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Call for local authorities to recognise unique role of social workers

Local authorities need to free social workers from their rigid organisational structures if the profession is to achieve its full potential, BASW Chief Executive Bridget Robb told a Labour party conference fringe event.

Outlining the profession’s informal roots in Victorian charitable and philanthropic work before being located within local authorities, Ms Robb said there is a need to rethink how best to ensure social workers can spend time with the users of services.

“I don’t think local authorities have always served social work well,” she told the event in Brighton.

“The pressure for social work not to be differentiated within the local authority workforce means salaries haven’t always kept up with the level they should be at, while systems too haven’t served social work well – computer systems being one example.

“Local authorities have a real challenge on their hands that if they’re to carry on providing social work services. They need to change and to recognise social work within their structures and the way they operate. It needs a level of separation from other parts of a local authority, which is a real challenge, especially when money is tight.”

Ms Robb pointed to the growth of BASW’s independents membership – now around 2,000 – as an example of the changing face of the profession and called for a debate about how best to ensure social workers are freed up to work more closely in communities.

“As long as social workers are locked away in call centres miles away from the communities they serve then I don’t think we can do the same amount of effective social work that would otherwise be possible. How do we get social workers from behind their desks or cars and focused solely on doing the job they are paid to do?”

Reflecting on the profession’s past, however, Ms Robb was clear that social work had helped to change the face of society.

“I remember going to old peoples homes in the 1960s and 70s which were little more than warehouses, with 20-30 people in dormitories provided by local authorities and seen as the best care available at the time.

“Think about how far we’ve moved; social work has played a big part in that change, so for the most part we don’t have that warehousing now and learning disabled people aren’t any longer all forced to live in those places.

“We do look at people as individuals more now and in part it is because social workers over the last century have had a passion for moving people out of those environments and into the community.”

How social workers can turn the tide
The event also heard from Judith Milton, a former teaching assistant turned social worker in West Sussex, who made the career switch after recognising that some children had needs well beyond education.

“It’s impossible to teach children maths and English when they’ve got all these emotional things going on, coming in hungry and tired. In some instances we knew they had domestic violence and substance misuse going on at home so how could we expect them to come in and learn?”

Explaining her career shift, Judith said: “I had my mid life crisis, did a couple of bungee jumps and then changed over to social work!

“As a social worker I ask myself, what can I do, how can I help to turn the tide? I try to look at every aspect of someone’s life – health, education, social issues, relationships – but for me, whatever the age group, it’s about building up their self-esteem, building up their resilience and getting the person saying, ‘actually I’m not going to be treated like this’.”