Children & Social Work Bill [Lords]

Written evidence submitted by Patrick Wilkings (CSWB 37)

Introduction

1. My name is Patrick Wilkings. I qualified as a social worker in 1982. Since 1986 I have managed a team of social workers based in Bradford West Yorkshire. All of my post-qualifying experience has been working in local authority area teams specialising in child protection, children becoming Looked After and associated court work. My work has covered all the age ranges - from pre-birth assessments right up to 18 year olds. I aim to retire in 2017 at the age of 65.

Summary

2. I suggest that the continuing - and welcomed - attention on social work training and professional development will be seriously undermined by changes being made in the environment within which local authority child protection social workers are forced to work. Unless these work practices are halted and reversed any initiatives to improve the quality of social work practice will be far less successful than they otherwise would be.

My submission

3. Over recent years there has been a great deal of attention on the training of social workers, both during their qualifying course and post-qualifying. That is to be welcomed. There has also been a major focus upon targets, one consequence of which has been social workers becoming "slaves to their computers" - which has not been good, but as such matters have already been covered (e.g. by the Munro report) there is no need for me to go into them here. Suffice it to say that I fully support Munro’s views - but I see little evidence of their implementation in practice.

4. The issue I would like to highlight in this submission concerns the working environment which prevails for many local authority social workers and their immediate managers working within the field of child protection. My essential point is that no amount of attention to training and professional development will be productive unless there is a clear focus upon the following issues:

a. Child protection social work must take place within the context of strong team work. The social work team needs to consist of 6 - 8 social workers plus their immediate manager. This is because social work is extremely stressful hence every social worker needs to have the support of a team of very close colleagues. In addition, every social worker needs to have easy access to their manager for support and guidance. Social work staff are frequently threatened, including threats to kill. Removing children from their families is very stressful. Equally, deciding that, on balance, a Child in Need can remain at home can be very stressful. Social workers are sometimes assaulted. At such times the social worker needs to know they have the committed support from their immediate team members and their manager and that they, as a team, have their own team room with their own manager located adjacently in the manager’s office. It might be thought that such a point is so obvious that it does not need emphasising - but I am afraid it does. Over recent years senior management in some authorities have closed small local social work offices and replaced them with one very large building, complete with "hot desking", no team areas, many different workers from different disciplines trying (and sometimes failing) to obtain access to a desk and IT facilities, other workers sitting in their cars or at home with their laptops undertaking "mobile working"……all resulting in the collapse of the social work team, which leads to low morale, high levels of sickness and high staff turnover. I fully appreciate that there are some disciplines where these "new ways of working" are successful - but they will not work for social work due to the essential need for each individual child protection social worker to belong to a tight-knit, supportive and collaborative team with its own team room and manager’s office. That system proved to be successful for decades - but increasingly it is not the norm.

b. Regrettably, any focus upon social work theory too often stops when the newly qualified social worker leaves university. It can be re-kindled when the experienced social worker undertakes the nationally recognised post qualifying training, but that flame is very quickly extinguished soon after the training course comes to an end. Why is that? I think there are at least two reasons.

i). Senior managers see themselves forced into "measuring what can easily be measured". Hence IT systems have been produced that measure such things as the frequency of visits to the children; when each child last saw a dentist; when reviews take place in respect of each child………I need to make it absolutely clear that I am not suggesting that such issues are unimportant. The point I wish to make is that such "measuring" has now attained a very high profile; computer generated reports are produced with great frequency; social workers and their immediate manager are threatened with disciplinary action if e.g. a child does not see a dentist on time………All of this "measuring activity" is now so dominant within the work place that an issue such as integrating theory into practice is very much sidelined. Why am I emphasising this? The reason is that this situation needs to be rectified because social workers must work within an environment where their work is anchored in social work theory. If it is not, they will be lost in trying to understand how to undertake their role. That will lead to poor performance, increased sickness and high staff turnover.

ii). The most significant role model for most social workers will be their immediate manager. It is therefore crucial that the team manager has a good grasp of social work theory and demonstrates that in their discussions and co-working arrangements with team members. However, as I mentioned immediately above, the team manager is often so preoccupied with the "measuring" culture that their role in respect of integrating theory into practice gets lost. If the team manager loses sight of this important issue it is most likely that the social workers they manage will too.

December 2016

 

Prepared 5th January 2017