Reform of Children's Scoial Work - Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

Examination of Witness (Question Numbers 1-19)


29 MARCH 2010

  Q1 Chair: May I welcome Moira Gibb to our Committee? She is Chief Executive of Camden Council and Chair of the Social Work Reform Board. We know her and her good work. We apologise in advance; the good news is that this is the last meeting of this Committee, but the bad news is that we are struggling a little bit with the quorum. Let us get straight into some questions, Moira. You will know why we wanted to see you. You have conducted your inquiry into the Social Work Task Force and we conducted our inquiry at about the same time. We were very jealous; you had more publicity than us. And we have mentioned that. Briefly, where do you think we are now? We have reported; you have reported. Where are we in terms of transforming the nature of social work in our country?

Moira Gibb: I think that one has to be realistic. I met a number of front-line social workers from across the country on Monday evening. I was feeling very positive, of course, and they quickly reminded me that for them, on the front line, the pressures are very real. So, in that sense, I think we are still in a very difficult place. On the other hand, I think that your report and the Task Force's report together provide a platform for improvement that could happen relatively quickly, if people commit to the implementation plan and the employers, the higher education institutes and others who are engaged in this area at the moment—very positively in my view—continue to stay focused on driving improvements, so that the front-line practice can improve, the lives of social workers can change and more of them will stay in place, so that service users can have a better service in the medium term and not just in the longer term. Therefore I am hopeful and optimistic, but I am also realistic that this is a report and that your report is a report. However, I think that, between us, we have created a more positive atmosphere, a recognition and a shared endeavour, which all those people in that partnership must now deliver on. But it is not distracting them from that and giving them an alternative set of recommendations. I think that there is a very strong alignment between the work that you did and the work of the Task Force. So I don't feel that there is tension. I think that there is a clear platform and a plan.

  Chair: We will have some quick questions from my colleagues. Karen.

  Q2  Ms Buck: Moira, in the introduction to the Task Force report you talked about the problems that negative image has, in terms of recruitment, but you said, quite rightly and understandably, that change would require much greater openness with the media, and more effort and expertise in telling the positive stories. But how realistic is that, because we all know—and we know as politicians—that the media do not cover positive stories, and in fact the openness tends in itself to encourage a more ruthless exploration of where they think there will be failure and weakness? Isn't that just really nice words that it's going to be impossible to deliver on?

  Moira Gibb: I think it's hard; we've got ourselves into a very difficult place in this country in terms of the understanding of the area of children's services that you've been concerned with. But on the other hand only a few weeks ago I was at an LGA-organised event with ADCS and others, putting some material in place—shared understanding among senior managers and politicians in local government about the necessity for them to be more open and to make it possible to be more open. I think every time one of these cases hits the headlines anxiety rises again, not surprisingly; but it is doing the positive work—not when you've got a very difficult case or a situation that's gone wrong. It's doing it in the good times when you haven't got that, and being committed. I always say—I don't know who told me, but somebody did, a long time ago—that you need 10 good news stories to balance one bad news story, so that's the scale of the challenge.

  Q3  Ms Buck: But who is ever going to cover a good news story? Isn't the difficulty—and this is not anybody's fault—that in a sense social work intervention is almost entirely, unlike, say, teaching or medicine, by definition a bad news story, because most interventions are coming about as a consequence of a problem: a family or neighbourhood problem? Therefore, actually trying to create a positive is extremely difficult.

  Moira Gibb: I think in terms of news journalists and getting on the BBC news, we're not going to get those stories there, but there's a fantastic interest from journalists in being able to shadow social workers, to spend time in social work teams understanding what they do. It is fantastically interesting work and actually the complexity of the stories interests journalists who want to write slightly more serious pieces. I think we want to encourage—some interest was caused by the discussions we were having—TV and radio programmes that allow the situations that social workers work in to be displayed to the public; and I think the public are interested in them as well, but they need to be told in a different way. It is not going to be newsworthy that "Social worker saves child", but the sorts of family situations that people work within and endeavour to help are of themselves very interesting and incredibly complicated—particularly the stories in London, I think—but that interest is there. But it takes trust and hard work and it takes encouraging staff to be more open. I think there has been a sense of, "This is confidential work; therefore nothing can be revealed," and I think it has built up an antagonism in the press about "There is something to hide"—and I don't think there is something to hide. I think it is important to be open and straightforward with the public about just what the difficulties are in the system, but that doesn't mean saying everything's bad or that there aren't things for them to be interested in.

