The Future of Adult Social Work

I am running late for a training course that I haven’t finished the ‘pre-reading’ for yet – due to an unusually busy weekend (for all the good reasons which involve sunshine and basically being outside!).

But I thought it would be remiss not to mention the publication of the the ‘Future of Social Work in Adult Services’ document on Friday.

It’s a short document that clarifies some of the expectations and directions that will likely be taken in social work in the UK, drawing on the definition of Social Work given by the International Federation of Social Workers and then narrowing it down to not only a more UK centric focus but also an adult-centred perspective.

It is a fairly uncontroversial document that balances some of the future direction of the personalisation and transformation agendas – addressing some of the fears about the dilution of ‘social work’ and ‘social workers’ into unqualified posts where some of the expertise is reduced in order to reduce employment costs saying

Giving people control of their own resources and determining how their needs are met is transforming social services. Services are being personalised. Many people will want to organise all their supports and services themselves, based on good information. Others will want help from peers and user and carer led organisations. However, many will want social work to support them when they feel most vulnerable, to manage risks and benefits, and to build their self-esteem and aspirations so that they can take control or make difficult decisions.

This acknowledges the fear of some social workers about being pushed out of the role however I wonder how it tallies with the workload issues and the reassurances that certainly happened in my borough that some of the increased paperwork that is generated by self-directed support will be farmed to smaller advocacy services. It can’t work both ways – either the professional support is offered and time is allowed for it by management – or it is not offered and independent, voluntary sector advocacy services are employed (very well in most circumstances) and ‘social work’ tasks revolve around managing pieces of paper in an office. Not necessarily by a qualified professional.

The report also expands to explore other aspects of social work within specialist and multi-disciplinary teams. I admit to being concerned at a driving focus on community care legislation and directions but that doesn’t seem to be the case. It emphasises that

Social workers also have an important role in working with people whose rights may be undermined through abuse or neglect, or where the law requires some deprivation of liberty. Social workers can assess and manage risk and balance competing rights in order to protect those in need. Social workers make sure that legal action is taken only where necessary, for the shortest time and with the least restriction.

This distinct approach provides an important contribution to multi-disciplinary teams, to support better outcomes. It also complements the contribution of other professions. Social workers in multi-disciplinary teams bring a perspective of the whole person, rather than just their symptoms or circumstances. Seeing the individual in the context of their family, friends and community, and reflecting their hopes and fears for their own future is where social work can bring an important contribution to the work of the team.

The document needed to address social work as it stands within a legislative framework which often (although not exclusively) allows and demands that social workers play a role. For me, the key to my role as a social worker within a multi-disciplinary team is exactly to ensure that the ‘whole person’ is not lost in the background when the consideration of medical concerns are raised although to be fair, in my team, I would say we are very much pulling in the same direction and by no means would I say that the medics, nurses, OTs, psychologists think in any different way – however the training does shift the focus and I think it is a really important that a person who has not come through ‘medical training’ sits at the multi-disciplinary table.

The document also looks towards the future, setting out a few possible roles that will develop over time

Social Work and interpersonal support: With the development of information, advice and advocacy services, support planning and brokerage, there may be new roles for social workers alongside services led by people using services and their families. This may include services for people who fund their own social care.

Social work and safeguarding rights: Social work could have an important role in community development work and promoting social cohesion, for example where disabled, mentally ill or substance misusing people are victims of hate crime.

Social work with families: Social workers already help to break the cycle of families where generations of individuals are trapped in abusive relationships, crime, substance misuse, poor health, unemployment and other factors. Their role in this work could be strengthened to support the current priorities for local authorities to create safe, healthy and prosperous communities

All possibly interesting ways to go and perhaps each will form a post in its own right. All I will say at present from initial, swift reading of the document is that the its interesting (and very positive, in my mind) that social work with families moves into the broader context than simply being placed alongside ‘childrens’ services. Families are about more than that and without ways of working with and alongside adults, there can be no way of proactively protecting children. One of the reasons I always opposed separation and polarisation of ‘childrens’ training and ‘adults’ training – and ‘childrens’ services and ‘adults’ services.

