On the topic of Social Work Practices

There has been a lot of recent interest by politicians and think tanks lately to support the empowerment of frontline workers, and nowhere is this more relevant than for social work.

Good social work can mean the world of difference for many in society, though the profession has suffered consistent set backs, hindered by inadequate recruitment, retention, resources, training, leadership and public understanding.

The debate on increasing professional standards, and making selection tougher, has come at the same time as the argument suggesting more families need close contact with social workers. The problem becomes quite clear; while caseloads should increase, and social work be more autonomous, it must become tougher to be a social worker, with extended training and rigorous selection.

Many academic reports on the subject call for government to increase incentives for social workers, such as introducing sabbaticals to ease the stress of full time social work. But already this necessitates a huge increase in the total workforce.

Projects like Progressive Conservatism at Demos have been enthusiastic about self-directed social work services, particularly in their report Leading from the Front. The idea is they combine operations and management functions rather than separate them, ridding stifling middle management and building a more autonomous profession.

Six pilots for GP-styled social work practices are currently underway in Blackburn with Darwen, Hillingdon, Kent, Liverpool, Staffordshire and Sandwell, which have already gained support from the Conservatives – even before the pilot results have been fed back – but they have not found favour with everyone across the sector.

Back in 2008 Sutton Council team manager Maureen Floyd noted that “social workers already criticise lack of direct work with children.” Rather than being an exercise in reducing bureaucracy, the finance management of social work practices could increase the time social workers spend in front of computer screens and further frustrate their desire to work directly with children.

Whether the benefits of a social work practice outweighed the problems was a problem even Julian Le Grand – who came up with the idea of social work practices before they were introduced in the Care Matters White Paper in 2007 – couldn’t solve. For him they could either save money having no hierarchies, or they could turn out to be more expensive because of an increase in staff pay.

It is no secret that Independent Fostering Agencies (IFAs) produce generous returns for their work – which could act as a incentive for the social workforce. Ian Crosby, an independent social worker and foster carer, has suggested that for every 22 children in placement they get a £1m turnover. But huge profits should not be the prime motivator for social work. Instead, these surgeries could be linked to social enterprise bonds, where the government only pays out if savings have been made, transferring risk onto the service providers, and in turn investors, themselves.

The need for more autonomy in social work does not necessarily lend itself to privatisation. If self-directed social work is feasible at all, then it is just as likely in the public sector as it is in the private sector. After all the complaints from social workers go deeper than financial rewards. Higher standards of social work need appropriate remuneration, but rewards need to reflect what the workforce is really calling for, including fewer hours and better investment for training.

Social work practices are certainly a relevant topic for this debate, but for a revolution to take place in social work, we do not have to reinvent the wheel, government just has to listen up.

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