  Q4  Ms Buck: Do you think—I'm just following that same point—that there is something structural about the whole serious case review process that makes that more difficult to do? I'm just thinking, without talking about the specific case, we had a case in Westminster last week—a tragic baby death; then a spate of media coverage; and a serious case review process that won't report until probably after several months. That itself, almost structurally, leads to a sense that a story can't be reported. It's going to take a very long time, and that feeds people's suspicion.

  Moira Gibb: Certainly; obviously, again we didn't look at serious case reviews, because we were looking again at social work across the piece, but it's certainly a common picture that you paint. The journalists that we talked to—we talked to quite a number—said that there is that sense of "You don't want people to know; you are in defensive mode" and, at the worst, "You are hiding something from us". I think there is a challenge to employers—to local authorities in particular—to find ways of being open in the first place while abiding by their responsibilities in respect of conducting good serious case reviews.

  Q5  Ms Buck: What do you think the profession is going to look like in 10 years? You talk about it being a 10-year process. Do you think there will be anything that mirrors some of the different models of practice that we have in other European countries, for example, with a much more professional therapeutic element, rather than some of the slightly more generic approaches to children's social work that we have in this country?

  Moira Gibb: I would hope that there is an understanding of what social work can do, that people are confident that social workers are well trained and have a significant contribution to make, and that there will be different models. Given the decentralised nature of its organisation at present, there will be different models and people will be working in slightly different settings. I hope that the tide will have turned away from turning people into deliverers of a rigid system to their being practitioners in a wider multidisciplinary model, supporting families and protecting children—and in adult services as well. I think we won't have one simple model. I hope that the value of social work will be recognised. I would not necessarily claim, for example, that we'll have lots more of them. I don't think we should have many fewer of them. We will deploy them in different ways.

  Q6  Ms Buck: Given that we see intense public spending pressure over the next few years, the difficulties that social work has had with its image and media profile will make it more difficult to achieve the positive redefinition that would come out of these proposals at a time when police officers, nurses and teachers will be seen as the kind of front-line workers the public want to defend.

  Moira Gibb: Again, we were saying in our report that social work finds it difficult to fight its corner. On the one hand, there aren't many institutions with "social work" in their title and there aren't many advocates and people speaking up on behalf of social work. On the other hand, that's why our work and your work is timely: it would be foolish to ignore the contribution that they make, the protection they provide and the difficulties that not having sufficient social workers to deploy will create for families of whatever sort. Again, I've always said that social workers themselves need to take their responsibilities seriously. They cannot be in a profession and not have responsibilities. Therefore the success of the college, for example, in speaking up on their behalf will depend on the contribution that social workers themselves make to it.

  Q7  Mr Timpson: At the end of your report you say that social work is at a watershed. I'm concerned that, having had the Laming review in the wake of Victoria Climbié, with a multitude of recommendations, we then find ourselves with a second Laming review, where Lord Laming is, in many respects, exasperated by the lack of progress and signs off by saying, "Now it has to happen." In terms of your Task Force and the implementation of your 15 recommendations, what do you believe will make the difference this time to ensure that those become reality, rather than finding ourselves seven or eight years down the line—or 10 years, as you say in your report—having the same conversations that we're having today?

