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PSW: Summit voices

On 21 January social work leaders from across the UK met in London for a BASW-organised summit to discuss the critical issues affecting the profession and its future. Keynote speakers were drawn from government, social work practice and the individuals who use our services.


BASW Derbyshire & Nottinghamshire Branch Chair Janet Foulds: practitioner for 40 years working with children and families who have experienced sexual abuse

“I am proud of my job. It is tough, but beautiful work. Children who come into our unit who can’t look you in the eye leave laughing and going out feeling they have become the person they want to be.

“Carers thank us and tell us, ‘I have got my child back’. Children say, ‘I like coming here’.

“It is the human contact. The face-to-face; when people think they are listened to, heard and understood. This is social workers working together to help people. My colleagues say that this is the bit we want to do, that this is the bit that matters and yet we don’t have time to do it!

“This is a sadness to me because it is the joy of the work and what helps you to go home feeling good.

“It is rewarding working together with other professionals, being proud and confident about your own role as a social worker, knowing we have a real contribution to make and learning from families; we are partners with people who are expert from experience and we need time to learn from them.

“At the heart of this are relationships. The Munro report highlighted the centrality of relationships in social work and I don’t see that being practiced in many places today.

“It is time practitioners spoke up for their profession and not allow others to define it. Far too often we are told what we are and what we are not. We know our work. Every single day we see shining examples of practice like little diamonds.

“But there are challenges – the increasing demand for resources, the pressure from caseloads being too high and people working days, evenings and even weekends, and too many people going off with stress. Social workers are fire-fighting instead of doing the work they should be doing, which means we are losing highly committed people after two years, maybe sooner.

“The destabilisation of the workforce leaving social workers to work in isolation is dangerous and the funding cuts are a huge risk to safeguarding. Service users experience frequent changes of social workers as staff leave. We need to be empowering our social workers to communicate not just with computers, but to work with children. It is very sad to see what looks like a battery hen shed with people glued to their screens all day.

“Give the children a voice – we have to make sure we have enough skilled social workers there to listen to them. Give the practitioners a voice and we will communicate and positively promote our profession whenever we can.”


Service user from ATD Fourth World

“For me social workers are supposed to care for children and look out for families that are taking care of their children. Social work is there to keep families together and that is a good thing.

“But for that to happen we have to encourage families and social workers to work in partnership. Part of this is social workers helping families to get the support they need without the families being made to feel guilty for asking.

“Turning to social services should be seen as a cry for help. People are asking to be supported the best way that they can, but I feel as though that was not what happened to me.

“The constant change of social workers made it harder to build trust and in the end the trust was gone. I felt ashamed that my wife and I were being judged as a couple and degraded. We felt we were not being talked to, but were talked down to.

“We were always afraid of what was written down and being spoken to with jargon. All I wanted was for thing to be explained clearly to me and for all our cards to be placed on the table. You have to talk to be understood, even when it is difficult.”


Service user from ATD Fourth World

“For me social work is there to offer support to families to become better parents and to be a resource to turn to for advice and practical help.

“Some families will always struggle. They need to know there is help out there for them without being afraid of losing their children.

“I was advised by my GP to ask for help because of my kids’ needs, that’s why I turned to social services. I was not afraid to ask for help, it was the way my neighbours looked at me and gossiped once my children were taken away from me that made me feel ashamed.

“I was made to feel it was my fault, I could not take care of my children in the way I wanted to. I felt ashamed of being labelled as an unfit mother. This is why the relationship between families and social workers is so important.

“Relationships need time. It needs people to be open and honest with each other. It needs to be about more than just paperwork. Social work needs to be about support rather than policing. It needs to be about trust, more than barriers.”


Service user from Shaping our Lives

“Being a service user can put us in an unequal and oppressive relationship with the state and society. It is about the entitlement to receive welfare services, but some people who still need to receive those services are no longer entitled to them. It can also mean there is something about separating us out, it can make us feel inferior.”


Vice Convener of SASW and BASW Council member David Thomson: qualified for four years and working with female offenders

“It makes you cry, it makes you laugh, it makes you pull your hair out, but working with people to empower and try and make change is what we all get up for.

"I feel lucky to work in my team. I have a great manager who is very supportive. However, I think this is unusual. Scotland tries to be progressive, particularly with female offenders. It is more about welfare, but colleagues who work in criminal justice and children and families are now just becoming risk managers. They are asked to look at risk and to be very punitive with their interventions and they are not able to be social workers.

“I find the service users I work with are becoming increasingly more complex with their needs and are pushed more and more to the margins of society. The poverty and the lack of hope of some of our clients is really difficult. I think policymakers are quite happy to have service users in the margins because they know they don’t vote.

“The support we get for dealing with that isn’t up to standard.

“We have to get back to relationship-based social work. It has to be ethical practice and value-driven practice. As social workers, we need to find a way to have a stronger voice, a collective voice. If we don’t we are at risk of social work becoming in five years time a very different working environment than we are in at the moment.”


Lyn Romeo, England’s Chief Social Worker for Adults

“Putting people who use the services of social workers at the heart of what we do and working alongside them has to be our main priority, and developing modern social work practices that capture that really well has to be the way forward.

“A critical approach going forward is the much higher profile around social work in its broader sense, the family across the lifespan and in particular a much sharper focus on working with adults and their families.

“Underpinning this is a human rights and social justice imperative to make sure we are getting alongside people.

“We have developed well the individual casework approach, though there is more to be done, more emphasis on group work skills and community work skills to compliment a holistic approach.”


Isabelle Trowler, England’s Chief Social Worker for Children and Families

“We have to keep the primary focus on what we do for the public we serve and remember we are in the business of the power of relationships. We support and protect those who need our help and want it. We offer a social perspective to others, which provides a contextual understanding and we protect people from other people, themselves, but also from the worst excesses of the state.

“We have an opportunity to be the skilled, thoughtful, confident profession that we aspire to. We have to work hard to be the trusted part of public service that we know we should be. The challenge is how we do that.

“There is rightly debate about the knowledge and skill of social workers. I also think the debate about the practice system is sometimes lost. I’m very keen to get cracking on trying to change the over bureaucratisation of practice. Bureaucratisation that impacts on the lives of the families and children that we work with.”


BASW Chief Executive Bridget Robb

“We are aware and challenged by the efforts to divide up our profession. Whether by specialism, by employer or by a particular form of training. Is it too difficult to define what social work is? That’s part of the struggle politicians and the public have in understanding what we do. So how do we get the messaging right?

“If we as a profession are not clear of our collective identity then we allow other people to pick us off and diminish the contribution we can make together.

“The Social Work Taskforce was established by government and it was incredibly professionally liberating for us to sit down across the divides and look at social work in the round [their review of front line practice was published in 2009].

“We were part of a body of knowledge and experience working in different places across the world. But we have gone back to before all that we gained from the Social Work Reform Board [set up to implement the Taskforce’s recommendations] and are now being divided in ways we have never been divided before.”


Read BASW Chair Guy Shennan's blog post about the day 'Social work practitioners and service users at the summit'