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“Service is the rent we pay for living”

End of year reflections often open with a celebratory chime. But, depending on your political views, 2016 may have been a year of major disappointment, and if you look hard enough, you’ll find reasons to be despondent about the social work system too.
 
Record levels of children coming into care. Children in need of support or protection growing year after year. Variable social work practice and too many families being assessed and referred time and again. Bureaucracy that continues to take social workers away from families. A lack of public understanding about the job social workers do.
 
The breadth of change that is needed both inside and outside of the social work system for children and families is so huge it’s sometimes hard to know where to start. The enormity of it can sow seeds of doubt, and it can be all too easy to say it’s too complicated, too messy, too much.
 
Yet the scale of the problems in social work and the nature of disadvantage facing families on the edge means we need more excellent, committed social workers and leaders willing to address these issues. For they can be addressed, and there are many examples of them being addressed, but as ever, there is more to be done.
 
The way the system works now and the outcomes for children and families in that system are not predetermined, the system can be redesigned. The fact that there is work to do is the reason to persevere and tackle these problems, not turn away from them. The scale of the challenges should humble us, but they should also give us focus and resolve.
 
We should draw motivation from examples of fantastic social work taking place. There are brilliant social workers in every corner of the country and there are social work systems that are making outstanding practice the norm.  We work closely with nearly 40 local authorities and so we are lucky enough to see both small and large scale innovations taking place. There are too many to mention here, but there is amazing social work and inspirational leadership in every region, and Frontline is making a contribution to these wider reform efforts. 
 
The complexity and urgency of the challenges facing the social work system and the children it serves are the reason why Frontline is doing more now than ever. The coming year will see our largest expansion of the Frontline programme as we aim to have roughly 300 participants in our 2017 cohort. In the New Year we will be partnering with a new region for our 2018 cohort, and we will be launching two new cohorts of our Firstline programme, where we are developing the leadership of team managers.
 
There is positive news from our first cohort who have now become Fellows (alumni) where nearly 90% are remaining in statutory social work after the programme. The Fellowship network has enormous potential in the future and by 2020 there will be well over 1,000 Fellows. I am confident that the shared experience of social work coupled with the determined leadership of this group will help bring about big and positive change for children and families. 
 
This work all matters because change can happen one conversation, child, or family at a time. Systems absolutely matter but individuals can make a difference and have a responsibility too. Whilst those working in the service of vulnerable children may feel that the system is in their way, we need to remember that change takes time and can often be led by those on the front line. There are also indications that those grafting to improve the system have a fair wind at their back. 
 
Service has been described as the “rent we pay for living” so I want to end the year by celebrating those who are serving. There’s so much about the social work system that needs to improve and the stakes for children relying on that system could hardly be higher. But despite what can sometimes feel like a daily grind, social workers do make an enormous difference and things can, and will, improve. In the year to come, keep serving.