as much from it as I do.

I completely understand that I am somewhat unique in that I have these two supervisors. It dates back to a particular incident where I kicked up a bit stink that went to senior management and demanded more professional support. It was conceded but it was hard fought and it is far from standard in my organisation.

4. Shared learning and accountability.

I’m not going to comment much on this because it refers to details which really are out of my sphere of knowledge.

Munro considers the role of Local Safeguarding Childrens’ Boards and the learning from Serious Case Reviews.

This is also where she considers unannounced inspections of services as opposed to planned inspections which take significant amounts of resources to prepare for.

All I will say here is that unannounced inspections are always the best way of getting a good idea and understanding of practice in any area. I’m a big fan of unannounced inspections in adult social care, care homes, hospitals and social services departments.

My old manager used to randomly patrol the office and pick out random files from the old filing system and take them to her office to read though to check on case recording quality and that paperwork was where it should be. It meant we were much more attentive and careful on a continuous basis.

This is a very slanted and somewhat haphazard almost stream of consciousness piece about my response to Munro so I apologise in advance for that. Busy week at work!

I feel the recommendations are positive but I do worry that the whole narrative of change in the social work profession is being led solely by child protection social work.

I am concerned that, for example, if there is a proposed Chief Social Worker, they will completely forget that there are other areas of social work that exist and again, just as in the training and throughout my career,  the protection of vulnerable adults and the needs of older adults will be pushed into the periphery by the more headline-grabbing needs of child protection.

For the moment though, I hope it becomes an opportunity to improve social work practice across all sectors.

(Don’t worry, I’ll get back to the Mental Capacity Act tomorrow – I just couldn’t resist the opportunity to comment on this review!)