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Life of a social worker

As he fights cancer, life-long BASW member John Kemmis reflects back on the twists and turns of a 50-year career in social work across both the statutory and voluntary sectors. He does so in the hope that it will inspire others to keep going

John Kemmis
John Kemmis started his social work career in 1968 and sat on BASW's first council

Reading about what social workers face today with austerity and financial cuts to local authorities, it's clear they need considerable resilience to stay the course.

This account attempts to say how one social worker tried to stay empowered and achieve positive change from the 70s. It’s just one such story among so many social workers who have kept going despite often overwhelming difficulties to achieve the best outcomes they can for their clients.

I had a so-called privileged background, educated at private boarding school and Oxford. But I also learned at a tender age what it’s like to be bullied by a sadistic PE teacher and at the mercy of paedophile teachers. It made me determined to stick up for children and the disempowered when I had the authority myself.

The real turning point and eye opener for me was when I left Oxford and went to live and help in a settlement in East London working as a supply teacher. My ability to control over 30 teenagers was very limited but I was shocked by the level of illiteracy among lots of young people who had been at school many years and were about to leave without being able to read.

The poverty and deprivation of many of the children was also a real shock. I found, though, I could help: I set up a reading group in the worst school for the very worst readers and over time they made real progress. The clubs also gave many children and young people new experiences, from spending time in the countryside to making a film and visiting West End theatres. I am certain that for many of these children and young people it made a difference to their lives and ­- as a minimum - gave enjoyment.

I left after two years to train as a child care officer. This seemed more manageable than teaching as it did not have the control issue. It was a one-year course at Hull University with probation for the Home Office. It included placements in two student units in Hull’s probation service and children’s department as well as a residential placement, for which I returned to an assessment centre in the East End. All excellent placements. We also had a superb law lecturer. The social life was also good and I met my future wife there.

The Local authority story

I joined Greenwich children’s department in 1968 and it was a period when the Seebohm Report was proposing to amalgamate all the different welfare services into one social services. We also began to explore the amalgamation of our respective associations into one professional organisation to become BASW. By 1972, we were moved into neighbourhood offices and as a qualified social worker I became a team leader. Overnight I was responsible for a whole range of services with very little knowledge and large caseloads. Throughout my time there, I retained around 20 of my children in care. One I retained contact with, but four others have subsequently got in touch with me.

The thing about that period is that, while our resources and expertise was limited, we were pioneering a new service and were able to use our initiative. Having been involved in a settlement, run groups and worked in schools, I expected to work with others in our local community. I was able to convert one social work post into a part community work post. I took young people camping with my wife and a couple of colleagues as well as with one of the children's homes. This was a good way to get to know the children you worked with who were in care or on supervision orders and also give them some normal enjoyment.

One of these families got in touch with me in recent years - three children who were in a small children’s home. The first time I met their mother she was in a crypt in London for homeless people in a pretty desperate situation. She got referred to the local mental hospital where she met a man who became her partner. Surprisingly for that time perhaps I managed to persuade the housing department to give them a flat to try and return her children who had been in care for around six years.

In the intervening period, we had had lectures on child protection from US physician and child abuse expert Henry Kemp. His message was to offer good mother figures for the parent, to “mother the mother”. Despite the many years apart, the rehabilitation of the mother and her three children was a success. I’ve since met these children as adults and their families - all lovely people.

While there may have been a great deal wrong with the care system back then, it was possible as a social worker to negotiate solutions. Normally we don’t get to know the end of what we do but sometimes you do - and realise something was much more significant than you thought at the time.

BASW played quite a big role in social work then. It was certainly political and we used it to wage battles in the press when needed under the auspices of BASW, which you would not be allowed to do as a local government officer. We ran conferences and regular local meetings across four local authorities. I became branch chair and delegate to BASW’s first national council. The national conference was a huge event. Some of us lobbied for a social work union, which eventually came about many years later.

In my last year at Greenwich I undertook a six-month management training course at the National Institute for Social work. I became interested in research and how we keep client information. This was a good stepping stone to my appointment as area manager for North Battersea in Wandsworth, which was a much larger job with six social work teams, home help service and over 250 children in care.

My first initiative was to enlist the support of the London School of Economics (LSE) to undertake a research project into the children in care for whom we were responsible. The original group included Muriel Brown, Mike Reddin from LSE and a local community researcher, Peter Beresford. We finally produced In Care in North Battersea in 1984 which was edited by Jane Tunstill.

