A cross-party meeting of MPs concluded social work was in "real crisis" last week after hearing from BASW members how increased workloads and service cuts are reducing morale and increasing stress in the profession.
The All Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Social Work was set up following lobbying by BASW in the wake of its State of Social Work survey earlier this year.
Social workers giving evidence at the meeting highlighted the extreme conditions in which social workers have to operate.
One experienced practitioner, named “Frank” to protect his anonymity, claimed he had been forced to “work like a slave” to keep his caseloads down from 59 to 30 within six months.
Frank, a child protection social worker for 23 years across three local authorities, told the MPs that restrictive practices were hampering effective social work.
“I try to encourage people to do social work in between the cracks, to do social work in spite of the system rather than through it. For experienced workers like me that's easier than for a NQSW for whom that is really difficult.”
Frank criticised the Integrated Children’s System, claiming it reduced social work to a series of hoops that had to be passed through: “A lot of social workers feel social work is like a computer game – you have to complete stage one to move to stage two – you feel as though you are following a computer rather than use your own discretion.”
He said he was already having to consider how to overcome the limitations of new IT systems set to be introduced in his local authority next year.
He said: “I think I can bring in my laptop from home, and my dongle which gives me a mobile internet connection, and then go to the local McDonalds to access a wi-fi hotspot to email myself a report.”
In an impassioned address to the MPs, Frank said: “I’m proud to be a social worker but there is a general feeling there has been a real sea change in the extent to which our jobs have changed in recent years.
“Over time there has been a gradual increase in managerialism, and a lot of our work is around data-keeping rather than explaining a child’s circumstances – it’s about being audited to know who should be held accountable. We’re not trying to avoid accountability, that's part of our job, but this has significantly changed for the worse.”
He added: “Something has to give and my way of looking at it is we have to have more flexibility in how we deal with those referrals – we need more autonomy or the system will reach breaking point, which in some areas it already is.”
Another experienced local authority child protection social worker, Janet Foulds, echoed the view that good social work practice came in spite of, not because of, the systems social workers were forced to practice within.
“I go into universities and the final year students are clearly frightened about the prospect of entering social work practice,” she said.
“They say how do you do it when you knock on the door and the dog is barking and the parent tells you to clear off? And the point is that, actually, children are protected by the art and craft of the profession, by knowing how to respond to difficult situations because of the experience accumulated over the years.
“Yet when social workers are tired and stressed, as so many are at the moment, that's when the craft becomes harder and the protection diminishes.”
Ms Foulds told the first of three APPG inquiries into the challenges facing the profession that more people, better support systems and greater recognition of the difficulty of the job was needed.
BASW’s acting chief executive Bridget Robb highlighted some of the concerns in the Association’s State of Social Work survey, published in May, as well as the variations between UK countries.
However, Ms Robb also stressed: “Not everything is doom and gloom. Extremely good practice is happening. Even in Birmingham, where Ofsted highlighted real challenges recently, the inspectors also mentioned notable areas and examples of good practice. There is knowledge about what makes a good service and how to improve education. But the reality at the moment is that this is just a really difficult time – politics at a national and local level are making effective practice very hard."
Concluding the first hearing, APPG chairman Mike Wood MP compared the testimonies he had heard with his experience as a social worker in the 1970s.
“It does seem as though there is much evidence that the pressures people are working under today means things are much worse than in my time and will get much worse still. We must be realistic and say we’re looking at a real crisis in our profession.”
The second session of the APPG inquiry is set to be staged on 27 November, with a focus on how planned reforms to the adoption system will impact on child protection policies, particularly in England.
A third and final session is yet to be scheduled and is expected to look at the challenges and issues confronting social workers in the field of adult social work.