I expect to read and reflect more on the document over the next week and/or months. In the meantime, it generally strikes me as a positive step. I just wonder why it took so long to come out!

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Looking Back – 2009

I was wondering how to finish the year off and mark it. So I looked at last year’s posts for inspiration to see how I marked the end of the last year. I ran a couple of posts – one looking back on the year in my first ‘proper’ year of blogging and another post looking at changes that had taken place professionally over the previous year of 2008 and another one looking forward to 2009.

I thought this year, I’d combine them into the same post and then, over the weekend, that will leave me time for the ‘looking forward’ post.

So as far as the blog has gone, I have definitely picked up readers over the past year and thank all of you visiting for that! Without doubt I have had more external distractions this year, with my father’s health fading and his death in August, to starting with the fostering  and now, the placement of our third foster child – so I have allowed myself a little more leeway with ‘days off’ than I did in the first year.

I installed a couple of extra widgets to track visitors and Clustrmaps tell me that by far and away most visitors come to me from the UK – unsurprisingly – followed by the United States, then Canada, Australia and then India.

But visitors have called from Libya, Sudan and Moldava – I can’t help wondering if they found what they were looking for!

Unsurprisingly the ‘About me’ and ‘Contact me’ pages are the most popular – probably because they have been constants however the Gerry Robinson posts come up pretty close which, considering the recentness of their posting, shows how many people were affected by the programmes made and wanted to find out more. The effect of the mainstream media is unsurprising and undeniable.

A quick run down on some search terms is always good for a giggle although I can’t beat some of Mental Nurse’s efforts as my most popular search terms have been, after the name of the blog, ‘angry face’, ‘general social care council’ and ‘good mental health’. Fairly expected, I think.

As for the next year, I definitely intend to read and discover more blogs, even if it means cutting down my own output a little as that’s an area that I haven’t concentrated on as much this year. Ideally, I’d like to produce better quality postings, less frequently, if necessary but retain the mix between commentary on social work, mental health and anecdotes from my working life with the occasional foray into personal thoughts.

And professionally, looking at 2008, I was reflecting on the changes to the Mental Health Act and the introduction of the Deprivation of Liberties Safeguards.

This year, it seems to have been about the Social Work Taskforce and coming in right at the end, the New Horizons paper on the future of Mental Health services in the UK. I expect both of these documents to have a major impact on the next year, at least, in a very real and immediate way. We have already had documents sent round about changes planned across the Trust as a result of the New Horizons proposals. I expect many changes before the year is out.

As for the Taskforce report, my expectations are that the impetus to change will come more slowly but I am comforted by the results published and am hopeful that there will be a blossoming in the development of social work in the UK. Ever hopeful, of course but as I was saying to a colleague just yesterday, whether you are an optimist or a pessimist, is unlikely to change the outcome, but if you are optimistic, you might have a more enjoyable experience along the way!

We have a general election coming this year – and a likely change of government, with different agendas and priorities, all in the climate of public sector cuts which are already affecting services. Interesting times.

The personal hopes for last year involved me aiming to start the Practice Education branch of my Higher Specialist Award and indeed, I have started that  now.  I have initiated my first couple of Individual budgets and although I retain a healthy dose of scepticism, I am committed to making sure all the concerns I have are raised and in order to do so I have to embrace the changes so that I can speak from a position of knowledge rather than stand on the sidelines and complain about changes in general.

I have noticed in myself that I have become more confident in my work and practice. I think that is something that grows incrementally each year but this year I felt more confident. I think that is partly due to the management and colleagues around me and the ethos that exists in my team which is very supportive.

I also resolved to try and become more active in both UNISON and BASW. While UNISON has been jettisoned a little bit, I have been more involved in a number of ways with BASW and have enjoyed the process of becoming more engaged with the profession on a wider basis than my office or my local authority. It has been heartening to see BASW become more vocal and confident and I am interested to see where that path lies.

I know the decade ends in 2011, but for my purposes, I’ll use this as a chance to look back too – although briefly – because in 2000, I qualified as a social worker. I find myself 10 years down the line. Partly I’m surprised I lasted this long – many of my colleagues on that MA (as it was then!) course that I attended have moved into different careers or away from front line practice.

