Social Work, Change and Me

Since I qualified as a social worker, over 15 years ago, I’ve been incredibly proud of being a social worker. I was never one to be embarrassed to admit my profession at a party or in a social event. I tried to explain what I did, ensure that I involved those I worked with as much as possible, and built a blog to try to explain the profession (not updated anymore but accessible here ).

Three years ago, I took a job, that, while still within ‘health and social care’ didn’t require a social work qualification. I’m a still a social worker, because I’m registered with HCPC, but I’m not ‘doing’ social work. Social work isn’t in my job title or job description. This didn’t stop me identifying with social work and social workers. I remained involved in social work bodies such as the College of Social Work and retained my membership, paid individually as it wouldn’t be relevant as a corporate membership.

I still feel like a social worker and hope I still think as a social worker but getting out of ‘statutory social work’ (as that’s the only type of social work I did) has allowed me a broader understanding of the health and social care landscape.

A number of announcements were made about social work this week, all from the Department of Education. This doesn’t surprise me, the push to ‘change’ social work always seems to leave adult social work trailing behind. This isn’t always a bad thing when you look at some of the ways social work which focusses on children is being led – but we all seem to end up in the same place anyway, just with quieter voices than that rather noisy Chief Social Worker (for children) who has been less of an advocate for the profession and more of an enabler for a government with a very narrow agenda which sees this ‘chief social worker’ role as negating any need to engage with the profession as a whole.

I will not explore the changes in detail, not least because I’ve been busy and haven’t investigated too deeply so don’t rely on me for expert critical analysis. In true fuzzy social work style (and I say that ironically), this is about my feelings.

We are to have a new social work regulator in England. This is after the last social work regulator but one, the GSCC (general social care council) was wound up in Cameron’s infamous “Bonfire of the Quangos” when he came into power. We then moved to the HCPC (health and care professions council which changed its name specially). I was opposed to that move but now, despite all the wondrous excitement from the respective chief social workers, I’m weary. Yes, I preferred having a social work specific regulator but how much money was wasted then, moving all English social workers to the HCPC, training up the HCPC in understanding and monitoring/regulating social work to just, now, establish a completely new body. It’s tiring. This is within the space of just over five years. Then we had the government winding up the College of Social Work which had barely got off the ground. How much money spent setting up and winding down social work organisations and bodies? It smacks of a lack of strategic vision for the profession. Oh.

Then there was the announcement that the government is pushing money into the ‘Frontline’ and ‘Step up’ fast track social work training schemes. These are the little play schemes that pander to the government egos and pretend that they are going to improve social work by reducing the amount of time people training to do the job spend learning about social work and narrowing the focus that they learn about but paying them a lot more to do so. These training programmes pay up to about £20,000 pa for those ‘exceptional candidates’ to condense their training — at a time when NHS bursaries are being cut for nurses. This is illogical. We need an overview of the post qualification support and training pathways for social workers, we don’t need to create additional divisions within the profession.

My heart has always been in adult social work. I’ve worked with older adults in a local authority team and in an mental health trust. I felt an affinity with the profession and the ethical standards which have supported it but I’ve always felt frustrated with the so-called professional leadership which seems to lack cohesion and a united voice (see the petty little fights between BASW and the College of Social Work which ended up leaving both significantly poorer and seemed more to be a battle of egos than a consideration of what is best for the profession). Lions led by donkeys has never had a truer resonance. Could I do better myself? Probably not. I have tried to give my voice to drive change but those who have the government’s ear don’t seem able to willing to challenge sufficiently or advocate for the profession.

This makes me sad. I always felt that social work needs to advocate for itself and not compare itself to nursing or psychology. It’s an desperately insecure profession that is afraid to challenge and has yet to develop a collective maturity which allows the value to be appreciated and withstands the intense pressures of ‘divide and rule’ which has been every governments’ agenda. The way Ed Balls was able to throw Haringey Social work to the dogs with the help of the Sun shows that this isn’t a ‘Labour’ or ‘Tory’ issue, this is a profession which has never had the cohesive security to challenge and doesn’t have the innate love from the general public to push change and perceptions.

Earlier this week, I met a colleague I don’t see regularly and we had a good catch up. We were talking vaguely about where our ‘careers’ were going because we were on our corporate induction together and have had vaguely parallel paths, even though we’ve gone in different directions. She asked me if I thought I would go back to social work. I’ve invariably thought the answer would be ‘yes’. I suspected that this current job was one in which I would learn and grow and then take that learning back to a more traditional ‘social work’ job. I surprised myself when I told her I didn’t think I would. I wasn’t expecting those words to come out of my mouth. That has made me reflect on what ‘being a social worker’ is. When the news about the changes in regulation then came, the next day, for the first time, I considered not bothering to register when it comes up. I saw statements and talk from the centre about improvements in the profession but I don’t see where that’s coming from and all these statements either relate to how it will ‘improve’ social work or rather, statutory social work. The Chief social worker for adults talks of the BIA/AMHP frameworks being embedded or something — I didn’t read in detail — the Chief social worker for children is talking about accreditation schemes and improving child protection but there’s nothing about and for people like me. Social workers who aren’t doing social work.

For me, it’s important to have a background of social work and training in social work to do a myriad of jobs which may not be called ‘social work’ and don’t involve working for a local authority or an NHS trust but increasingly, I’m seeing that there may not be a place in ‘social work’ and the social work world for me.

I don’t think I’m ever not going to identify in some ways as a social worker, it’s been too long now, but will I always be a ‘social worker’ — for the first time, this week, I think the answer may be ‘no’. And that makes me incredibly sad.