This was a well-constructed piece of research examining data from the whole group and undertaking interviews with a sample of the children, parents, carers and social workers. The most memorable finding was a practice issue: rarely did all parties concerned have the same view of a plan. To solve this, we instituted a new system whereby the social worker for every child coming into care had to attend a panel and a clear plan had to be written and given to all parties. It was the forerunner for the care plan introduced in the 1989 Children Act.

The landscape in which we worked was far from ideal. The Conservatives took over from Labour in 1979 and, much like now, cuts and staff freezes became order of the day. Wandsworth Council was Thatcher’s jewel in the crown and the authority was determined to set a zero council tax. There were social work strikes and cases put on "blacklists". I left the union to keep services going. Our social work teams were cut from six to five then four teams.

Despite these fraught times, social work staff wanted a way forward and some optimism about the future. Once the strike was resolved and we all got paid better, we had to restructure down. We used it to develop our neighbourhood teams to work locally and held onto two community work posts.

We decided to set up two long-term child care teams for those children needing permanency. In this, we were influenced by external developments: Jane Rowe and Lydia Lambert’s Children Who Wait, a study of children needing substitute families, and Gwen James’ long-term team in Haringey as well as the neighbourhood approach. We combined both concepts - specialism and neighbourhood.

In the six years between 1978 of the first research study and 1984 when we did a follow up and finally published, the numbers of children in care had reduced by almost 100 - from 235 to 138. We were able to reduce two long-term children’s teams to one. This trend continued until the area team was wound up some years later.

The move towards finding permanent families was reflected in these figures and our specialist children’s team for those remaining in care proved very successful, including the development of life story work and social workers working directly with their children.

Despite there always being difficulties with the work and resources available, by the time North Battersea was wound up we were nevertheless supporting some 40 community based projects for a wide range of needs and ages from the cradle to the grave. If nothing else, it demonstrated that social work was involved in their local community and we were working with the strengths in the community and within families.

It may not have been a perfect world, but it was a period when social workers could undertake really skilled and effective work. For example, several of the senior practitioners ran family therapy workshops - groups of workers trained in family therapy and working with families with supervision from the leader and the group. It was an approach which built on the strengths of families rather than emphasising their shortcomings. Sound familiar? We were there many years before the “reinvention of social work” and the Hackney Model.

The critical ingredient was for the manager to encourage those with commitment and ability (far in excess of my own) to develop ways to develop practice and services within the overall strategy, which was built on what is called preventive work while allocating enough resource to also work on the specialist cases.

It was never easy keeping both parts of the system functioning well, but it was important to keep the whole system in view. This included poverty and money and again we were prepared to help financially if that was what would get a family through a crisis. As an area manager I had that kind of discretion and could see how a modest investment now could save both human and material cost later. In practice I always agreed financial help when it solved an issue, it could be a crisis or longer-term alternative to care.

The management job was to take responsibility for the budget and leave practitioners to concentrate on what was needed. Nowadays, the managerialism that has dominated statutory services has pushed budget responsibility down to frontline staff and managers simply managing bits of budgets without that strategic overview. This has been coupled with the obsession with targets and the whole privatisation and commissioning culture. It raises a big question as to whether public service will be able to retrieve some of the lost ground.

I cannot believe that social work has to be sold off to achieve the creativity and quality practice we would like. Given supportive management, it is possible for social workers to be creative and effective.

There were two other important ingredients to support social work practice. One was a good workload management scheme that allowed cases to be weighted for their severity and give social workers space for developing their practice such as the family therapy or group work.

The other was the fact that we had our own practice teacher to manage a student unit and help in other ways. She oversaw student placements as well as supporting new recruits in their first year and contributed generally to a culture of learning for the staff.

Both these really helpful approaches to social work were recommended to Eileen Munro and regrettably ignored in her report. The importance of creating high quality placement for social workers to learn their trade remains critical for the profession and hopefully another look will be taken to understand the benefit of creating such islands of excellence within statutory social work.

This little bit of history does show it is possible to create good practice given the right environment as a public servant. I hope social workers will demand the conditions they need within local authorities so they can deliver the service they want to see.

A critical component in social work development during these decades has been building the right teams. That was not achieved with open plan offices and hot-desking and poor support services. It was done by working in teams and sharing best practice and solutions to problems. To empower your client you must as a social worker feel secure and empowered yourself.

We have so much evidence about successful teams and how the effectiveness of the team is what breeds success, whether from sport or successful enterprises. The managerial approaches being used currently in social care ignore this wisdom and the quality of the service is the casualty.