I have worked in Community Care Teams, moving into Mental Health in 2006, nonewithstanding the ‘lost’ years I spent in Italy doing nothing related to social work  but which remain possibly the best thing I ever did and instilled a wealth of experiences that have shaped who and where I am now. Professionally, I worked though more statutory focus on carers and direct payments through to the initiation of individual budgets and the personalisation agenda. The Delayed Discharge Act which saw local authorities being charged for hospital stays if they were unable to facilitate discharges and what seems sometimes like over speedy discharges from hospital. I wonder how far that line will run. It seems that all policies are pointing to more care in the home and away from institutions.

I also  trained as one of the last ASWs (approved social workers) – in fact, I was the last ASW warranted in my borough – in July 2008 before moving straight into the ASW to AMHP (approved mental health professional) conversion training.

Without doubt that training has been the most significant to my professional development over the last decade. Seeing the beginning of the DoLs (Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards) process and the mess that seems to exist within what looks like frankly sloppy legislation and protocols and being able to recognise it as sloppy, will no doubt be one of the key parts of the legacies the decade leaves in my service area. The scope of the Mental Capacity Act still has a lot to encompass and needs a lot of padding out – probably by case law.

It’s easier to look forward one year than ten so I’ll duck out of decade predications until next year.. but as for the coming year, I’ll put something together over the next few days.

For now, there’s still another working day left of the year.. but Happy New Year to all and thanks again for visiting.

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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.

Social Work Taskforce Reports

The final report of the Social Work Taskforce, set up to look at the profession as a whole, is published today. There are not going to be any surprises as there has been an interim report already and much discussion of its contents.

The Guardian reports more details about it and it seems to be a very positive move forward for the much maligned profession that has too often been a government pawn. Switched and swapped and chopped and changed to meet the needs of the policies of the political mood of the day, however, I  expect a lot of public sector workers can say the same.

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Back to the report itself though, again, Firstly, there is the introduction of a ‘licence to practice’. I haven’t seen too much of the detail about what this might involve along with the registration that already exists but it would mean a year in practice for newly qualified social workers before they achieve this ‘licence’ – presumably involving some kind of ongoing assessment to ensure that a sufficient standard is met. I’ve made my point many times on this matter. I think it is wholly positive as to rely on universities to produce fully-qualified and ‘ready to practice’ social workers has been a consistent failing of the current system. It also  puts social work more in line with other professions such as teaching and strengthens the quality of the profession as a whole.

Again, going back to the Guardian article, there will be no cap on caseloads but the introduction of some kind of monitoring system so that caseload numbers are managed. Personally, I think the ‘overworked’ issue isn’t simply a matter of numbers. If there is no effective caseload-weighting, the numbers make no sense. I’ve held caseloads of over 40 and caseloads in their teens – one might  not necessarily make me less overworked than the other if the complexities are not equivalent. Everyone working in the area will know that one extremely active case can be as busy as 10 bubbling along smoothly cases and so the numbers game doesn’t really work.

It seems that the emphasis on pay reform is being devolved to local authorities to work out career structure and link pay to training and career development. Although I’m relatively content with my pay, I accept I get paid more than the majority of social workers at my grade (non-management, non-senior) due to the London weighting and the higher pay that is usually commandeered in the Capital (because costs of living are higher – not for any more special or exclusive reasons) and the AMHP supplement – however the pay is a constant issue and whether we like it or not, just because it is a so-called ‘caring’ profession, does not mean that we should have to accept lower pay on that basis. There is an more interesting argument to be had about the traditional ‘female’ professions having lower pay on the basis of responsibility but this probably isn’t the place for it. Suffice to say if pay is to be addressed, that can only be a good thing.

As the article says

Employers will have to work with unions to reform social workers’ pay so that it reflects their career development and progression. Ministers will say that if this does not happen locally the government may introduce a national pay review body along the lines of those already in place for nurses, teachers and the prison service.

