Sections of the press are deliberately painting a false picture of social workers

Reading some of the media coverage of our child protection system, it would be easy to believe social workers enter the profession to cause harm.

Reading some of the media coverage of our child protection system, it would be easy to believe social workers enter the profession to cause harm

The approach taken by the right-leaning Evening Standard in its reporting of findings by right-wing think tank the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) this week will have done nothing to boost the morale of social workers in England.

While there is no doubt that sensationalism sells, attention-grabbing headlines like Monday’s Failures of UK’s ‘unscrupulous and abhorrent’ child protection services laid bare in report do little to advance the debate about the future of children’s services.

Given that the CSJ was originally Ian Duncan Smith’s brainchild, some may be surprised that The British Association of Social Workers put its name to the press release accompanying the launch of the CSJ report’s resulting campaign from Kids Company, See the Child, Change the System.

Social workers may well wonder why their professional body would lend support to scrutiny of social work systems, yet it is no secret that the current child protection system faces many challenges.

We did not need this report to know that. A report from Ofsted in October 2013 estimated that one in seven local authorities are currently rated ‘inadequate’ for their children’s services.

This is not because social workers themselves are inadequate, despite the many repeated political and media attacks on the profession in recent years that tell the public otherwise.

Last month, Guardian columnist and author Owen Jones told delegates at our UK conference that negative stories about social workers can put vulnerable people at risk, saying:

“Even as you face ever-worsening injustice you are right to be aggrieved that the immensely positive contributions you make go unheard and ignored by the media, whereas every time something goes wrong, that is the only time social work appears in our newspapers.

“Frankly, shame on the British media, for not only is it unfair to do you wrong, it is completely counterproductive to run down people’s morale, to run down a service and drive away people from this essential service.

“That is why it has to be resisted because it puts people’s security at risk. That is why journalists have a responsibility to show the reality of what you are doing to give hope and inspiration to others, and show how very difficult complex problems can be addressed with skill and courage.”

The reality facing social workers is grim. Few commentators who are so quick to criticise social workers for their alleged ‘failings’ would seek to trade places with them, to step over people’s doorsteps and ask unwelcome questions about a child’s welfare, to face the ever-present threat of violence or the emotional distress removing a child from their home causes.

If you were an alien visiting this planet and read some of the media coverage of our child protection system, it would be quite easy to believe that social workers enter the profession to cause harm.

No one can guarantee that in such a complex and delicate area of work, where decisions are made that will affect children and parents for decades if not generations, that wrong decisions will not sometimes be made; but social workers enter the profession to help children.

It is the systems social workers are working within that are letting them down. Mountains of paperwork and unwieldy IT systems that must take priority over visiting children, is but one example.

It is central government’s systematic destruction of services run by local government in England, where most social workers are still employed. We only need to look at the other countries within the UK to see how this can be different and better both for children and for social workers.

That acknowledgement is why The British Association of Social Workers has become involved with the Kids Company campaign and why we will be a part of the independent Children’s Task Force chaired by Sir Keir Starmer QC, to discuss new ways of delivering services to vulnerable children.

Whatever future lies in store for children’s services in England, social workers remain integral to it. Our priority is to help shape services that put the needs of the child, rather than the needs of the system, first.

Bridget Robb is the chief executive of The British Association of Social Workers (BASW)

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12 Responses to “Sections of the press are deliberately painting a false picture of social workers”

  1. swatnan

    Its a sad day when practically every household comes with a social worker attached.
    Says something about Western civilisation.

  2. Leon Wolfeson

    …They don’t. That’s part of the selfsame propaganda.

    You’ll blame them when kids are hurt after the next round of budget cuts, though.

    (And let’s not mention the IT system they finally needed, which was scrapped by the coalition, returning them to paper-based systems and writing letters to other agencies)

  3. Chrisso

    If you read Bridget Robb’s article, she makes the point that “Mountains of paperwork and unwieldy IT systems that take priority over visiting children, is but one example”.

    She’s right and the IT system brought in during Labour’s period in office certainly did not help, it was a straight-jacket. Eileen Munro, in her damning report on the way that social work changed for the worse in the last decade or so commented

    “This ‘rational-technical approach’ has fed into a view that a good enough picture of practice can be gained from procedural manuals and from the written record where the results of the cognitive work are displayed. The claim that practice is ‘transparent’ has usually meant there is a written record of some aspects of practice – though if you talk to a social worker, you quickly realise how little of the thinking and action gets recorded. It has fostered a view that the more important part of social work is carried out on a computer. Good records are important: they are the future reference point for the child and provide an account of what actions have been taken and why by the local authority. But if we take the perspective of children and their parents, the most important part is when social workers meet children and families, try to communicate with them, work with them, and help them to change.”

