The privilege of being a social worker (blog by ‘Ermintrude’)

 

April  15, 2017 blog

The Privilege of Social Work

It’s easy to find problems, anxieties and stresses on a day to day basis. We often joke that social workers have a particular outlook that encourages a degree of grumpiness and that’s not so difficult to understand. Often we do work with people who have been ignored and marginalised by society with resources that are being cut and in large scale organisations that can often frustrate our professional judgements. The feeling of working in a sausage factory when you want to be a creative — co-producing innovative care plans but stuck in a model which favours top down implementations can be frustrating and can sap one’s soul.

It is in this environment that is best remembered, reminding ourselves if noone else is there to do it, of the privilege that it is to work in this field. If we begin to stop thinking and remembering the privileges we have — not on a day to day basis, everyone has good days and bad days and we have the rights to dips in mood, but on a weekly, monthly, yearly basis, it may be time to think about moving out or moving on.

I have twice ‘stepped out’ of social work since qualifying. Once was just after one year of practice as a locum social work. I went to work in a completely different field for two years. There were various circumstances around this which weren’t related to me not wanting to do social work but it had been a tough initiation. This was back in 2000 before AYSE or NQSW programmes or protected caseloads or anything like that. I went straight into an older people’s care management job in a busy inner city London team. My caseload hovered between 35–45. In the weeks before I left, I closed or transferred 49 people and families to others. I lacked confidence after completing my qualification. And I left. It was only after leaving (and I was gone for two years), that I realised what I had left behind. It wasn’t during month one, or month five — it was more in year two actually. During those years, I came to the decision that it was absolutely what I wanted to do — or at least, I wanted to try in a different setting. One office, one environment and one organisational culture, does not define the profession.

So I returned, again as a locum — into an generic, multi-disciplinary adult social work team, again in inner city London (a different borough) and again as a locum. It was different — not least because the service manager inspired faith and confidence and she was supportive. I applied for a permanent job in the team as soon as it came up and stayed in that borough (although I moved internally into mental health) for roughly ten years. Then I stepped out again, to where I am now. I am still using my social work skills and knowledge but am not in a post which requires me to have a social work registration (although I maintain it because I feel it is a part of a professional identity which is important to me).

Moving away from a direct social work role in a local authority/mental health trust has given me space to breathe. It has also given me cause to reflect on the meaning of the role I left behind and what I miss about being a social worker. Sometimes we can’t appreciate the value of what we have until we don’t have it anymore.

So what are the privileges of social work? Well, this is just my view. I’m no expert, but it’s important to fill in the gaps yourself and consider, away from the specific job, in the specific borough, with the specific team — what the profession has given you? But these are my answers.