The voluntary sector and child advocacy years

After North Battersea was closed, I spent a four-year interim period in inspection and quality assurance with the introduction of the 1989 Children Act and care in the community. I also ran a quality assurance project involving children who among other requests wanted an advocacy service. When I turned 50, I took the opportunity offered for a generous early retirement package as the authority continued to downsize.

'Retiring' in 1995, I did the usual bit with the mixed portfolio, including a user study in Camden for children in care. Crucially, I then met Gwen James from Voice for the Child in Care charity and agreed to explore the development of an advocacy service they had with just one local authority, Greenwich. They also ran some visiting services to secure children’s homes.

Our service consisted of a few part-time managers in one room, quite a few volunteers and some freelance independent persons. With Gwen, I collected a second-hand desk and chair from a local junk shop and began the task of trying to develop an advocacy service with no money, while at the same time learning the job myself.

In the early stages not only did local authorities not want to pay for an advocate, it was also difficult to get agreement for an advocate to see a child even if they asked for one. In 1995 there were some children’s rights officers, who had made very significant progress and just a few advocacy services.

In those early days I realised we could only develop children’s advocacy if we could get independent money and also advocacy needed to be recognised as important and accepted, otherwise we could just be refused entry. The strategy was therefore twofold - raise funds to develop the service and lobby to get those in power to give children a right to an advocate and get it accepted. The former was achieved by fundraising. The latter was looking for opportunities with officials, politicians and legislation to give children a right to an advocate.

Together with the National Youth Advocacy Service (NYAS), we organised the Children’s Advocacy Consortium for advocacy agencies and CROA (Children’s Rights Officers Association). This became an important lobbying group and had a big part to play in the development of national standards for advocates.

A really important piece of lobbying was trying to achieve the right to an advocate in legislation. I was fortunate to recruit a lawyer, Nicola Wyld, who wrote our amendments, and to meet a keen young new Earl, Francis Listowel. We spent considerable time talking to officials in the Department of Health, who then had responsibility for children in care. They were clear they could not help without political backing, which we worked on.

The crucial initiative was that Francis agreed to pull together a group of peers before the Adoption and Children Bill went to the House of Lords for its third reading. Having met Lords from all the three main parties and crossbenchers like Francis and Valerie Howarth (previously head of Childline), the response to our efforts to attach an amendment to the complaints procedure won resounding support from every part of the House of Lords.

As a result, the Government spokesman agreed to take it away and agree their own amendment. In the event, theirs was fine and although they dropped the term “advocate”, it was made clear in guidance that we were giving children making a complaint under the Children Act a right to an advocate. The amendment was passed in the House of Lords in October 2002. Some funding did follow with Care Matters and a grant for the helpline we had started.

I took over from Gwen James in 2000 and continued to develop our advocacy services and our helpline. We were able to move to new offices, initiate the first advocacy service for children detained in secure training centres and then expand this to young offender institutions. We changed our name to simply Voice as we were no longer just about children in care.

Our experience working with young people as well as referrals for advocacy made us acutely aware of the shortcomings of the care system. One project was the production of a booklet of 21 stories where children and young people had used an advocate - Shout to be Heard. A group of those involved formed a group called Shout for Action which ran a campaign to improve the education offered to children in care. It was the start of an important recognition by Government of this issue.

There were other important concerns such as the instability they experienced including moves in care, changes of social workers and splitting up of families. I wondered whether we could produce a blueprint for improving the care system. With crucial success in achieving funding, a project was formed involving young people and relevant adults in the creation of a blueprint for a child-centred care system. Start with the child Stay with the Child was published in 2004 with a range of ideas for trying things a different way. It was an excellent publication and some local authorities bought into it.

We followed this up with Blueprint in Practice for local authorities. Sadly, it didn’t have the national impact we had hoped but certainly influenced the trend towards involving the children and young people better in the decisions being made, whether about them individually or more generally in the local authority.

It seemed important to set out a vision of how things could be as well as showing how they could be achieved in practice. There is no doubt that the processes we used involving young people with the adults has been a real morale lifter in those local authorities using this approach and reaps improvements, despite the resource constraints.

At the time we were writing the Blueprint there was a network for organisations working with care leavers but not for children in care. So one of our recommendations was to form such a network focused on this group of children. Also, we were a relatively small organisation and to influence the care system it was important to work with others in the children’s sector.

