Tag Archives: Baby P

PR strategy works for Scottish social workers

In terms of image, social workers are up there with traffic wardens, politicians and bankers in the most reviled profession stakes. But there are signs that this is starting to change – in Scotland at least.

A new poll, commissioned by Scottish social work body the Association of Directors of Social Work (ADSW), found that 47% of people rated social work as positive, compared to 38% last year. Additionally, the survey found that 80% of service users were happy with the services they received.

This was despite negative press coverage of the profession because of the Baby Peter and Brandon Muir cases.

As I see it, this result is not down to 2 main factors. Firstly, in Scotland ADSW has run a high-profile PR campaign – ‘Social Work Changes Lives’ – for the past year or so, with the aim of improving the image and understanding of social work, including putting positive stories into the local media.

But the sector also has government support. When the Brandon Muir case came to court last year, Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond came out and defended the profession, rather than damned it for its failings. As Scottish social workers have said to me since, this had a great positive impact on morale. The political reaction was also strikingly different to that seen in Westminster to the similar Baby Peter case, where social work was roundly condemned.

Against this backdrop, it makes it easier for positive messages from social work to come through.

It would be interesting to see the results if a similar poll were conducted in England; I don’t think they would be as positive. While there has been an advertising campaign to promote social work, and sterling work done by celebrities like Goldie and Samantha Morton to do the same in the past year, the media coverage of the profession is still overwhelmingly negative, which has a big effect on public perception.

The new government could certainly learn from their colleagues north of the border, as could social work bodies; if a coordinated campaign were to be launched, along with a feed of positive stories about social work to the media, then, as Scotland proves, a demonstrable impact can be made.

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Child death rates not symptom of ‘Broken Britain’

Baby P, Brandon Muir, seven children in Doncaster… I could go on. All children who have had tragic, violent deaths in the past few years. It would be easy to think that these are all symptoms of ‘Broken Britain’. But is this the case?

Apparently not.

Far from the cases above being symptoms of a wider malaise in society as a whole, it seems they are more the exceptions; violent child deaths have fallen by 40% in the past 35 years, according to a Bournemouth University study, the BBC reports.

Researchers found that number of killings and other unexplained violent deaths of children in England and Wales aged 14 and under fell from 136 to 84 per year between 1974 and 2006. This is the fourth lowest figure in the Western world, according to the researchers.

This rather flies in the face of various doom-mongers who use these cases – among others, such as the Edlington case – to show how society is going to hell in a handcart.

Children’s social workers will also welcome this news; they have been roundly battered in the media over their – apparently collective – failure to safeguard children in the past couple of years.

While every child death is a tragedy – and everything should be done to stop them, and any examples of poor social work practice should be stamped out – it is important to put these in context. These are not regular occurrences – part of the reason why they make so many newspaper headlines when they do – and it should be remembered that child safeguarding is improving and the vast majority of cases do not end in tragedy.

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Baby P effect sustained

For about a year now, social workers have been talking about the ‘Baby P effect’ – the rise in applications for children to be taken into care. While many thought it would be a temporary blip, which would die down when the furore over the case did, it is proving to be sustained.

Care demand from April to December 2009 was 46.1% higher than the same period in 2008, according to Cafcass, the organisation that represents children’s interests in the family courts. November 2009 saw 753 care applications – the third highest monthly figure since Cafcass records began in 2005.

Not only this, but Cafcass reports that applications are starting to stabilise at this higher level.

These figures can be viewed as something of a double-edged sword. On the plus side, it means more children are being protected and not left in potentially harmful situations.

Also, while this news could be grist to the mill of the anti-children’s social work brigade – those who perceive children’s social workers as child snatchers – a Cafcass survey also concluded that local authorities had taken the appropriate action in making the applications. While the survey did attribute the increases to the Baby P effect, it doesn’t mean that they are making spurious applications.

It also should be remembered that this still represents a tiny minority of the children who come into contact with social services.

But, as ever, there is a downside. And, as usual, it’s money, or the lack of it; the Local Government Association estimates that the cost of taking children into care will rise by £226 million this financial year.

With local authorities already tightening their budgets in anticipation of swingeing cuts in 2011, and also having to find £250 million in ‘efficiency savings’ to fund the government’s free personal care at home policy, this is extra expenditure they can literally ill afford.

Ironically, there is talk of early intervention schemes being cut to pay for the increase in children being taken into care – which could cause more problems than it solves, given that prevention is usually better (and cheaper) than cure.