    Now the coalition (and god knows I carry no torch for that lot!) did not ‘return social work to paper-based systems’. The alternative to the universal IT systems brought in by the Labour administrations (ICT, Contact Point) was not the same as writing letters by hand, there’s nothing wrong with using word processors. Munro – “Most critical, however, is the provision, maintenance and review of ICT systems. Many social workers reported that their computer systems were substantial obstacles to good practice.”

    Labour has a long way to go to catch up with public service needs and values – it got it wrong last time and may do so next time too. Labour actually has little idea of what social work and child protection is about. And all in that sector hope and trust that Ed Balls is not put in charge of Children & Families again, we tend to expect that he’d feel more comfortable with managing the economy as at least he studied that at university …

  4. Leon Wolfeson

    The database would have allowed a massive amount of streamlining in the amount of paperwork needed. The problem is that the system reverted to is slow, bureaucratic and massively expensive in man-hours.

    And yes, the entire POINT of the database you’re hating on was it was the centre for reform of ICT – without it, the cumbersome practices /have/ to continue, because everyone needs their own files.

    I certainly think they have a better idea than you, on the record here.

  5. Chrisso

    Sorry – ‘hating on’? What do you mean? Are you really suggesting that Contact Point (a database for sharing Child Protection information) was geared towards a reform of ICT? If so you are sadly misinformed.

  6. Mad Angel

    I don’t believe that’s propaganda didn’t this come with that Cinderella law?

  7. Leon Wolfeson

    It was the first step. Now, there are no steps, because the old cumbersome system needs to be retained. To start new changes would take cash the government is not going to even consider paying, and would require primary legislation in any case for any significant effect.

  8. Chrisso

    Sorry, you’re all at sea in what you are saying. I actually work in this service. Clearly you don’t.

  9. Leon Wolfeson

    Yes, of course you work attacking public services, for the Coalition.
    I don’t work against Britain like that, no.

  10. Chrisso

    “Yes, of course you work attacking public services, for the Coalition.” Bizarre comment! I work in social work. Whilst you are no more than a silly time waster. End of.

  11. Leon Wolfeson

    Oh, is that the latest wheeze, calling working for the Tories on social destruction “social work”. Thanks for that.

    Keep lashing out because I don’t believe that paper files and snail-mailing records around is efficient.

  12. tobias roosen

    Dear Colleagues

    Thanks David for this output, which is for different reasons very interesting. This is my first comment, and maybe it is very much too long…

    First, I would suggest from my expierence in Switzerland, that the working environment and its conditions (structural building, its goals and administrative core duties, and the economic-centred and fiscal budgetary view, including the questions about cheap or expensive?) for the goals of fulfilling the Social Work Profession has become very too much contradictory.

    Secondly it is very attractive to work in the public administration, so thats the reality we have to live in and with. Do we want to also work on the shape of our community administration or institutions and to make them a better place for the Social Work Profession?

    But, third, I would like to know, who of us is primarily educated to look for adaquate social work working conditions? For example hirachical and technical infrastructure, the adequate quantum workload, and who in our offices differenciates between front and back office work and its relationship and prioritization? There are not seldom different languages spoken and thereof many misunderstandings.

    As well as, fourth there is the question how to discuss and promote the so called “public value” of our (such) services? Are they (only in my understanding?) too much contradictory? Do’nt we have the best arguments? And if so, what language we have to learn? Neoliberals are always and almost only looking on the dark side of life and then find the scandal, and easy scandalizing it? Any crises has its chance! Do we see and use it? They are looking on the money and do’nt like to pay. The cheapest looks allways most nice!

    How lean does public administration must become, by guaranteed delivering state of the art, best practice, no mistakes and for sure pure high end quality? And is there any escape from new public management is not becoming new public damagement? We have to better discus public value and the values of the social work profession. If they are not identical, they are almost twins.

    There is no escape from discussing all the problems and its solutions inside our businesses, in our Social Work organisations and with trade unions and to daily strive for more public/political acceptance of the Social Work Profession. Social Work is a very political profession, which has been clear in its beginning. The political and economic environment and societal climate has changed – already thirtyfife years ago, by the Washington Consensus. Do we act against this or do we suffer from?

    I myself prefer acting, because together we can! But I’m suffering about the speed of our forthcoming. Even we are so many Social Workers, our speed has become much slower than in early times of social work, with much more harder contradictory conditions, for Jane Addams or Alice Salomon than.

    Yours sincerely

    Tobias Roosen
    Master of Social Work
    IFSW Representative UNOG

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