Category Archives: social work education

Why it matters who controls the curriculum in social work education ….

Change is the life blood of social work. Supporting people to adopt changes which might improve lives is fundamental to social work. Change is also fundamental in government, although , in my experience over the the last 5 years it does not always deliver improvement in a way which is helpful to social work, or those who require services.

Far too often, it feels to me, governments drive for change is ideological and rooted in making changes which ignore issues related to failure in government, especially in respect of their unshakable belief in neo-liberal ideology as the foundation of everything.

As an ideology, neoliberalism perpetuates the belief that the market cannot only solve all problems but also serves as a model for structuring all social relations. It is steeped in the language of self-help and individual responsibility,   purposely ignoring the effects of  inequalities in power, wealth and income and how these shape individuals and families lives. As such, it supports a society which cruelly ‘others’ those who require support, and is scornful of a critical and politicised social work profession founded on compassion and notions of equality and respect.

It appears to me our current government would prefer potential social workers to be ignorant of the political and structural forces which impact on individuals lives. Back in 2013 Michael Gove, then education secretary, claimed too many social workers had been filled with “idealistic” dogma that viewed people as victims of social injustice. Gove vowed to “strip this sort of thinking out of the profession”.

For example Gove and Co would seemingly prefer the consequences of government policy on those who require social work services in areas such as  housing, benefits sanctions and  zero hours contracts were ignored , ensuring the increasing levels of  poverty and insecurity individuals experience is accompanied by a culture of blame,   leading social workers to deliver individualised solutions to what are structural issues.

The Children and Social Work Bill is the latest ‘change’ causing many in the profession concern. Whilst some, such as Andy Elvin from Frontline, see the Bill as a positive step forward, many others within the profession highlight real issues, yet government appears set on ignoring these  concerns.  As a social work educator I have serious concerns, yes, around the potential privatisation of  children’s services, but also around who will provide social work education and what a future curriculum might look like.

It appears to me Government would like to ‘strip’ ‘idealistic dogma’  out of higher education as well. Instead preferring a depoliticised social work curriculum, a painting by numbers programme of training, rather than an education that prepares potential social workers to support, and challenge, change at an individual and structural level.

I believe a depoliticised education and social work profession, along with an ideologically driven clauses within the Bill would be a disaster for the children it seeks to protect.

A strong social work profession needs an educational system underpinned by critique and analysis, challenge rather than acceptance of the political status quo.  As Henry Giroux eloquently states

“At a time of increased repression, it is all the more crucial for educators to reject the notion that public and higher education are simply sites for training students for the workforce, and that the culture of education is synonymous with the culture of business. At issue here is the need for educators to recognize the power of education in creating the formative cultures necessary to challenge the various threats being mobilized against the ideas of justice and democracy, while also fighting for those public spheres, ideals, values, and policies that offer alternative modes of identity, thinking, social relations, and politics.

Pedagogy is always about power, because it cannot be separated from how subjectivities are formed or desires mobilized, how some experiences are legitimated and others are not, or how some knowledge is considered acceptable while other forms are excluded from the curriculum.”

Will the proposed changes improve life outcomes for children?  No one knows. I just hope the next reading of the Bill on the 18th October  is not reduced to ideological dogma because none of us who  debate the Bill will have to live with the direct consequences of the decisions made, nor any potentially negative consequences that might flow from this Bill if passed in its current form. ….

And these children that you spit on

As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware of what they’re going through

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes
(Turn and face the strange)
Ch-ch-changes
Don’t tell them to grow up and out of it
Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes
(Turn and face the strange)
Ch-ch-changes
Where’s your shame
You’ve left us up to our necks in it

(Changes, David Bowie)

Social workers to learn how to earn ‘public trust’ from Politicians … Really!

Politicians to lead task force that will guide social workers in earning back public trust …… Really!

Forgive me, I almost choked on my coffee whilst reading a piece entitled ‘Social work needs to earn back public trust‘ on the Guardians Social Care Network.

