Sorry, Girls – Social Services Should Be A Real Job For Real Men

Say the words “social worker” and a harassed-looking woman carrying a bouquet of dog-eared files and a handbag full of tissues and Nurofen comes to mind. She looks well-meaning but worried, as well she might, since if she makes a wrong call a child’s life could be in danger. The public perception is that social workers are underpaid, overworked and largely ineffective.

So perhaps it is not surprising that in eight authorities across Britain more than a third of the social worker positions are vacant. Social work university courses are undersubscribed; as the head of one leading charity I spoke to put it, “The people doing social work are the ones who couldn’t get a place doing media studies or sport science.”

There is a very different attitude to social work in Germany and the Scandinavian countries. Over there it is called “social pedagogy” and its practitioners are much more successful in giving their charges a good start in life than their British counterparts.

Danish and German children who have been “looked after” by the state are significantly less likely to commit crime or become pregnant and much more likely to leave school with qualifications than their equivalents in Britain. Six out of 10 children in care go on to further education in Germany as opposed to six out of 100 in the UK. More than a third of children in care here become Neets (not in education, employment or training), as opposed to a national average of 6%.

In this country we lump care homes with sink estates as unpleasant but unavoidable. To come out of either with dignity is considered an achievement. But the Germans and the Danes, who have the same social problems as we do, manage to give the children in their care as good a start in life as any.

There are many reasons for this but two stand out: social workers are better educated – 95% have degrees as opposed to fewer than 30% here – and staff turnover is much lower (8% compared with 30%), which means that children in care have the chance of a real relationship with one person. High staff turnover suggests low job satisfaction.

In Britain, care workers have to spend hours on paperwork, time which in Germany and Scandinavia is spent with children. In a children’s home in Denmark, the staff give the kids shoulder massages before they go to bed and hugs whenever needed. In this country every social worker thinks carefully before touching a child; spontaneous physical affection is definitely not part of the job description.

I’m not sure how you judge the health of a society but surely the way we treat our most vulnerable children must be an indicator. We should be ashamed that in comparison with the Germans and the Danes, we look after our dependent children so badly.

Perhaps the credit crunch can help here. Now that our brightest children will find it harder to bag jobs in the City or business, perhaps it is time to upgrade the status of social workers. If all social workers had to have, say, a master’s degree, it might stop being a labour of love and start becoming an aspiration. In Finland the competition to get on to teacher training courses is intense: only one in 10 applicants is accepted. As a result, Finland has one of the best school systems in the world.

Of course, one effect of making social work as hard to get into as the Foreign Office would be that the gender ratios might balance. Social work, like primary school teaching and nursing, suffers from being a female-dominated profession.

Compare the relative status of mainly female social workers and the mainly male police force: both do dangerous, difficult and necessary jobs, but one, I would suggest, is perceived as a bulwark, the other increasingly as a liability. This is not because men are better at their jobs than women, but because male jobs are perceived as more important.

I can hardly bear to write this, but I think that only when men are queuing up to be social workers will our vulnerable children get the care they deserve.