Since I started my social work training in 1998, I have spent a lot of time thinking about power and my relationship with it. When I was a student, I didn’t feel that I had ‘power’. It felt like it was being at the bottom of a professional hierarchy. Yet we learnt about ‘empowerment’ and how we, as students and (eventually) as social workers advocate and ‘empower’ other people.

It was a tired old adage. Social work is about ‘empowerment’ but it always sat a little bit uncomfortably. By saying that I empower someone else, that makes a number of assumptions. Firstly that somehow I have more knowledge and authority than the person that I am ‘empowering’. It is a patriarchal approach at best. I ‘empower’ you. What does that say about me – and about you and our views of the world? Secondly, I didn’t think – and we weren’t taught about empowering ourselves. It was about different ‘client groups’ we worked with. We learnt about oppression, prejudice and all those structural issues that exist in society but we weren’t, as students in a setting where we were very much amid and victim to massive issues of power differentials – with lecturers and tutors and with practice teachers – of empowering ourselves in relation to the course and the university. So all that theoretical teaching begins to take a hint of vague hypocrisy.

Sometimes I still see tutors talking about how they teach their students to ‘empower’ others. Is that what they are doing themselves? Are they empowering their students or encouraging their students to challenge them? I had a particular experience at university (when I was studying my social work MA) which colours my view. The leader of the MA programme was a bully. He enjoyed his power relationship with students. We didn’t see it at the time, but saw it for what it was fairly rapidly afterwards.  He would talk about ‘empowerment’ while demeaning students and emphasising his own power within the context of teaching social work. It was the kind of thing that made me terrified of the thought that he had ever practised social work.

Then, when I was on my first placement, with my fantastic practice teacher – she said to me to remember my own power in the relationships with the people I saw on placement. I felt like a ‘little student’ – we had been disempowered as students as a part of the course by the attitude of this tutor and she told me that I had enormous power in respect to people who used the service we were providing. It helped me feel a lot less sorry for myself and helped me to understand power and empowerment much more clearly than anyone in the university was able to. You see, I hadn’t recognised my own power while I had been caught up in other people’s power games over me. We rarely recognise our own power. If I “empower” someone else, I am immediately putting myself in a position where the balance is skewed.


I have power. I can give you power. I empower you. No. I think that’s the wrong way of looking at the process. I can, perhaps, help you to recognise your own power so that you can empower yourself but I maintain that it isn’t possible for me to empower you. If I empower you, I immediately remove some of the ‘power’ from you because I am in the position of gifting it. I may be able to create conditions for you to recognise where and how power fits in between us. I can, perhaps, create an environment that allows people to seize power and challenge me. I hope they do. But I can’t ‘empower’ you as it isn’t within my gift to change the way you think.

That’s the way I see it. I struggle still with my relationship with power. It was a large focus of the ASW training when I did it. I was in a supremely powerful position where I was able to remove someone’s liberty without a court judgement. I could make a decision to detain another person in a hospital. That is immense power. Yet in my own organisation, in the NHS trust I worked in, I wasn’t trusted to give feedback to a woolly ‘consultation’ about the services we ran. My voice wasn’t heard when I did raise concerns about cuts in services or even, when we aren’t talking about money, about poor services that didn’t respect the rights of individuals. The shouting wasn’t always about cuts – sometimes it was about quality. I felt disempowered and yet I was in one of the most powerful positions it is possible to have – to make a decision to detain someone.

It made me think a lot about ‘empowerment’. As an AMHP, I had power. I had immense power. I couldn’t give that power away. I couldn’t empower people. I could discuss and consult. I had a duty to. But the power was mine and it was not mine to give away. In order to talk about power and empowerment, we have to confront our own power – even when we, as professionals don’t feel powerful within the organisations or systems in which we work. If we underplay our power, we do everyone a disservice, especially those who rely on us to use our power well and ethically.

I’m a in position now where I have power. Sometimes I feel disempowered but it is my responsibility to work on that. I don’t and can’t ask other people to ‘empower’ me. Can I ‘empower’ anyone else? I don’t think so. I can recognise – indeed, I have to recognise my own power. If I deny my power, I am denying the positive changes which I, personally, can effect. If I tell someone else, I will empower you, I am possibly taking power away from them.

Should we be teaching ‘empowerment’ on social work training? I don’t think so  but if we don’t teach about power and our honest relationship with it – for good as well as bad – we do everyone who comes across us a massive disservice. We shouldn’t be afraid of the power we have. We need to recognise and learn to understand it so we can spread it and hope that it becomes contagious.