However, what cannot be allowed to happen is social workers avoiding, or being discouraged from, making applications because of cost concerns. There was anecdotal talk of this happening in some local authorities pre-Baby P and it cannot happen again.

Child protection is paramount and local authorities – and government – need to find the resources to do this without impacting on other services. But whether they will, or can, is another matter.

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Serious case reviews are improving

Good news for social work; serious case reviews are improving and 40% are now good, with only 1 in 6 inadequate.

Latest figures from regulator Ofsted – as reported in the Daily Telegraph – covering 114 SCRs between April and December 2009, found that 45 were good, while 51 were adequate. Only 18 were judged inadequate. None were said to be outstanding.

In the year to March 31, 2009, 1 in 3 SCRs, out of 173, were judged to be inadequate.

So while there is clearly still room for improvement, this nevertheless shows that they are moving in the right direction and the messages from Lord Laming’s review and Ofsted’s report Learning lessons from serious case reviews; year 2 have been taken on board and are having an effect.

While these bare statistics don’t reveal how effective the learning is from SCRs – the true barometer of its worth – it does show they are being written to a higher standard at least.

But it was the comments of shadow children’s minister, Tim Loughton that caught my eye. In a couple of sentences he managed to – in my reading of them – insinuate that under a Conservative government the SCR regime will be changed, and that the party has little faith in Ofsted.

Here are the comments, judge for yourself; “We need to re-think this process so that professionals and the public can be reassured that lessons are being learnt.

“For this to happen the Government must agree to publish the full reports, not just executive summaries – at the moment we only have Ofsted’s word to go on that standards are improving.”

It looks pretty clear that under the Tories, SCRs would be published in full. While this would aid transparency – always a political winner – it would also no doubt help journalists to compile anti-social work stories when the next tragedy happens. SCRs should be about learning from why things did (or didn’t) happen and ensuring that mistakes aren’t repeated, rather than damning those involved and I suspect that if they were released in full, they would be used as a stick to beat social work with.

Also, as Ofsted is the regulator of social care, you would think that they are experts in what makes a good SCR and are ideally placed to judge whether standards are improving. Apparently not. Would the government (of any hue) be any better judges, given that they are not trained and/or experienced in child protection? I suspect not.

While Loughton’s comments smack of political points-scoring – expect much, much more of that in the coming months – it does raise questions in my mind about whether a Conservative government will tinker with social care regulation. Surely, stability is what is needed, rather than more changes. We will have to wait and see.

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Children’s social services: impressive despite circumstances

It’s official: Council-run children’s social services departments in England are performing well, in general.

Ofsted has published its 2009 children’s services ratings and revealed that 68% of the 152 councils are performing ‘excellently’ or ‘well’, while another 25% are ‘adequate’.

Only 9 councils – 6% – are judged to be ‘poor’, including Haringey, which neatly avoids another media storm over Baby P.

While the media, inevitably, has thus far focused on the poorly performing councils, it could be argued that it is surprising that more children’s services departments are not failing.

Take Birmingham, for example, one of the councils deemed ‘poor’, much to their chagrin. There, about a fifth of the 722 posts in children’s services were unfulfilled, and absenteeism ran at 25 days per person, according to a report in the Birmingham Post. After some quick calculations in the office on the back of a Post-it, we worked out that about a third of the workforce was missing. Those that were present were dealing with 800 child abuse cases a month, so it’s no wonder the department was at breaking point.

While measures are now in place to improve matters in Birmingham, I doubt that its situation is unique. Nationally, vacancy levels are running at 9.5% of frontline posts in children and families teams, with 9.6% annual turnover of employees, according to the interim report by the Social Work Task Force. Sickness levels are also high – an average of 12 days per social worker – which is 60% more than the national average, according to a recent report in The Independent.

Combine that with rising levels of referrals – the dual effects of Baby P and the recession – and you have to marvel that more children’s services departments aren’t failing and there aren’t more Baby P’s.

It also serves to make Ofsted’s findings look all the more impressive, especially as chief inspector Christine Gilbert claims these inspections were tougher than those in previous years.

It just shows what a good job the majority of social workers do under increasingly difficult circumstances, and should be cause for celebration.

While there is still much work to do to improve services – and the lot of the social worker – it needs to be recognised that a good job is being done in the vast majority of cases.

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How Social Work Task Force report can tackle image of social work

Scanning the newspapers to gauge the reaction to yesterday’s final report from the Social Work Task Force, it is the comments from some of the public that caught my eye.

