Trusting social workers or not

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Trusting social workers

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Mark Easton | 12:06 UK time, Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Children’s Secretary Ed Balls has ambitious ideas for England’s system of child protection. He intends to make it “the best in the world” with “a plan to transform the social work profession”.

But there is a contradiction at the heart of his proposals today.

He wants to encourage more of the “brightest and highest achieving graduates” to enter a service desperately short of qualified staff. “Our ambition is for social work to be a high quality profession, with the confidence and support of the public” the minister states.

But at the same time he announces that there will be ever greater scrutiny of everything they might do: a government Safeguarding Delivery Unit and a chief advisor on the safety of children to “challenge” local authorities; local safeguarding children boards to include members of the public who will be invited to put their two penn’orth in on how best to protect local children; proposals for new centrally dictated child-protection targets.

It will be interesting to see whether the Social Work Taskforce, assembled by ministers to lead a “root and branch review into how to improve the confidence and capacity of the social workforce”, will think that stricter protocols, greater scrutiny and more paperwork is the way forward.

The word that some would say is missing from today’s proposals is “trust”. The plans suggest ministers do not have real confidence in social workers to do their job. Every scandal is seen as evidence that the public servants employed to protect vulnerable children are failing. The response is greater control from the centre.

But there are some who worry that the “tick-box” approach to child safety is the problem not the solution. The Conservative spokesman on the subject, Tim Loughton, argues that bureaucracy should be reduced.

“We need to improve the image and status and standing of social workers. They should be seen in just the same way as we view doctors, teachers, nurses or police” he has said.

Perhaps he has the Danish model in mind. You may recall I travelled to Copenhagen recently to see their approach to child protection and was struck by the freedoms given to social workers in making decisions for children in their care.

Social pedagogy, as the jargon has it, is the idea that workers take responsibility for nurturing young people through to adulthood. They are encouraged to take risks, just as a parent would, to help vulnerable and often damaged children grow and mature.

The social workers I met were highly qualified, well paid, enjoyed high status and exhibited great self-confidence. They were, of course, accountable but they did not appear to feel the weight of bureaucracy on their shoulders.

A recent UK parliamentary report on children in care contrasted the low status of social workers in England with the situation in Denmark where a social worker post looking after children is seen as “a plum job”.

Who would be a social worker in this country? Not enough people, that is for sure.

Some English councils report that one in four of their social worker posts are vacant. Even in a recession, it is hard to recruit people to take on the challenge. Vilified if they appear to “snatch” children away from families too readily but similarly criticised if they don’t take vulnerable youngsters into care quickly enough, it is clear that staff in children’s services do not have the kind of public backing enjoyed by, say, nurses.

“Social workers do a really tough job in challenging circumstances”, says Ed Balls. “We should support their invaluable work”. The £58m he has said will be spent improving recruitment and retention is welcomed by many.

But if he is serious about making England’s child protection systems “the best in the world”, there are some who suggest Mr Balls needs to demonstrate greater confidence in those he has entrusted with the safety of our children.

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