The government has set up a task force to guide the social work profession on how to earn public trust. A stellar line up of politicians which include Michael Gove, Theresa May and Iain Duncan Smith, those well-known advocates of social work and those they work with. When did Politicians earn the right to pontificate on how a profession might earn public trust I wonder? I must have missed this whilst reading about the numerous promises this government has reneged on since the general election, and which clearly must have enhanced the publics trust in them …..

I am a tad perturbed the government seems to have ditched the comprehensive Munro Review, which provided a very balanced approach to reform that focused not just on social workers and their education but also the political and organisational contexts which also shape social work practice, and arguably go some way to explaining the current problems that bedevil the profession.

The piece suggests the new task force will focus on robust assessment of qualifying social workers involving employers, academics and those who use services …. ummm sorry to mention this, but I do not know of a qualifying social work programme that does not already do this. Social work programmes across the land expect students to pass a number of academic theory assignments and law based exams alongside practice based assessments which involve numerous observations of practice and a plethora of meetings and reports provided by employers, those who use services and academics commenting on the student’s performance and fitness for practice over a 2 or 3 year period.

The article goes onto suggest the social work profession needs to ask itself ‘why the college failed’ and ‘why the public mood’ supports changes in the law where social workers can be prosecuted for wilful neglect. In response to the first question, from my perspective, the reason I did not join the college is that I felt it represented the voice of the government not social workers. To the second comment I would hazard a guess that 30 years of inaccurate reporting in the media, oft-repeated by politicians, and flawed serious case reviews have played a part in the general publics perception of the profession.

Just read the book by Prof Ray Jones which looks at why politicians and the media were so keen to blame and vilify social workers and Sharon Shoesmith, Haringey’s then children’s services in the case of Baby P, to gain some insight into why the profession is held in such low esteem by the public, aided and abetted by the media and government I would suggest.

I was surprised the piece did not mention the problems with inadequate IT systems, how social work now operates in a call centre environment where workers hot desk and have limited contact with their peers, or how workers work in their cars, making phone calls in lay-bys on their mobiles because they cannot access secure office space. Nor does it mention the failing court system, or the outmoded model of fostering and adoption which is no longer fit for purpose and in many cases just adds to the trauma of already traumatised children’s lives, it fails to mention the knock on effect of welfare reform, the lack of affordable good quality housing or the deterioration in mental health support services to both adults and children, it does not dig deep into the effect on frontline service provision of high levels of stress related sickness and social work vacancies, or the impact of temporary agency workers in providing important continuity when working with children and families.

I have worked with hundreds of hard-working social work students, many of whom are accruing debts of up to £40,000 to become a social worker in children and family services. Despite public and government distrust, and potential imprisonment, they are committed to being the best social workers they can possibly be …. because of this I believe in social work. Time for another coffee I think …..

The abuse of older people is an age old problem globally…..

As the BBC expose the abuse of older people with undercover filming on Panorama (9pm,30/04/2014), I wonder will we ever care about older people?

For many staying out of harm’s way is a matter of locking doors and windows and avoiding dangerous places, people and situations; however for some older people it is not quite so easy. The threat of abuse is behind those doors, well hidden from public view and for those living in the midst of such abuse violence permeates many aspects of their lives, most frequently perpetrated against them by those charged with providing their care. Regardless of where the care is provided, or who is delivering it, many older people today are at significant risk of harm.

At the heart of the problem lie the individual, personal and institutional attitudes of those charged with providing care for older people, which fails to treat older people compassionately. Our culture of indifference toward older people does a great deal of harm, not just to them, but to us as a society. I rememeber a quote from an article published  three years ago following  a report from the Health Service Ombudsman, that highlighted the abyssmal care older people received in hospital settings, the headline was ‘A society lacking in humanity’,  It’s still pertinent today.

“(F)or a while we may pause to express outrage. But we then move on to the urgent business of our daily lives. Spot checks and hit squads may arrest the worst practice… But they will not do much about a society that has hardened its heart against the elderly.” (Independent.co.uk, 16.02.11)

The question is what will soften those hardened hearts?