Most of the national newspapers I’ve seen have covered the report in a straight way – outlining the major reforms, along with comments from ministers. The BBC has also done roughly the same.

The Daily Mail has tried to put more of a spin on it, highlighting the recommendation for reforming the pay structure – Social workers to be given pay RISES in wake of Baby P scandal – rather than the recommendations to drive up standards. Interestingly, the article’s original headline contained the word ‘outrage’ but dropped it soon after, presumably due to the general lack of outrage.

But as usual, the comments at the bottom of the article include anti-social worker vitriol along the lines of ‘sack them all’ (among many others). Ignoring the ludicrousness of those sorts of statements, it nevertheless shows how much still needs to be done to improve the image of social workers in the public eye.

These sorts of comments appear at the bottom of many articles on social work – regardless of the newspaper – and highlight the deep-rooted prejudice that exists among some of the general public.

Tackling these perceptions will be incredibly difficult. The Task Force recommendations should help if they are driven through. It calls for a programme of public understanding, with greater openness and enhancing awareness of what social workers do and the contribution good social work makes to society.

This is key; I think a lot of anti-social worker feeling is down to misconceptions about what they do and the fact that it is only when it goes wrong that it is reported in the media – social workers seem to be painted as either child snatchers or uncaring box-tickers that ignore obvious abuse.

More campaigns along the lines of the one to improve recruitment seen earlier this year – and which created a huge spike in interest – are needed, as is a sustained feeding of ‘good news’ stories into the media.

Also, if the other recommendations do end up raising standards, the resulting better outcomes – and fewer poor outcomes, more significantly – will help to change the perception of social workers over time. Likewise, the number of damning newspaper articles would decrease.

Achieving this will take a sustained campaign over many years, but it needs to be done. Teachers’ status has been rehabilitated following similar campaigns in the past decade, and there is no reason that it can’t be done for social workers.

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Social Work Task Force report good for social workers

It’s what all social workers have been waiting for: the final report from the Social Work Task Force. Today, the blueprint for the future of social work has been outlined and, on initial reading, the recommendations could bring about real and positive change for the profession.

The SWTF was set up at the height of the Baby P scandal – but not because of it, as commonly believed – in January and charged with conducting a ‘root and branch review’ of the profession. While the recommendations are hardly radical – more what many social workers/social work bodies have been requesting for years – they are nonetheless welcome.

In case you haven’t seen them, here are some of the headline recommendations:

  • Reforms to initial training, so all students receive ‘good quality’ education and practice learning placements
  • A new ‘licensing’ system which will introduce an assessed probationary year in employment for new social work graduates, during which they will receive extra support
  • A revamped framework for continuing professional development, underpinned by a practice-based masters qualification, so all social workers can keep their skills up to date and develop specialist knowledge
  • A career structure so experienced practitioners can progress in frontline roles as well as in management
  • A new standard for employers to ensure all employers put in place high quality supervision, time for continuing professional development and manageable workloads
  • Pay reform – to ensure social workers receive the appropriate pay and that it reflects their career development and progression
  • A new and independent College for Social Work led and owned by the profession, which must establish a stronger voice for social work and exercise appropriate influence over national policy making and public debate.

To see the full report and press release at the DCSF website, click here.

On the face of it, these all seem sound recommendations. I’m sure all social workers will like the look of pay reforms, for instance.

The career development options also seem positive – many social workers have complained that to progress in their career they have to go into management and away from the frontline.

Also, newly qualified social workers have said that their training doesn’t adequately prepare them for practice – this should help address that.

While the licensing requirement just seems like the GSCC registration system by another name, this is a minor quibble and is probably there to help increase public confidence in social workers.

But, as social work associations ADASS and ADCS have pointed out, this package of reforms also need to come with resources. Disappointingly, health minister Andy Burnham has said details of this will not be announced until next year, along with the implementation plan. This will worry those in the profession – with tightening budgets, money for reforms and increased pay will be hard to find from existing resources.

I’m sure there will also be cynicism from within some parts of the profession – which has seen many initiatives and reforms come and go over the years with little discernable impact on practice – over things like the commitment to cut workloads and provide time for professional development and the masters qualification. I can envisage an ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’ attitude as this will be difficult to implement without bringing in more social workers. Again, this is where increased resources become crucial to the success – or otherwise – of the recommendations.

So, while these recommendations give hope for a brighter future for social work, it is now up to everyone – government, employers, social workers and others – to play their parts and ensure they become reality.

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