  Moira Gibb: This is obviously always a risk. I think that we've written a report that is practical and straightforward. I regularly say when I go out and speak at events that with 15 recommendations I could almost hold on to all of them in my head, but not quite—maybe someone younger than me could manage to do that. So it's a straightforward story of what needs to be done, which doesn't mean that implementing it is straightforward or easy. We are trying at the moment not to give anyone any false hopes or expectations that throwing money at this will be how it's solved. It will be about partnerships and collaboration between different players in the field. I do think it is really important that this is grasped now, or the situation will be worse than when you or we started, rather than an improvement. We will have raised expectations only to dash them. It is in many people's hands, rather than just the Government's. It is in employers' hands, in higher education's. It is not a fancy report; it has not got lots of flowery, visionary language. It is written to address the various audiences that we saw as important in making it happen. I personally try to accept as many invitations as I can to talk to as many audiences as I can, to encourage people to see that it is up to them, rather than somebody else. It would be very disappointing if, in 10 years' time, the situation had deteriorated rather than improved. I would be more disappointed than many. But that is not where I expect to be.

  Q8  Mr Timpson: Can I pick you up on the career structure that you set out in the report, two areas specifically. You pick up in the report on practice placements—that sometimes they are poor quality and sometimes non-existent. We also have the social work degree. Have you absolute confidence in the quality of the social work degree, in making sure that we have the standard and quality of social workers—newly qualified and as they go through the system—that we need to make the changes you have rightly identified?

  Moira Gibb: Not at the moment, no. I think we were clear that there was considerable inconsistency in the system. I did say when I came here before that we didn't have to invent very much because the best of what we were looking for did exist. Certainly, very good courses do exist, but some courses are not training people as well as they need to be. Where we have called for other levers to be pulled to drive that improvement, I hope that universities will be thinking about whether their courses were up to the standard they would expect if they were trained as social workers, for example. Again, I have been very pleased with the collaboration from the higher education sector. We have a vice-chancellor on the Reform Board and two professors of social work. Certainly, all the bodies that represent those training social workers are highly engaged in this opportunity.

  Q9  Chair: What about the British Association of Social Workers? Can you really achieve all the things that you and we want to achieve? Has BASW been upset about much of what has been recommended?

  Moira Gibb: We had a representative from BASW on the Task Force, although people were invited in their personal capacity rather than as representatives, so it would be unfair to say it was BASW. She was a very active and positive member of the Task Force. I think BASW's concerns are only about the college; I don't think it is concerned about the other recommendations we made. Its only concern is about the process of getting from where we are to its being started. BASW is more optimistic, some might say, about getting it started without some funding. It was always intended to be an independent college—not one run by somebody else on behalf of social workers, but by social workers on their own behalf, part of being a profession. BASW has been concerned about the fact that Government money is going to support those initial stages—I think unnecessarily so. Good progress has been made on the college development. SCIE (Social Care Institute for Excellence) was midwife, as it were, in the early stages, but has now commissioned head-hunters to recruit the interim chair. Progress will happen. The very challenging job that BASW and others have is to sell belonging to a college to social workers. Whenever I talk to them, they complain about the costs of belonging to anything, really. They are concerned about that. That's the challenge: asking them to pay for something that doesn't exist is nigh on impossible, really. That's why I think they need government money. I hope that this will be a temporary blip, and that BASW's going slightly somewhere else but can come back on board fairly soon.

  Chair: That's a very positive view. Edward, do you want to come back on that?

  Q10  Mr Timpson: Briefly, about the National College, do you know how much it's cost so far with the interim development of the college? Do you have any idea what money's been spent?

  Moira Gibb: Not very much, I would say. Our officials can let you know.[1] It's more a question of people's time and effort. Is that what you're asking us to calculate?

  Q11 Mr Timpson: Yes. I want to know how much has been spent on the development of the college to date. Following that, if you could find that out, that would be wonderful. We have the General Social Care Council. Did you consider using that body to set up the college, bearing in mind that it already exists, rather than creating another body for the college?