Government is reluctant to intervene and introduce a stronger legislative framework, Instead, it is seeking to extend responsibility for protecting older people from abuse to “Big Society” , stating ‘people and communities have a part to play in preventing, recognizing and reporting neglect and abuse. It is everyone’s responsibility to be vigilant whilst Government provides direction and leadership, ensuring the law is clear but not over intrusive’ (DoH, 2010, p.25).

However, is ‘Big Society’ able, and willing, to make the care and protection of older people its business, has it ever?

Historically older people, and old age, have often been viewed negatively, and this has arguably contributed to wider societies apparent indifference.  Cicero’s work De Senectute, written in 44 BC, points to the variety in individual experiences of ageing, acknowledging that for those who are poor and without mental capacity ageing is miserable, however, suggesting older people need to strive throughout their life to remain intellectually and physically able. A couple thousand years later not much seems to have changed, as research suggests those most vulnerable to abuse are the poor, women, and those over the age of 85 years with dementia.

The abuse of older people is clearly not a new phenomenon, it’s an age old problem, one not just confined to the UK.

Recognition of the abuse and maltreatment of older people throughout the world is not new. Research developed in the 1980’s in Australia, Canada, China, Hong Kong, Norway, Sweden and the USA confirmed this was an international phenomena. The following decade saw developments in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, India, Israel, Japan, South Africa, the UK and other European countries. Undercover filming in Italy last year showed the shocking abuse some older people experience in care, it’s distressing to watch, I cannot imagine how distressing it was for those experiencing it.

However, none of this means we can be complacent in the UK.

From a European perspective research suggests older people’s experience of ageing in the UK falls behind that of many of its European counterparts, with the UK performing most poorly on indicators such as income, poverty and age discrimination. The report states “the UK faces multiple challenges in providing older people with a positive experience of ageing, scoring poorly (although not always the worst) across every theme of the matrix” (WRVS, 2012, p.8).

It would be foolish to think the abuse of older people is just about problems with individual carers because we cannot ignore the effects of systematic inequalities in liberal societies that effectively exclude, or compromise the rights of older people. Older people’s experiences of ageing in the UK can be improved, and it is all of our responsibility to try and achieve this. However, we need a coherent strategy to bring about the change desired by many who work to support older people. Government in the UK tend to address issues associated with an ageing population within individual silos. Research from Europe suggests those countries taking a joined up approach, where government consider how factors such as income, health, age discrimination and inclusion interact, the more successful policy approaches are likely to be to improve the experience of ageing.

Addressing the abuse of older people is a complex issue, there is no one answer but a series of answers that if woven coherently together would make a difference.

It must be terrifying being an older person today in need of care and support.

Mr Gove is not just making arrangements to hide problems with ‘free’ schools policy, plans are in place to ensure Frontline is a success…whatever happens…

As Mr Gove’s plan to ensure problems with ‘free’ schools do not become an election issue are exposed, Mr Gove appears to have already put plans in place to ensure Frontline is a success, whatever the real outcome…..

Josh MacAlister has established links with the Civil Service Fast Stream for Frontline participants who decide they do not want to be involved in direct social work practice. So those who do 2 years can go straight into policy/government!

So much for addressing the major issue of retention in social work practice then!

I first blogged on this issue in September last year, since then Frontline has become a reality. None of us know for sure how this will turn out, some, like me, think we have a good idea.

This will be a costly experiment that will do little to address the real issues facing social workers working with children and families.

This belief is based partly on my knowledge of the profession, in terms of practice experience, and my experience of educating social workers and listening to their experiences and concerns. Another source of information on which to gauge the likely success of Frontline has been Teach First, the blueprint for Frontline. Teach First came to fruition due to issues about the quality of teachers coming through the education system and issues around the retention of teachers. Having been in existence for over a decade now I think it’s useful in identifying where Frontline might end up.