Docking Benefits and Blaming the Poor

I know I covered this more generally on Monday in my rant about ‘benefits’ but it’s worth coming back to with the proposals explained in the Guardian

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.


I’ll preface this post by mentioning I have a stinking headache at the moment – but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a lot to say!

Anyone in and around London, the Social Work Action Network which describes itself as ‘a radical campaigning network within social work’ has a conference this coming Saturday at the London Metropolitan University on 4th July between 9.30an – 4.30pm.

They describe themselves as

a loose network of social work practitioners, academics, students and social welfare service users united in their concern that social work activity is being undermined by managerialism and marketisation, by the stigmatisation of service users and by welfare cuts and restrictions.

It sounds very tempting and registration is still open, indeed, it seems that it will be taken on the day.

I had thought to go and still may although I hope it doesn’t sound too negative when I say that from where I am at the moment, in the middle of one of the busiest weeks I can remember for a long time, to then attend a conference all day Saturday might be a bit too much for me all in one week.

I’m generally very interested in the aims and goals though. I have been following (from afar) the scope of SWAN and it seems to me, to be somewhat focussed on academic social work which is not always as closely tied to the front line work or those practising as they might want to appear to be. It’s much easier to be radical in a library.

To be fair, they do have a practitioner speaking on Saturday and it does sound interesting so I’d like to be more wholehearted but feel I might just have to see how I feel on the day..

I do want our profession to garner greater respect and to be more proactive in taking those reins back from the naysayers. I believe strongly in the values of social justice and feel it is important for us to stand united together. I just need a bit of brain-recharge time at the weekend too sometimes.

In any case, I’ll be interested in any feedback.

Training, Universities and the CWDC

Community Care have an article on their website today about CWDC (Children’s Workforce Development Council) and their submission to the Social Work Taskforce which is considering the future of the Social Work profession following an interview published in the magazine, with the Chair of the CWDC, Mike Leadbetter. In the article, Leadbetter called for more rigour in the selection process for degree courses, claiming it was currently “patchy”

Apart from the fact that I’d be marginally offended if I were a current student, I think there is something in what he says. It is clear that the universities are ploughing their own merry furrows. Self-directed learning has the potential to be useful in conjunction with other types of learning and teaching but packing more students than can realistically be offered quality placements is bad.  As is offering students places who are not expected to last the course or, a few years down the line, make quality practitioners.

There is, of course, some crystal-ball gazing and of course, past experience is not always an indication of future potential but the fact that some courses do not even interview applicants is a minor worry.

My own experiences are a little mixed on this. I know I was lucky to get my place on the MA course I attended. I know because after having been accepted and settling down to study, I had this exact conversation with the tutor who had interviewed me – who told me I had secured one of the last available places on the basis of a reasonably good interview when they had been very reluctant to offer me an interview.

It was easy to for us to know the ‘borderline’ candidates on that course – we were the ones who had been interviewed – the ‘definites’ had been offered places without interviews!


Back to Leadbetter who

.. suggested that candidates should be tested for their “emotional intelligence and resilience” by doing compulsory role-plays

One this is for sure and that is it would probably attract a different type of student for the course. It’s an interesting point though.

I went to have a look at the Submission that the CWDC made to the Taskforce. It makes some more substantial points – and it actually an interesting read because it not only sets up the problems currently within the system but relays some answers.

Just looking at the part relating to ‘Training and Qualifications’ there are a number of excellently made points which I hope will be addressed.

· differential levels of quality in respect of the three year degree;

· the quality and variability of the teaching on the degree course and the low level of current practice knowledge of many teachers of social work;

·· lack of clarity about what should be taught, how it is taught, the balance between self-directed learning and other more formal methods of learning;

· graduates are leaving social work training courses with an insufficient knowledge of basic principles and experience of e.g. attachment, human growth and development, psychoanalytic and psychological theories of behaviour, self-awareness and emotional intelligence, scenario and role-play enactments which give a greater understanding of real life situations;

· insufficient quality and quantity of statutory placements.

I expect one of the matters which will be addressed will be the variety of experiences on the Social Work degree course. It’s one of the reasons I think that someone being registered to practice immediately after finishing university is proving to be a disservice both to the incoming students and the profession as a whole.

The universities are eager to suck up any funding they can muster and have no incentives to reduce their intake if they do not receive high quality applicants but rather they are encouraged to fill places for funding purposes.

This is dangerous when the degree course in itself is seen as enough to prepare for practice. It also puts an extraordinary amount of pressure onto Practice Teachers in the workplace who are responsible for deciding then if a particular student is fit to practice or not and is, perhaps, doing some of the teaching which should be taking place in the university.

