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BASW CEO responds to Channel 4 Dispatches

When will the authentic voice of social workers in practice - and the voice of those they serve - come out of the media shadows, asks BASW Chief Executive Dr Ruth Allen. Commenting on last night's Dispatches programme Undercover, Inside Britain's Children's Services, which used covert filming to record social workers at Birmingham Children's Services, Dr Allen said: “Like many others in social work, I watched the undercover Dispatches programme about Birmingham children's services with some trepidation, concerned that individual social workers would bear the brunt of criticism. Many social workers and students watching this will also have felt concerned that our profession would be vilified again in the media. In fact, most approbation was reserved for the management regime and culture in Birmingham children's services, with social workers seemed to be struggling to do what they thought to be right. The story told was primarily one of management disorganisation and stresses in the workforce potentially putting children at risk.

“This fits with my recent media experience as BASW CEO, as there seems to be some shift in the media away from taking pot shots at social workers and instead recognising problems in quality often have their roots in systems, cultures and management regimes within and between organisations. How fair a picture of Birmingham children's service this was is very hard to tell. Overall, the programme did not seem to aim at any kind of balance or real investigation. The undercover filming approach revealed remarkably little. By definition, no probing questions could be asked within the services to clarify anything that was said or to put anything into context. The programme showed the investigatory limits of this kind of covert journalism.

“Hidden filming raises major ethical issues. Unlike Winterbourne View, this programme didn't have the ethical justification of revealing direct violence or abuse behind locked doors. Rather it showed staff talking about the difficulty of the work and, yes, querying decisions about priorities. Important but very limited in what it reveals about deficits in the services. How much better it would be if social workers felt safe and confident enough to regularly tell their stories and those of the people they work with within mainstream media. The lead up to the programme was accompanied by a interview with a social worker - a hooded, bewigged figure on TV news, filmed from behind, with voice disguised. When will the authentic voice of social workers in practice - and the voice of those they serve - come out of the media shadows? This is something BASW wants to support and promote through building practitioner confidence, asserting out professional right and responsibility to be more open. 

“Perhaps direct voices of practitioners would have filled a real gap in the programme - the lack of focus on austerity, cuts to services and the causes and impact of growing demand. The profound impact on services of worsening social and economic determinants of family stress had only passing reference. Of course, children who have come to harm while under social services care and their very distressed relatives, should be foremost in our minds. Failures, misses, evidently poor judgements are never acceptable. But it does not honour victims and their families to sensationalise their terrible experiences without reasonable analysis. And it doesn't make services safer if we focus only on what is not working.

“What we really need to know is where are the kernels of improvement upon which social work leaders can build in Birmingham? Building from what works is just as important as investigating what is not working if we want to protect children and their families”.