Recent reports suggest Teach First high flyers are already leaving teaching due to Gove’s bullying education policies. Interestingly in an interview late last year with a magazine from Cambridge University Josh MacAlister stated he has already prepared the ground for those high flyers who want to fly a lot higher than working with children and families. MacAlister has established links with the Civil Service Fast Stream for Frontline participants who decide they do not want to be involved in direct social work practice. So those who do 2 years can go straight into policy/government! So much for addressing the major issue of retention in frontline practice then! Whilst another report suggested Universities are the best place to train teachers. I wonder if in a few years the same might be said of social work education?

The findings that are beginning to emerge from Teach First are, in my view, troubling for Frontline but not unsurprising. May be it is time to get back on track and focus our efforts and funding on implementing, in full, Professor Eileen Munro’s recommendations, rather than the introduction of another educational route. I do think social work requires change, but I also believe the problems Frontline are seeking to address are not solely related to social work education. For me structural change in the way services are delivered and resourced is far more important. As is tackling issues such as inequality,poverty,poor housing, unemployment and low wages which would make the biggest difference to the lives of the families many social workers are in contact with, rather than having a social worker with a good degree from a top university.

One final note, I rather liked a comment made by the interviewer of Josh MacAlister at Cambridge, after he had made much of the importance of ‘experience’

“Despite this emphasis on experience, MacAlister never trained as a social worker”.

Quite.

Daniel Pelka: Is more training and CPD the answer to improving professional practice?

One of the recommendations from the serious case review on the tragic death of Daniel Pelka calls for more training and professional development opportunities for staff. I’m not convinced professionals need more training, I think professionals need better quality training and the environment in which to put new learning into practice.

Having worked in higher education in developing and providing post qualifying courses and CPD activity for 9 years I know a lot of money is spent by the NHS and local authorities on training and education for their staff, and I wonder if it is time to review the quality of that provision and to get serious about changing the culture and structures which frame practice.

I know from experience how employers can respond to such recommendations. On many occasions I have been asked to develop a training package for a failing organisation for their staff on Safeguarding Adults and Children which would require no face to face input from anyone, something involving a tick box that staff can do on their own in front of a computer screen. I have declined such requests as it has felt to me the request was related to meeting a target, rather than addressing issues in practice surrounding adult or child abuse. The term I have heard used for this type of training in the health service is ‘sheep dipping’. I have heard this term used many times by senior managers and some senior academics. I find it insulting in the extreme that professionals and something as important as improving practice in safeguarding can be spoken about in such a demeaning manner. The value to staff of face to face contact with educators and peers in learning environments, and of having to provide work post course that is assessed, can not be under estimated.

We must hope those involved in learning from Daniels death in Coventry seek to develop education and training that is about quality, rather than quantity and meeting a target. However, of greater concern is that the changes required in the wider context of practice are not forgotten and that these are addressed at the same time, as recommended by Prof Eileen Munro.

I do my best to ensure I provide education and CPD activity that is worthwhile and supportive to developing practice, however, I also know that unless the structural issues practitioners face on a day-to-day basis are addressed those practitioners will find it difficult to put into practise their new learning and the opportunity to make real improvements will be lost….

How do Governments decide who is ‘deserving’ or ‘undeserving’ of support?

Governments ideas on how the relationship between state and society should be structured relies on what they think motivates us as individuals, this in turn will inform government on how to shape the public sector and welfare system. Many of governments ideas on the role of the state in society are reminiscent of past philosophers ideas.

For example ‘Big Society’ is influenced by the ideas of Edmund Burke, whose Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) is widely seen as providing the philosophical foundations of ‘Big Society’. Burke was a supporter of localism and believed government should allow local discretion and respect for local customs to ensure social change was not the result of top down policies, suggesting if given space society was able to come together to resolve social problems, thus leading to ‘small government’. This belief is arguably shaping governments perceptions of the role of big society in supporting those in need and the governments drive to reduce the public sector.