I also wonder how more current practice can be built into university courses – I am a little detached now except through some of the post qualification training I have experienced. I know on the ASW course, for example,  that the course leader taught while continuing to practice (part-time, occasional EDT work) and that was enormously helpful but also reassuring as she was aware and interested in current practice as well as having a firm personal pride in training a group of practitioners who were competent.

‘Self-directed’ learning is all very good but sometimes it seems like a cop-out for the university and a ‘cheaper’ option. Has this system of training produced a generation of social workers who are over-assessed but under-trained? Judging by the first year students I have come across, the fervour and desire is still there.

Lastly, another point I picked up from the CDWC submission saddened me enormously.

..  in the 1970s and early 1980s there was hope, vision and an intellectual enthusiasm about the task that is largely missing today. Highly publicised tragedies seem to have drawn the profession into a cycle of despair, defensiveness, fear and lack of confidence.

I’ll have to claim that being born in the 70s, I don’t retain much knowledge of what was happening in the 70s and 80s beyond cheesy pop music and different varieties of penny sweets but we were taught through the history of social policy and the radicalism of the 70s at least, that it may be possible to work in a climate where there is ‘hope, vision and intellectual enthusiasm’.

How much more exciting the work is when there is a passion to work towards empowerment and a vision of social justice – rather than the tedium of another set of performance indicators to input before 1st April. Of course a working life has to mix between the two but the balance seems to have shifted too far away from the broader aims and visions of social work practice.

Are we taught too much about procedures in a system that has to pump us out of university ‘ready to practice’? I think so, personally. We are trained to practice as statutory social workers in a very closely defined model. Statutory placements are seen as being superior to all others as they provide ‘experience’ when really it should make no difference and work experience post-qualification should be able to provide that same ‘experience’.

If Universities are expected to create ‘ready to work’ social workers immediately on graduation, the needs to be a lot more partnership working as there are few incentives for practitioners to take students on.

The sadness is that it is often the newly qualified social workers that go straight into the child protection teams – that has been the case consistently – certainly since I qualified.  What those teams need perhaps more than any others are the more confident and experienced workers.

Universities can provide a great inspirational role and are key to providing the quality practitioners of the future as they are the ones with the ability to select the finest students.

I wonder if the universities need to take more responsibility for training and if they ever will without the funding.

I wonder if the agencies that employ social workers need to stop hiding behind the universities and demand a better trained workforce and what role the GSCC is taking in this process. I expect we will see when the Taskforce reports back.

And I’m still more than a little tetchy that Balls had the temerity to place a newspaper agony aunt on the committee that decides the future of the profession.

Ageism and Justice

Community Care reports on a proposal by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to recommend more severe sentences to those who commit crimes against older people

The policy is the last to be published on six “equality strands” and brings victimisation due to ageism in line with crimes driven by racism, homophobia, religious hate, disability hate and domestic violence.

coach Royal Courts of Justice

To be honest, before severe sentences are considered, I’d like to see the CPS take more action about taking seriously crimes reported by elderly people so that -any- sentence is considered.

I can personally run through many examples of protective conferences and planning meetings I’ve been party to that have whimpered to unsatisfactory endings because witnesses/victims were deemed to be unreliable witnesses in a court setting or not able to testify in a court – situations where I honestly think video-links would have been extremely helpful.

The policies currently have no teeth and as a victim’s daughter told me just earlier this week ‘why should it be that it’s my mother that has to move away from her home because of my brother’s actions?’.

No answer – but the CPS won’t take any action because of the unreliability of evidence, an injunction requires a similar level of proof and we need to ensure safety as best we can and unfortunately that means a move of someone who would in any other circumstance, be able to stay in her own home.

These are the things that constantly frustrate working in adult protection. The mechanisms just don’t exist to put into place and sturdy protective actions if the witnesses are never deemed to be reliable due to cognitive impairments. While allowances can be made for young witnesses, they rarely are for older ones.

This article explains

The policy also describes how older people who are acting as witnesses can be subject to “special measures” such as being able to give evidence by video link. Older victims will also be offered specialist advocacy services.

Seems well overdue but I’ll try not to be ungracious about it and merely add the sooner the better..

Action on Elder Abuse responded to this by adding

“There is a growing body of evidence indicating the extent and complexity of elder abuse, and the argument is becoming increasingly compelling for there to be equal parity with child protection and domestic violence strategies.”

Couldn’t have put it better myself..

*The Road Not Taken

I was asked over the weekend by someone who is just about to finish her Social Work degree and  if I would recommend she goes  for statutory or voluntary Social  Work when she qualifies.

