Let’s Show Respect For Children’s Social Work

A few weeks ago, the cry went up from my nine-year-old daughter at the laptop: “Oh, no, it’s the social worker!” It turned out that the appearance of the social worker on her Sims computer game signalled that her computer child was being taken away due to neglect.

With children’s views of social workers already entrenched as quasi-child-snatchers, it is not difficult to see how their parents easily empathise with a tabloid-fuelled image of social workers as contributing to the problems of vulnerable families, rather than as part of the solution for helping them. A recent General Social Care Council survey found that only 40% of people viewed the contribution of social workers as “very important”.

Yet good social workers are as crucial to the wellbeing of vulnerable children or to the survival of damaged families as a doctor is to the health of his patient or a teacher to the learning chances of her pupil. They are a key element in the tools we need to deal with what the Conservative party has identified as our “broken society”. Not to recognise as much, and just to point the finger of blame when something goes wrong, is shortsighted and a false economy.

To that end, the Conservative party set up a commission of practitioners, service users and other experts last year to find solutions rather than apportion blame. Our report, No More Blame Game – The Future for Children’s Social Workers, is published this week after a year of taking more than 100 written and oral submissions at Westminster.

Our findings start with the need for a more cohesive professional leadership for social workers, akin to that of the British Medical Association or Royal College of Nursing, which the British Association of Social Workers, with just 11,000 members, has thus far regrettably failed to provide.

The high vacancy rates and turnover in a job that needs to establish continuity of trust with difficult clients remain unacceptable. A vigorous recruitment campaign, modelled on those for teachers and police, emphasising their value to society, is long overdue. Once recruited, we also need new working structures, including a consultant social worker level, which would enable skilled practitioners to retain their expertise at the frontline, rather than being stranded behind a manager’s desk.

We were attracted by the concept of the chief social worker role that New Zealand has, where public professionalism has prompted greater public acceptability. We also have much to learn from the pedagogue social workers who are held in much higher esteem throughout Scandinavia in particular. We advocate extending the use of volunteering alongside qualified social workers – as pilots in California, for example, have brought dramatic reductions in child abuse.

Recent alarmist storylines about the government’s artificial adoption targets engendering a “snatch and grab” culture among social workers have hardly helped the situation. We will therefore recommend the scrapping of artificial numerical adoption targets fuelled by perverse incentives.

It was a recurrent and not entirely flippant proposition that when we have numerous popular TV soaps about police, teachers, casualty staff and even forensic pathologists, why can’t we apply the same treatment to social workers?

Our 14 recommendations are not earth-shattering, but they provide a constructive contribution to the debate we need to have about the role, status and image of social workers, and will inform our own policy-making process.

-Tim Loughton MP is shadow minister for children and is chairman of the Conservative party commission on social workers

-Tim Loughton: publishes No More Blame Game this week.