  1. Social work has given me a sense of professional belonging. Prior to starting my MA in social work, I had worked in residential care. I enjoyed care work. I worked with adults with learning disabilities and — not least, I had a lot of fun in the job. I liked the people I worked with, both residents and staff and I was fortunate to work for an organisation which was well-run and wanted the best for residents. I was a young graduate in London and my family and friends couldn’t always understand why I had taken a job (and worked in it for 4 years) which didn’t ‘require’ my qualifications. This didn’t bother me remotely but there was a constant expectation that was sometimes irritating. A friend of mine, who I’d worked with went on a few dates with a guy she met doing a bank shift who was applying to do a social work postgraduate course (Reader, she married him — they now have two teen kids!) who persuaded her to do the same. She then persuaded me to go for it too. I had never even understood what social workers did before that. But going from never really thinking in ‘career’ terms to having a ‘proper qualification’ was an enormous jump. The training gave me confidence and it gave me a starting point from which to build more expertise and skill in social care settings. The profession has given me an identity and introduced me to wonderful, knowledgeable social workers and most importantly service users who have been willing to share painful experiences and key expertise generously. I didn’t realise how important ‘belonging’ was until I actually felt it.
  2. Social work has given me a voice. It’s easy to complain about our lot in the face of management structures which are very top down but the professional role is explicitly laden with power. We make vital decisions about people’s lives and the things that are important to them. We need to respect this and we can only respect the power we have by respecting the position we hold. It is through being a social worker that we can be heard by courts, by other professionals and by service users. If I go to someone’s house during a visit and make what I believe to be an off-hand comment about tidiness (note, I never did — I’m not really bothered by messy!), it can instil a sense of fear in those who are responding not to me — a nice, friendly person who sometimes likes to joke (as I think!) but a representative of local authority/mental health trust Bumbleshire. If ‘a social worker’ says it, it must be important/key. We should never lose sight of the impact of our voice. Professionally, I’ve used the voice I gain to write blogs and articles, to speak to those outside the profession and to speak to students and newly qualified social workers. This is a role which requires responsibility. The power of a voice — when people listen to that voice is not something to take lightly. To those who haven’t yet utilised the full scope of the social work voice, try it. You can write, you can tweet, you can join a professional organisation and join others or create a support group within your own organisation. Collective voices are stronger than individual voices.
  3. Social work has given me power. I have written a lot about power and social work so for fear of repeating myself, I’ll say it again. Even if we don’t always feel it, we have power intrinsic to our roles as social workers. We have power in relation to people who use services is enormous. When we don’t recognise that, we do those who rely on us a disservice. If you don’t enjoy the job or feel disempowered by the organisation you work in, try another role or another setting but don’t let those who rely on you, suffer or feel the backlash of your own disillusionment. They deserve better. You deserve better.
  4. Social work has given me an understanding of the world and the society I live in. I have had the privilege of walking with people through some of the most intensively difficult, personal and private areas of their lives and being in a position to offer a range of things, from a package of care to a kind word. Yes, sometimes I’ve had to take action which has been unwelcomed — often, when I practiced as an AMHP (approved mental health professional) and was responsible for making decisions about detaining people under the Mental Health Act against their will. I was able to try, as far as I could, to make an awful, traumatic experience and experiences, as human as possible as far as I could. We have to work within organisations and sometimes I felt the decisions forced on me were not the ‘right’ ones, when I was asked, for example, to follow budget constraints regarding provision of care where I thought someone needed more than the local authority was offering. Even though this challenged me, the role enabled me to carry out the ‘will of the state’ in the kindest way possible and that was how I reassured myself. We can sometimes hate some of the actions we take and are asked to take and those who are subject to our actions certainly have the right to hate us, hate our organisations and resent us but we can always try and make every interaction kinder and more human — whatever the circumstances. That is an enormous privilege.
  5. Social work has given me broad knowledge base of parts of our world that I would never otherwise have any understanding of. I have seen the circumstances in which people live in and strive and struggle and it has given me a sense of gratitude for all that I had. I realise there is nothing noble in this. I have just seen so many people that I have developed such admiration for struggle from day to day and deal with tragedy, loss, challenge with such fortitude and dignity that I feel I owe it to those who I work with and have worked with as service users to respect and appreciate every single thing that I have and can enjoy.

Grumbling happens. Of course it does. It happens in all jobs and all roles. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t have ebbs and flows of enthusiasm but amid the grumbles, we also have to step back and think of the wonder, opportunities and privilege that this job — this profession- can give us.

 

Submissions to Policy Forum

Several members responded to the request to contribute to the Labour Party Policy Forum.  The Priority Areas this time were Mental Health and Early years/ Early help so some of the contributions (on broader family support for all age groups, children in care, and on adolescents/young people – including leaving care, and vulnerability to criminalisation or sexual exploitation) were too detailed to include this time but are stored in hope that these will become priority areas. A submission was made to each of the priority areas-  Thanks to Jane Tunstill and James Blewett who broadened out our family support submission to include older age groups.  Also in accompanying submission we made the point that, although they overlap, Labour should be aware that early years and early help are not synonymous.  Rob Murphy led on the mental health submission but has also put in a separate more detailed submission (attached).  A general submission on social work was put in to both of the priority groups.  If you would like to see these on the Labour website, go to yourbritain.org.uk  You will need a Labour Party membership number to sign in, but I am attaching all the submissions to this post.