I had no hesitation in recommending voluntary sector work in an unashamedly contradictory manner – having worked, myself, almost exclusively in the public sector. One of those classic ‘do as I say and don’t do as I do’ models!

I have very little experience in the voluntary sector – I worked in a voluntary organisation for a few years before I qualified – but that was in residential care so in quite a different capacity to what I imagine the role of a qualified social worker would be – and my second placement all those years ago when I was training was in a voluntary sector organisation but other than that, all my post-qualification experience has been in the statutory sector.

We were generally advised to ‘get some experience in the statutory sector’ before deciding. The difficulty is though is moving on from that ‘experience’.

Statutory work is for the most part going to be paid better than voluntary sector work. And once you take the penny from the paws of the State, its very very difficult to take a salary drop to go back to voluntary work. That’s what I found anyway..

My intention was, all those years ago, to go voluntary and stay voluntary – I think in some ways, some of the social justice and advocacy/support roles that I sought to implement as an idealistic student would  have been better served in the third sector.

But I’ve found it now, too difficult to go back.

Perhaps I justify it but saying that in this role, I can work from within on the change-process but I’m likely kidding myself. I barely have a voice in the organisation I work in, let alone in the wider sector.

Maybe one day..


I’d be interested in other peoples’ opinions though – what would your advice be to someone starting out on their first job post-qualification?

(and if the person who asked is still around – I’d also recommend checking out the Carespace Forum from Community Care…you can never have too much advice!).

*(Apologies to Robert Frost)

A decent place to live

I seem to have had something of a ‘home’ themed week in one way or the other, so thought I’d round it off with a few thoughts about more general housing.

In one of the previous teams I worked in, we had a basic line that a lot of the situations and difficulties that were challenging to service users were created either directly or indirectly by poor housing. Mostly the reasons being

  • Inaccessibility (physical disability and a flight of stairs without a lift in the property)
  • Overcrowding (at least two people sleeping in every room including communal areas – I have seen a family of five in a one bedroom flat with a cat – on one occasion)
  • Hoarding (this isn’t just a few newspapers from last week lying around – this is rooms not being able to be entered for the amount that is in them – rotting in some of the more extreme cases)
  • Poor state of repair – bare floorboards, damp, holes in plaster in the walls, broken boilers
  • High rise blocks with lifts that are continually broken
  • Neighbours

And it is hard not to think in political terms about the effect that right to buy scheme and the loss of large swathes of housing stock with the inability to reinvest has had a massive effect on some communities but the way that some housing has been maintained is also shocking.

Some of my biggest battles to date have been with housing officers and departments, trying to hound them into carrying out repairs usually.

Last year I had a particularly frustrating time, working with an elderly man with dementia who lived on his own on a second floor flat. After numerous, increasingly urgent telephone calls to the local housing department, he actually had water pour through his ceiling one day and moved temporarily to a local sheltered housing unit (at the cost to social services rather than housing, of course) in order for work to be carried out.

Cut to a lot of angry telephone calls and the work was completed with redecoration, new boiler etc.

He moved back and was delighted with the newly decorated flat. But I was left, once more, scarred by a battle for resources that are very scarce and the knowledge that not everyone is able to argue their way to a decent basic service.

One of the things that always makes me smile a little (on the inside, of course, and always in an ironic rather than comical way) is when people ask for support for a housing application – only because I know how little difference it makes in effect. Although the move in some London boroughs (it might be the same nationally, but I only know about London!) to online bidding for properties can really disadvantage some people who need to move the most.

I tried to support a family with three generations living in the same household where two of those generations were affected by serious mental illness to get another property so the daughter and her children could move out. To say banging head again a brick wall would be an understatement because with all the best will in the world, if the homes aren’t there, they aren’t there.

There just isn’t enough accommodation for people to live in dignified and healthy conditions and poor housing can trigger so many social difficulties at the very least.

I read this story this morning about a woman who smuggled a baby into the country in order to secure council accommodation and it was just indicative to me of a system that has been pushed beyond its limits and people willing to do quite literally anything to get a place to live.

And with the demand rising and supply falling it doesn’t look like there will be a happy ending and just a means for discontent, anger and alienation to grow. This can, of course, be manipulated for political gain and I think the whitewashing and simplistic ‘single mothers, immigrants etc’ get all the housing, is a means to divide and rule by the right wing press and political establishment.

Everyone would benefit from better quality housing and trying to create an us-and-them culture, apart from not being entirely accurate, doesn’t help anyone.

I know a lot of attempts have been made, certainly where I work, for more links between housing and social services departments but there is still a long way to go on that, because there is a culture of shifting bucks between one and the other that I have seen. But I honestly can’t see the problem of stock being solved in a hurry.