  Moira Gibb: We did have a number of discussions with GSCC about this issue. The chair of GSCC is very clear that a regulatory body has to work on behalf of the public, not on behalf of social workers and social work, as we would be asking them to do. I know there are different models in different parts of the United Kingdom where they manage some of that challenge. Again, I think it's right to go the route we've gone, which says that regulation is one thing acting on behalf of the public. The professional body is acting on behalf of social work and social workers, and it has a different remit. I think it would be very difficult, given that one of the key things we were asking the National College to do was to have a programme around the public image of social work, for the regulator to take that on and do it in the way I think it needs to be done.

  Q12  Mr Timpson: While we're talking about regulation, you've also proposed a new regulatory framework. When looking at the current regulations, guidelines and paperwork that social workers on the front line have to face on a day-to-day basis, are there any of those guidelines or frameworks—the red tape—that you feel are particularly unhelpful to social workers in trying to carry out their job as it currently stands? Which would you consider could be done away with or reformed to make it easier for social workers to perform their role?

  Moira Gibb: We live in a bureaucratic age. One person's unnecessary bureaucracy is another person's protection. I think the situation is that employers, probably, rather than front-line practitioners, are less in tune with the responsibilities of the GSCC in relation to social workers, and that we're not getting the benefit of having that regulatory body to full effect. Employers aren't using it well enough, because of course the public don't understand how it works and don't have confidence in it, I think. That is how it would appear to us. Someone said to me, "Why did the health service get off so lightly in Haringey compared to social workers, Moira?" The answer is that people understand that health professionals are regulated professionals, whereas they don't understand that in relation to social work. It seems to me, again, that it's about making bodies there work better and being clear that there is a confidence issue to be dealt with as well. I think it's confidence of employers, and then also the confidence of the public that the GSCC needs to be clear it's got.

  Q13  Mr Timpson: In terms of paperwork, can I give you two examples of what social workers were complaining to me about as recently as last week? One example is the time they spend in front of their computer filling in what they have to do for the integrated children's system. Another example was the amount of time they spend on an initial assessment. They feel that there are copious amounts of information which, on the face of it, seem perfectly legitimate but have absolutely no bearing on the decision that they're making on whether to intervene or not at that stage. Have you considered in any more detail, other than a prosaic look, the amount of paperwork with which social workers have to contend? Have you gone into more detail about some of the practices, such as those I have just described, that social workers face and considered making recommendations either now or in the future about whether those practices should be sustained in their current form?

  Moira Gibb: I think I probably misunderstood your earlier question. I thought you were talking about bureaucracy imposed by the GSCC. In relation to the bureaucracy in the system, our earliest report coincided with the publication of Lord Laming's second report, and at that point we also looked particularly at the children's information system. We had, and still get, lots of evidence that that system is felt to be a hugely bureaucratic burden for front-line practitioners. I think that DCSF has recognised that it pursued a wrong ambition in trying to drive through a form of practice through the use of IT. She has gone now, but Karen Buck asked about what I wanted to see in 10 years'—

  Chair: Wonderfully replaced.

  Moira Gibb: Indeed; seamlessly. I think that DCSF has recognised that confidence that social workers were professionals whose judgment was highly valuable, and that you did not want to impair their judgment by directing them through a bureaucratic system. DCSF has said that it wants to see improvements and has withdrawn some of the requirements that it had around that system. But it is taking local authorities some time to respond, partly because it is so intimately tied up with their whole IT platform and because they have learned, I think, to be directed rather than to think for themselves. It is a bit like the top-down having been removed, but people therefore needing to think for themselves to fill that space, and it is, of course, expensive changing IT systems. Certainly, what people have said to us is that it would be unwise to throw it all out and try to start again, but it has taken some time for front-line practitioners to feel that the burden has been lifted in any way.

  Q14  Chair: My director of children's services, Alison O'Sullivan, who will be known to you, said very strongly that the difficult balance in all this is that there are a lot of data you collect that you don't know you're going to use if you're going to be effective. It's easier to say, "Look, wipe away all this form-filling", but if you don't have the datasets, you can be inhibited in doing the job effectively, can't you?