When we published our report we set about establishing the Alliance for Child Centred Care. Agencies responded positively and the initial alliance included young people and representatives from both voluntary and statutory sectors. While we still had the funding and staff, it was possible to sustain and run some ambitious events.

When the funding ended we had to be less ambitious but we tried to sustain the alliance. David Holmes, who was then chief executive of the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF), helped in this task. He joined me as joint chair and we formed a policy group.

This policy group has morphed into The Alliance for Children in Care and Care Leavers. The importance of allies and working together remains crucial, particularly in the face of attempts to reduce the rights for children.

Writing this and looking back, it is relevant to say how important independent money has been. Certainly, a big part of the role in the voluntary sector is to achieve the money you need to fulfil your aspirations. This is not quite the same for the large charities that have both historical funds and have also developed huge commissioning programmes.

One particular charity was crucial for me and this was the Hadley Trust set up by Philip Hulme, who became a multimillionaire overnight when he floated his computer business on the stock exchange. He decided to set aside some of his money to form a charity. He has chosen carefully and then stayed with those organisations as opposed to the normal short-term project funding. A friend tipped me off about his new charity and after contacting him we met in a local cafe.

At that time, I was trying to develop the advocacy service and he gave me a cheque on the spot. He has continued to support Voice and now Coram Voice ever since. He provided the seed corn for the initial blueprint project, then the blueprint in practice and currently Bright Spots.

My experience is that if you set your sights high and manage to build a good team you can achieve a lot. You have to find a way to empower yourself and work with others who may have more knowledge or simply more influence. As a social worker, I always had my eye on the next stage or possibility. You had to always consider the obstacles and how you might overcome them. You had to be persistent to win through, something that is important for a good advocate.

By the time I was coming up for retirement in 2011, Voice and advocacy were definitely on the map. We had our own headquarters in City Road, London, some 60 staff and around 100 freelance workers and volunteers and a turnover of around £3 million. We always set a deficit budget but broke even by end of the year. Generally, a success story but there is still a long way to go to achieve the kind of children’s advocacy needed for all the children in care or in need in the country.

Wales had achieved a national strategy but not England. When I left I was hoping the Children’s Commissioner for England would take up the gauntlet for advocacy. After retiring, I kept in touch with the Commissioner’s office mainly through their lead and a former colleague, Jenny Clifton. Various studies were commissioned and I commented on early drafts by Jenny, urging her to recommend we develop a national strategy for England. When the final report came out after Jenny had retired it sadly didn’t make this recommendation.

In 2017, I approached the new Commissioner and said that her predecessor had agreed we would pull together a meeting of key players when they published the report to carry forward the momentum. She agreed, and the meeting was set for March 2017. Unfortunately something was going wrong with my breathing and it turned out I’d been hit by lung cancer caused by asbestos, which apparently lingers in your body and can erupt many years, even decades later.

I missed the meeting as I was by then in intensive care following an operation. By all accounts a successful meeting, but regrettably there was no follow up and the Commissioner’s minutes did not reflect the proposals from the meeting.

Around this time a new charity, Article 39, ran a very successful campaign to prevent a new piece of social work legislation - the Children and Social Work bill - eroding children’s legal rights. I got in touch with its director Carolyne Willow and asked whether Article 39 would be prepared to run a campaign to achieve a national strategy for children’s advocacy in England.

Carolyne is someone who has had a long-term commitment to the development of advocacy for children, having been one of the very first children’s rights officers and chair of their association. Together with Article 39, we established the campaign with some key players, including the National Children’s Advocacy Consortium and Jon Fayle who was then vice-chair of the National Association of Independent Reviewing Officers.

The campaign aims have been agreed; it has over 40 children’s organisations in support and the Children’s Commissioner agreed to rerun the round table event with Tim Loughton MP, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children. I had hoped to be a major player to assist with the campaign, but the cancer returned and my strength reduced. Yet the campaign is in very good hands. Success is yet to come. I’m hoping I live to see the basis of a national strategy.

This is just the story of the professional life of one social worker. I hope it will encourage other social workers to find ways to overcome the current challenges and manage to achieve the improvements they see are needed and seek. There will be many others who have achieved successes that are little heard. Everyone’s situation is different, but it will be shared by others. I hope social workers find the allies they need, work together – and continue to make a real difference.

John’s first post was a child care officer in 1968. He was a member of BASW’s first council and a former chair of BASW’s south-east London branch. In 2000 he was appointed chief executive of Voice for the Child in Care. He retired in 2011.