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Making social work work

Earlier this week we held an event to share initial findings from a soon-to-be-published study that sought to measure outcomes for children and families who have social workers. The full report will be published later this year but we want to start sharing some of the emerging messages.

The full report will detail why the research team struggled to measure outcomes for children but the main problem was enrolment of enough families who were ‘eligible’ for the study – that is to say, families who had only had one social worker over the period of support. That the team were unsuccessful is not entirely surprising given the innovative nature of the study and the widespread absence of measurements of outcomes in social work. However, the study will cast a spotlight on the challenges of working in child protection where professionals are too often stuck in a bureaucratic role where they aren’t able to apply their skill.

We can no longer fudge the choice: do we want social workers as bureaucrats or as agents of change? Few would admit to believing in the social worker-as-bureaucrat model, yet there are rational reasons why so much social work practice is still mired by process, compliance and paperwork. Accepting the definition of social work as the process of intervening to help children and adults in moments of crisis with high levels of risk has profound implications for the status quo.

Working in a field of uncertainty and risk can make working behind a desk with linear processes and a protective barrier of paperwork feel safer and therefore more attractive. For those leading organisations, complying with rules can lead to a system of rewards and incentives that focus on the recording of work, rather than the doing of work. And of course, leaders must make decisions about what social workers should stop doing if they are to start spending more time with children and families. No one joins social work with a desire to sit behind a desk managing cases through a system of checks and meetings, but it is understandable why we are stuck in this approach.

Wholeheartedly embracing a model which favours social workers as agents of change will require major reform. As soon to be published work from Donald Forrester will show, for social workers to do meaningful change work with families they need time and a sufficient amount of contact with families (Forrester’s research indicates eight or more contacts). Shifting to a model where social workers spend more time out ‘in practice’ would place higher demands on the skill of social workers, as they would be intervening more themselves and referring to other agencies less frequently.

A new focus on practice in the job has influenced central government’s decision to set up the new national test for social workers in this field (the National Assessment and Accreditation System). Shifting the role to practice might also require investment in administrative support for social workers so they can be free to undertake complex direct work. An evaluation of a DfE funded innovation programme in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, where social workers were given personal assistants, found that:

“Highly skilled administrators or PAs have enabled a decrease in social worker time spent on administrative tasks (from 36% to 14%) and an increase in the time they are spending with families (from 34% to 58%)”

This balance of work is echoed in our soon to be published report. Embracing this method of resourcing might be necessary to enable social workers to genuinely focus on practice and in the process it may save money by making social work input more valuable.

The study that we commissioned will draw out a number of other points which will be made publicly available later this year. However, the problems caused by the dominance of bureaucracy will almost certainly be the main message in the report. There is growing momentum to free social workers to focus on practice and direct work. Local authorities, children’s trusts, central government and organisations like Frontline are doing their bit but we must all do more to tackle the causes that keep the social work role stuck too far from what professionals want and what children and families need.