  Moira Gibb: Yes, I think so. I think that we probably do not invest enough in thinking about what information we need to look back on and reflect on—trends, and what we learn about particular types of cases—and feeding that evidence in to practice development. But, as I say, the model of requiring a particular form of practice through driving an IT model has been demonstrated, and DCSF would acknowledge, I think, that that was not the model that worked. People want to, and have to, use their judgment in the complex environments in which they work, and dictating through an IT system breeds dissatisfaction, rather than good judgment.

  Q15  Chair: A certain Government Minister recently got into hot water, or some warm water anyway, because he expressed the opinion that some police officers preferred staying in the warm to being at the front end. I shall mention no names. In our evidence, we found that if you have social workers who are firstly not that well trained, on not the best of courses, and then their placement is inappropriate—we met students who were placed in GPs' surgeries for goodness' sake—and once they get into a children's services department, they are poorly supervised and managed. They lack confidence to go out there at the very sharp end, which is not comfortable, dealing with some of the most challenging families in our country. Rather than being in the warm, putting the data into their computer, they could be on the doorstep with some pretty rugged individuals.

  Moira Gibb: I think you were very robust about the importance of placements and being trained by social workers, and that absolutely chimed with our experience that social work had sold the pass in allowing social workers to have placements with all kinds of people and with very limited oversight from a trained social worker. Human nature would suggest that both assertions—about the place and social workers—are true, but people would say that this very rigid system dictates that they can't finish something until they've entered all the information. The poor design of some of the systems made things worse, so that you couldn't cut and paste and follow things. I don't know about you, but I think we've got to see that recording—sitting in front of a computer, as I do, or sitting in front of a bit of paper or a person—is of value, as you say, and probably of more value than we recognise. But at the time, the work is more important than the recording of it, and we've got to get those two things in balance, haven't we?

  Q16  Fiona Mactaggart: On your point about where you find yourself thinking best—this is quite an important issue, particularly for people at the beginning of their career—thinking on your own is a little scary, whether you're in front of a computer screen or a bit of paper. One thing that makes you think is a mentor or an experienced colleague who can ask you the right questions and whom you can have conversations with. Are we confident that there are structures that guarantee those conversations and mentoring relationships—if not necessarily a named mentor—early on in social work?

  Moira Gibb: Not at the moment. Again, there is inconsistency. That is why we put in a recommendation about supervision. It is at the core of social work that time in supervision is about helping you to think and rethink some of the assumptions you might have made. Progress needs to be made on assuring social workers of that time and space. The other thing that people said to us was that the team was very important as well. We should recognise that people get informal supervision, support and help, and that they get challenge and mentoring from colleagues, as well as their line manager. We are clear that managerial supervision was one thing, but that supervision for reflection time was incredibly important to help people learn from what they were doing and to make the right judgments about the situations they faced.

  Chair: Edward, did I cut across you? Do you want to come in?

  Q17  Mr Timpson: I'm sure you're aware of this from all the work that you've done, but one problem that you have at the moment is that social workers gain experience and become valued members of the social work team, but then get moved up—the aspiration is such that they get moved up—into management. The team loses that person's social work experience, which the newly qualifieds can't then learn from. How do you propose that we go about trying to redefine that arrangement? In Hackney, for instance, they have social work units where they try to keep a senior social worker, although that might not be right everywhere. How do we prevent people from going into management, from becoming agency workers because it is less pressurised and they can move around and make more independent decisions, or from going off into independent social work because it is better paid and, again, they have more freedom and less stress than social workers in teams?