There is some mention of a practice-based Masters qualification. I hope that some consideration of the mash that is the current post-qualification framework is taken. It is easier to tie the post-qualification framework to academic qualifications perhaps but there are already routes to Masters’ level courses through practice-based qualifications. More streamlining perhaps and more flexibility. I never really liked that I had to make a choice between Adults and Mental Health as they run two different paths through the post-qualification system. The Foundation Trust have necessitated that I take a ‘Mental Health’ pathway when some aspects of the ‘Adult’ pathway such as ‘Personalisation’ and ‘Safeguarding Adults’ would be equally useful. I would prefer that we weren’t necessarily pigeon-holed. I do need more details on that aspect though.

The other issue brought up is the institution of a National College of Social Work. I know this has received some attention and Balls announced it at the weekend. Personally, I’d like to know what the remit is and how the interplay with BASW and the GSCC will ride with it. If the fees to be registered are to increase as the GSCC demands independence, and the College of whatever form it takes, will, no doubt, demand a fee payment as well as payments to BASW and a Trade Union (I know these are strictly speaking optional but I don’t see them as a choice!) we could be bombarded with costs to practice.

I’m sure there will be provision made for this and I like the idea of the National College but I would  like more detailed information about what it is. I expect that might come out as the day progresses.

So generally, it is hard to think of anything negative to say about the Taskforce report – not that I was looking for negativity of course. It seems a fairly broad, positive move to refocus social work. I think there is a lot more work to be done however, including at a ground level.

On Probation

In some unsurprising but still welcome news, Community Care reports that the Social Work Taskforce is proposing a ‘qualifying year’ post degree and pre-registration to all social workers coming into the workforce from university.

It makes perfect sense and it’s amazing that it was not a check that was brought in with the new degrees which placed less emphasis on pre-qualification experience in the social care sector.

It is a useful and necessary check that does not leave the universities as sole arbiters as to whether a student is ‘good enough’ to practice as a qualified social worker.

I will, of course, be interested to see details about how the application process works for these ‘qualifying years’ and how the local authorities engage with the it. Hopefully, it will offer newly trained social workers a chance and opportunity to learn and grow as practitioners in a safer environment than being thrown straight into practice. I know I’d definitely have benefited from it although I was lucky to move straight into a supportive and large team with other newly qualified workers including others from the same university course – perhaps that made it a lot easier to ask questions and learn from each other as we went. I think it might have been more challenging in an environment where asking questions and supervision was not given appropriate time and consideration.

Looking at the people I qualified with (those that I remained in touch with!) – those of us who had the more supportive first employment experiences have certainly stayed ‘in the field’ a lot longer than those who were ‘thrown into the deep end’ regardless of pre-qualification experience. Even without my very random personal experiences, it makes most sense that the better supported newly qualified staff are, the more effective the profession will become over the next few years.

In the meantime I’m looking forward to the publication of the final report from the Taskforce – due early December according to the same Community Care report.

Aftermath

It’s been a year since the ‘Baby P’ story broke about Peter Connolly and his tragic death following a litany of appalling abuse by his carers. As he was on the child protection register and known to Haringey Social Services and had contact with primary and secondary health care services, the fallout concentrated on what went wrong with ‘the system’ that is supposed to protect children and how the support could have got things so badly wrong. This, combined with the whipping up of a media frenzy which put social workers in the line of fire, is reflected on in a number of news sources today which look at the impact of that case on the profession today.

The BBC reports on a Local Government Association findings six out of 10 councils in England have reported problems retaining staff – a 50% rise on the year before.

While the six out of ten part doesn’t surprise me, the 50% year on year rise is very significant. Social Work as a profession has felt the pressure of being highlighted as the responsible agency and the government has happily allowed individuals to be hung out to dry and has just responded with wonderful new initiatives for shoring up graduate recruitment and making wild and vague gestures that seem to wish to pander to the tabloid crowd like the appointment of an agony aunt to the Social Work Task Force.

The Guardian takes a more thorough approach looking at some of the causes of the initial difficulties in the first place. Ray Jones, I think, hits on some significant points during his look through the pattern and history of legislation which has affected Childrens Services over the last couple of decades.

