Thursday, 3 December 2009

Social Work Task Force

It is hard not to be pleased by many of the recommendations of the Social Work Task force. The idea of a national college - it should be a Royal College - is a good one and reform of pay and conditions to help retain experienced staff at the front line has to be warmly welcomed.

I was also pleased to read Deidre Sanders piece on the Task Force's recommendations in the Sun. I have to admit that I had more than a few reservations when Ed Balls announced that she would be a member, but her ringing endorsement of the Task Force's conclusions is to be welcomed. And she makes some sensible comments, especially recognising that child protection social workers are "hard-working"  and do "a tough and often dangerous job".

The Guardian speaks of increasing "...the self-esteem of a profession knocked by widespread public criticism".  We need to be careful, however, to remember that the current demoralised state of child protection social work is not a self-inflicted wound.  Successive governments have failed the profession by under-resourcing one of the most difficult and challenging tasks that society has to offer, while at the same time bureaucratising the work with poorly designed frameworks and complex regulations. Which brings me to the Integrated Children's System (ICS) ....

The Task Force has recognised some of the problems with ICS and associated computer software. But it is not simply a matter of spending a little more on software development to achieve a bit more user-friendliness.  ICS is not just badly engineered, it is misconceived. At the heart of this misconception is the naive assumption that child protection social work involves simply collecting discrete items of information which accumulate into an assessment of risk and need. On the contrary child protection social workers deal with complex, uncertain and largely unstructured information which has to be carefully assessed and weighed in taking what are often momentous decisions.  The design of any computer software to support the child protection process has to begin by recognising this.

Then there is the issue of caseload. The Task Force's report says some sensible and interesting things about caseload and workload. Nearly half of the children's social workers responding to one of the Task Force's surveys had caseloads in the high teens, twenties or thirties. And shockingly 49% worked more than their contracted hours with 9% actually working an extra working day in order to cope. But the Task Force's report shies away from recommending smaller caseloads, preferring instead to talk in terms of improved "caseload management".

There is no point in introducing improvements in terms and conditions, training and public recognition if child protection social workers continue to be chronically over-worked. And abused and neglected children have a right to a social worker who has the time and space to give them the attention they need and deserve.  I think the Task Force should have been much more forceful on this issue. There is clear evidence of a culture of over-work in which people are holding too many cases to manage safely. This needs to be tackled as a priority.