Reviewing Social Work

This morning, Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Children has announced review of Social Work. Seeing his job description, I wonder how much effect this will have on the generic nature of Social Work training.

Some of the headline changes ‘demanded’ are that senior managers in ‘Social Services Children’s’ Departments’ (I put that in inverted commas because a lot of the Children’s’ Departments are now Social Services and Education Departments) have to have experience in a Social Work setting. This was one of the criticisms of Sharon Shoesmith – she managed a department that covered Education and Social Services for Children. She had an allegedly glittering career in Education but no experience of Social Work or Social Services on any more than a perfunctory level.

image mikelens at Flickr

My understanding was that the purpose of merging the Childrens and Education services’ directorates was to create a more cohesive and communicative department after the first Laming Report. People still compartmentalise and how much is it worth fighting this? Just give the jobs to people who are able to do them and who know what they are doing. These are no positions for ‘career’ administrators with no idea of what actually happens on a day to day basis.

The need to change training processes is more interesting to me. Balls says that more practical experience is needed in Social Work training courses. Granted, I trained before the latest change in the system but what is without doubt is that the practice teaching and the placement system is already falling apart. There are not enough placements for the amount of students currently training. I know it’s certainly the case at the universities I have contact with and I understand it’s a standard across the country. Of course more practical experience is fundamental to the provision of well-trained and therefore, effective, confident and  independent-minded social workers – but just saying it should exist won’t help the people who are already desperately searching for placement.

There has to be room to fail students who don’t make the grade too. A colleague of mine had a student who was frankly not competent. She was pressured to keep giving him chances over and over again until he eventually and against her recommendations, passed his placement. It is not an ‘easy’ subject and there is absolutely no room for students who aren’t up to it.

What do you need to learn to be a social worker?

A clear view of the background of social services provisions and social work as a profession and a good grounding in social policy and the history of social policy.

Knowledge of the place of culture and identity in a persons’ life and the role that it has in the society in which we live.

Critical analysis of policies that are presented to you. There is a role for academic writing and investigations and research work. Hands on experience is vital but never at the expense of thorough academic learning and intellectual strain. This cannot afford to be a ‘soft’ subject. We need competent, well-trained and well-educated staff.

The ability to write clearly and coherently – with or without spell check (ok, that’s a bugbear of mine, I am really frustrated by the quality of some of the reports that are placed in front of me by colleagues – it is almost embarrassing).

Independence, bloody-mindedness but also empathy. You can’t take what you are told at face-value. Not service users, not carers and perhaps most importantly not managers, but you can be bloody-minded without being confrontational. That isn’t the same as not trusting people or believing – but rather about  accepting that perceptions of reality aren’t always the same as an objective reality. You can’t afford to be complacent  – it is not fair to people who expect a service.  That’s the skill. Nudging at details, having conversations with people that they don’t want to have but still being able to maintain some kind of therapeutic relationship.

When I carry out Mental Health Act Assessments, the first thing I have to say to someone is the purpose of the assessment and that it may lead to a compulsory detention in hospital – I then have to try and do a 180 degree turn to create an environment for a constructive conversation – that’s a bit of a dramatic example but it happens.

Humility – You can be wrong. Please please please accept you can be wrong. The most frightening social work practitioners are the ones who can’t go to colleagues or managers and say ‘I’m not sure about this’ or ‘I have done something wrong here’ or sometimes (and more frequently in my case!) ‘I don’t know what to do’. And what do we need? Managers who WELCOME social workers asking and telling. I know someone who is terrified to tell her manager about things she is not sure of because she doesn’t want to seem incompetent. THAT is the most dangerous type of social worker. If I ever do supervise a student or even manage another member of staff, I would be happiest if I set them on their way without being afraid to discuss concerns, misjudgments, thought processes and errors for fear of chastisement.

People skills can’t be taught always but they can be practiced. The fear as well is that being pushed around from pillar to post by political inquiries and ‘layman’s views’ on what can be changed isn’t always the best way to instil a confidence in a beleaguered workforce.

Just some initial thoughts – I may add some more over the week when I’ve had a chance to read a little more about the proposals but I was watching the Breakfast News and felt the need to respond. It is a subject that matters to me.

If anyone has any other ideas about what should be in this report, feel free to add!

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