I was at school in 1989 so the implications of the Children Act of that year would have floated above my head as I concentrated other matters, I remember the implications of the 2004 legislation and the split of adult and children services in local authorities. I remain to be convinced about the wisdom of that decision however there is no going back. Children’s social services joined with Education and Adults, in our local area anyway, joined with Housing in one of those awkward convenience marriages in which there is little love lost. Jones explains the problems that these liaisons created

At a stroke, the top management competence in child protection and care services was largely lost, with 80% of councils appointing former teachers and education managers as children’s directors. So, whereas the 1989 act led to greater specialisation and competence in the care and protection of children, the 2004 act has undermined the experience and expertise that has been developed. As a result, in too many areas child protection and care services are now in chaos.

Jones sees possibilities and makes his own suggestions for change. Personally, I see it as evidence of a lack of knowledge and understanding of social care on a broader scale in the government both local and national. There is little will to change a social care system to make a significant positive difference as firstly it will be costly and secondly in this ‘blame culture’ era where the poor are targeted by those in government as scapegoats for various policies over the decades, I can’t see a way out without it being fought for.

Patrick Butler, also in the Guardian, pulls together some of the positive aspects of the tumultuous year in social care and the movements towards change and improvement in part due to the spotlight that has been placed on the systems in child protection but he asks the crucial question of why it took one child dying in  one London borough to draw attention to facts that could have been picked up way earlier. As he says

The emails uncovered in the Shoesmith judicial review reveal arse-covering on a grand scale. They suggest an establishment anxious to defend policy at all costs and deflect blame, not one particularly keen to learn – let alone admit it had taken its eye off the ball. The other part of the answer is that no one was really kicking up a fuss.

Anyone who has spent more than a little time in the public sector can probably recognise the self-preservation instinct. I have two stories of two different managers though and for me, it was the difference between staying in a position and leaving it.

In my first post-qualifying job, I got on quite well. It was a pleasant team with helpful colleagues and a good and varied workload – it was hard work though. I got on well with my manager and did what I was told. I saw colleagues though, being targeted by her and I’d verge on the word ‘bullying’. That was a part of the culture of the workplace. I escaped it – I was the most junior member of staff in a large team. I was also an agency member of staff and I did what I was told but I saw some of the more experienced staff suffer – people that I had an enormous amount of respect for. I was worried. I went to a meeting once with one of the more senior managers to try and thrash out a case I was working on. He asked me and my immediate manager to do various tasks and the moment he was out the door, my manager turned to me and asked me to do all the tasks she had been asked to do. Some of which were enormously inappropriate for me – with my level of seniority (i.e. none) and experience (very little).

I left within months.

When I went back to social work a few years later, I took a job another team – again as an agency worker. A couple of weeks in, I made an error. It related purely to agreeing a cost which was far higher than should have been allowed by our service so it wasn’t something that led to significant harm or risk just more cost to the local authority. I realised my error (which had been genuine) and spoke to my manager. She immediately called her manager and took responsibility for it explaining that it was her fault and nothing to do with me as she had not told me what to do.

And 6 years later, I am still in the same authority.

There needs to be support in place and rather than adjustments at the most senior levels – which might well be needed, there also needs to be a much more robust supervision structure from the outset. I know there are attempts to shore this up through the relatively recent supports for newly qualified workers – and quite right they are too – but it is not just a year out of qualifying that additional support is required. This is a profession which constantly teaches the importance of reflection, power and discrimination and yet we see in our own services that the power imbalances can be enormous and discrimination and victimisation can occur.

Hopefully the focus on social work will lead to positive outcomes but it is clear the government cannot be trusted to take the lead on it. I’ve been heartened by the more obvious role that BASW is taking in campaigning and fighting for the profession but it also comes down to each and every social worker remembering that there is a wider picture than the individual and the purpose of social work is much wider than the day to day. We could be a good position to advocate on general social issues but sometimes the work levels are so high that there is no time left to speak up.

My hope is that the last year has created a stronger impetus to create a movement for change in social work that has a wider remit than just social workers  but also shifts across into wider social justice.