 

LSWG meet members of Labour Shadow Team

House of Commons 4-5.30 Committee Room 21.

The meeting was arranged by Sharon Hodgson MP (Shadow Children’s Minister) and her researcher- Daniel Tye, to whom many thanks for this opportunity to meet up.  Also there (and helping to put the word around about the group amongst Labour parliamentarians were Emma Lewell-Buck (Shadow Minister at DCLG with Troubled Families as part of her brief), Cat Smith and Clive Lewis (Shadow Ministers for Women and Equalities and in Energy Department. It had been necessary to change the time, so Baroness Armstrong (Patron of the group who had been intending to Chair the first hour was unable to do so. Also, Luciana Burger (Shadow Cabinet member with the mental health brief) and Lord Watson (children spokesman in the Lords) and 3 other group members MPs who had intended to at least ’drop in’ were unable to do so.

Prof Ray Jones (member of Association of Professors of Social Work) and Sam Baron (Chair of JUC-SWEC) introduced some key issues of concern following the recent government announcement of plans to change the social work regulation and training systems. Issues raised included:

  • The expanded funding (channelled via the Frontline partnership) of fast-track specialist routes, and the negative impact on the (still majority) university courses;
  • The move from a broad-based University education in preparation for the challenges of a social work career to an ‘on the job’ skills-based specialist training with a narrow focus on child protection.
  • The likely impact on the availability of social workers for the elderly and adults with disabilities as funded places are reserved for work with children (at a time when recent legislation and generational pressures require more social workers to be part of integrated health and social care teams
  • The fragmentation of service delivery and the lack of continuity of relationships between social workers and those they serve, and with their professional colleagues resulting from the ‘outsourcing’ models being favoured by government policies and funding models

There was a lively discussion about the implications of these changes (coming on top of changes in housing, benefits and local government cuts) on the service to vulnerable families.  Strategies were discussed for labour parliamentarians and professionals to help each other to challenge (nationally and locally) mis-information about the costs and proposed benefits of proposed changes and publicise   negative consequences on vulnerable adults and children of increased case-loads, high vacancy rates,  and the service instability caused by the over-use of agency/interim managers and social workers. Possible future plans and directions included:

  • Finding ways of co-ordinating the work of the labour shadow team and select committee members so that party policy towards social work (and responses to government ‘initiatives’) is ‘joined up’ across the education, health, DCLG, home office, and justice teams.
  • Use our different roles and media contacts to engage the voice of the public (the petition to halt the proposed privatisation of child protection decision making was an example).
  • Members of the group in direct practice roles can provide anonymised examples of the impact eg of changes of social worker, cases un-allocated when agency workers move on. Students and lecturers can give examples of potentially goodl social workers who have had to give up their courses because of financial hardship
  • Group members to provide background briefings to MPs and Lords on issues where our members have expertise which are about to come up in debates, consultations, select committees or legislation.
  • To assist with this, LSWG will gather information on the specialist areas of LSWK members so that specialist reference groups can provide a speedy response to requests of information and case examples
  • Members of the group to draft possible PQs.
  • In the immediate future there are serious concerns about the cost of the ministerial ‘reform’ proposals, the way in which the tendering process for the various ‘initiatives’ is being conducted, particularly with contracts going to the private sector.  There was discussion of how information might be collected (eg via FOI requests) to support a referral to the Public Accounts Committee to investigate the use of public money.
  • A first step is to provide information to the Education Select Committee’s current inquiry and to consider whether the Health select committee might also consider the threat to the future of social work within the health services
  • Find ways for the group to contribute to Labour National Strategy Policy Forum
  • Link up with UNISON, and other socialist societies to propose motions, become involved in fringe meetings at Labour Conference 2016. This needs to start now.