‘I want social work to be deservedly valued by the public’
Children’s secretary Ed Balls says Goldie and other famous faces in the government’s TV ad campaign can help revise public understanding of the value of social work – and transform the profession.
Earlier this year, when we were planning a national advertising campaign to recruit more social workers, some people warned that it wasn’t a good idea. It risked trivialising profoundly serious issues, they said, and a more low key approach would be better.
But, after much thought, I decided to press ahead. I wanted us to reach out to the public in a way that captured their imagination and challenged their preconceptions, encouraging people from all walks of life to give serious consideration to a social work career. I hoped an advertising campaign would help achieve this.
So last week I launched the campaign with a number of music and TV stars, including Samantha Morton, whose care experiences were important in informing our approach, and Goldie, the actor and DJ. On the day of the launch, Goldie told the media that when he was growing up, in really difficult circumstances, social workers were like a “waypoint” or a “reset button” for him. They were the only people he could rely on and really talk to at that time, he explained, and without them he wouldn’t be half the person he is today.
After such a difficult year for the profession, it was good to be able to demonstrate with real life stories that social work is a job that often transforms lives in ways most people can only begin to imagine.
I was asked in an interview at the beginning of the year what achievement I would most like to be able to recall from 2009. I said that I wanted above all for social workers to feel the hugely difficult job they do is better understood, and that their professionalism is properly supported and challenged to deliver the highest possible practice standards.
At times, over the past year, I know this may have felt like a distant ambition, but more recently I do believe that we have made real progress – in particular, by implementing all the recommendations made by Lord Laming in his progress report, by setting up our Social Work Task Force, and by launching our new social work recruitment campaign last week.
A key challenge for the government has been how to recruit more social workers when there has been so much negative media coverage. Social worker success stories are rarely heard, and research shows that many people don’t even know what social workers really do.
There is no doubt that the issues raised over the last year have posed some difficult leadership challenges. I had to provide the public with enough reassurance about the safety of children, but without giving the impression that no child will ever be harmed again, because, sadly, that’s just not true. I had to explain what had happened, but without influencing the ongoing legal proceedings relating to some of the adults in the original Baby Peter case. Most importantly, I had to respond without undermining the confidence, morale and standing of social workers.
The recruitment campaign is just one aspect of our work to transform the profession. I want social work to be a high-quality, self-confident profession, understood by the public and deservedly valued by them for the crucial job social workers do, often under really tough circumstances.
If we are to achieve this, there’s a high priority on giving social workers the training and support they need, and this requires action in a number of different areas. For example, we have agreed to implement the advice of the Social Work Task Force on how to improve the technology social workers use. It is also clear that social workers need better training and support – especially those who are new to the job – which is why I have rolled out the newly qualified social worker programme. On recruitment, I have introduced a graduate sponsorship programme, a new on-the-job training route, and a scheme to help former social workers return to the profession. This adds up to a £109m support package over the next two years.
I have also asked the taskforce to put forward detailed recommendations for a national college, because, as well as driving learning and best practice, I believe this will give social work a louder voice and a stronger professional identity.
The response to the advertising campaign has been staggering. In less than a week, 7,000 potential recruits have responded, and we need to build on this .
This has been a tough year and, as we’ve seen over the last week, it’s not over yet. But the national debate prompted by the horrific Doncaster case that came to trial last week is also a reminder of why social work is so very important, because the responsibility for those difficult judgments about when to remove a child from home is one they in particular have to bear – together, of course, with the courts.
Children need and deserve the best support and protection. I am backing social workers to rise to this challenge, but in return I lay down a challenge to them to demand to be the best they possibly can.