  Moira Gibb: You're absolutely right. Retention comes before recruitment. It's incredibly important that we recognise that the most important thing we do is retain the people we've got currently. We said there was a need for a national career grade to reflect what teaching and nursing have done. It's possible to have an alternative ladder to go up as a nurse or a teacher, but that isn't possible in social work currently. It may be possible in one or two places, but it needs to be possible elsewhere, because you want that expertise available at the front line. I have been very pleased, because this is counter-cultural in local government, that the LGA and the employers in local government have recognised that as an important step and something that they need to work with the local authority to be able to implement. It is absolutely essential. Obviously, you want social workers to go into management as well, so they are that front-line supervisor, but you also want the opportunity for people to stay and practice. That is what most people come in to do, but people want that recognition and that improved pay. We have to have that career grade. We had a nice chart in our report that highlighted the difference between teaching, nursing and social work. It is possible in those professions; therefore, it ought to be perfectly possible for social work as well. It goes back to that confidence and the valuing of the professional social worker. If you don't value it, why would you bother creating a career structure that kept it? We were very clear that we were talking about whole-system reform. Nothing was quite right. Lots of things were okay but lots of things needed considerable improvement. You needed to improve the practice, the placement opportunities and the training in the universities. You then needed to value social workers, so that they stayed doing it and you had circular improvement,[2] as it were.

  Q18  Mr Timpson: One of the other things that newly qualified social workers were saying to me was that, during their training period, there wasn't much practical input into what actually, when you become a social worker, you have to face. As we know, you have to face some pretty difficult situations in highly charged atmospheres, often. They were saying, "Well, we never actually sat down with a paediatrician and they didn't explain to us what certain bruises or injuries may indicate. We never sat down with a family lawyer"—I confess to being one—"and shown how the court process works, because we go and give evidence in court and we've never even been inside a courtroom." Those are all the practical measures that make you better prepared for what's in store for you when you go on to the front line. Is that something that you advocate in the work that you've done? We were talking about collaboration in our earlier evidence session on something completely different. Do you advocate collaboration, for all those other agencies involved in child social care and child protection, to ensure that the information is soaked up by newly qualified social workers by the time that they hit the front line, rather than having to learn as they are on the job, which they will do anyway, but from a better starting point?

  Moira Gibb: We haven't been very clear about what a newly qualified social worker ought to be able to do, and again, educators and employers need to be clear in their understanding of each other and what they're going to do. The contribution of the placement experience, which is considerable, and the academic experience need to knit together, rather than miss each other. What happens at the moment, it seems to me, is that one assumes that the other is doing that kind of practical training and, therefore, we're wholly dependent on the placement that a student gets. We've talked about how difficult it is. We just don't have the quality and quantity of placements that we need at the moment. That is how I was trained; we had input from paediatricians and family lawyers. Having talked to family lawyers, the opportunities for them to contribute to the training and the opportunities for universities to fund some of those external opportunities mean that everybody's under a bit of pressure. It seems to me to be essential to do that, and that is what students want to do: reflect on how it ought to work in practice and how it works on placement—what's the difference and why are they different? They need to have a good understanding of both the academic part and the practical part.

  Q19  Mr Timpson: So in the coming months, as the development of the college moves forward, what involvement is your Task Force going to have in ensuring that that type of experience is the one that people wanting to go into social work get?

  Moira Gibb: The Task Force has ended. I am the only one who has managed to get a continuing role, as chair of the Reform Board. The Reform Board is different in that it is a lot of organisations and institutions—about 20—that have come together to contribute to implementing the recommendations of the Task Force. There is not an ongoing role for the Task Force, other than for me. I feel personally responsible to ensure that what we wanted to see happen actually happens, rather than a different interpretation of it. There is an education sub-group from the Reform Board that is jointly chaired by a professor of social work and an assistant director from the children's services, and they are ensuring that people are coming together and sharing that understanding of what needs to change.

1   Note by witness: Herewith further details on the funding so far committed to support the establishment of the College of Social Work. This work is independent of the Social Work Reform Board and is being guided by a development group that draws representation from across the social work sector, with logistical support provided by the Social Care Institute for Excellence. I understand that the group has agreed a process of consultation, appointments and business planning to establish the college as an independent legal entity by spring 2011. Officials inform me that the Departments of Health and Children, Schools and Families are each making available £2.5 million to support this process and that they agreed up to £282,385 for activity in the 2009-10 financial year. Back

2   Witness correction: Rather than circular improvement I intended to say "you had system improvement". Back

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