Philosophy can also be seen in governments’ reform of welfare provision, especially views on who are ‘deserving’ and ‘underserving’ in society. I wonder if Ian Duncan Smith is a fan of John Locke (1632-1704). Locke’s views on poor relief could be government policy. In a memorandum to the Board of Trade, written in 1697, he talks about the rising number of poor and the unacceptable cost of poor relief, suggesting the rise was not due to adverse structural factors but was the result of the characteristics of the poor and failings in their behavior. It’s worth repeating his quote, it could almost appear as an editorial piece in some of our daily papers today

‘If the causes of this evil be looked into, it will be found to have proceeded neither from the scarcity of provisions, nor from want of employment for the poor. The growth of the poor must therefore have some other cause; and it can be nothing else but the relaxation of discipline, and corruption of manners: virtue and industry being as constant companions on the one side as vice and idleness on the other’ (Locke, 1697).

For Locke, since poverty, and reliance on welfare, stemmed from the personal failings of the individual it is obvious to correct the situation the focus needed to be on ‘correcting’ that individual (this was to be achieved via a harsh system of poor relief). Locke did recognize there were different levels of deserving and undeserving, and introduced a third category ‘the semi-deserving’, which broadly equates to those with disabilities today, but he did not write much about what needed to be done to them!

There are many other philosophers whose ideas underpin various political perspectives on the role of the state and society in the provision of welfare, but only one well-known female philosopher, who offers an alternative approach.

Mary Wollstonecrafts’ (1759-1797) writings on poverty are not huge, but very different in tone from her predecessors. Where others such as John Locke and Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) saw poverty as the result of individual failure, Wollstonecraft recognized poverty in structural terms, partly as a result of the economic system and discrimination. Whilst others suggested reduction in poor relief would motivate the poor to help themselves, Wollstonecraft suggested people should ‘not be obliged to weigh the consequences of every farthing they spend, they should have sufficient to prevent their attending to a frigid system of economy which narrows both heart and mind’ (1792). Hmmm….

Whilst Wollstonecraft has not received as much attention as other thinkers, her views appeal to me because they were driven by a moral belief which put an ethical approach to care first.

What underpins your thoughts about the role of big society and the state in supporting those in need?

If you would like to read more on the philosophies underpinning approaches to welfare and the role of the state in society see ‘Major Thinkers in Welfare’ by Vic George, it’s a good read.

‘Old age,more feared than death’: have we ever care about older people?

Has there ever  been a ‘golden age’ where older people were consistently valued, respected and protected by family and the institutions that make up wider society?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) suggests the abuse of older people occurs in many parts of the world with little recognition or response. This serious social problem is often downplayed or hidden from the public view,  and considered mostly a private matter. Even today, the abuse of older people continues to be a taboo, mostly underestimated and ignored by societies across the world. However, evidence is accumulating to indicate that the abuse  of older people is an important public health and societal problem.

As such, it demands an active response, one which focuses on protecting the rights of older persons, starting with  a change in our perspective on whom, and what, we value in society.

Although representations of old age and societal responses to older people have differed over time it could be argued old age is more often viewed as negative.

In ancient Greece old age was portrayed as sad, with the Greeks love of beauty marginalising the old. Although some commentators suggest the reality was more complex with the portrayal of older people in the classics as ‘both pejorative and complimentary’ (Thane). For Plato reverence toward old people was a guarantee of social and political stability, whereas Aristotle disagreed with such positive images. Cicero’s work De Senectute, written in 44 BC, points to the variety in individual experiences of ageing, acknowledging that for those who are poor and without mental capacity ageing is miserable, however, suggesting older people need to strive throughout their life to remain intellectually and physically able.

Arguably this belief still underpins social care legislation and policy today in respect of older people.

It has been suggested older people’s status in society is linked to their ability to participate in society from an economic perspective, especially in terms of activity in paid employment. Historically where older people have been unable to participate in paid employment, help and support has been provided through a mixture of family and state support, with an emphasis by government on the former rather than the latter. However, commentators suggest post industrial revolution another victim of change were the elderly. The old did not merely lose power, they also lost respect. The rise of the alms-houses, and institutionalised poor-relief, suggests that their children were increasingly shedding responsibility for their support and transferring it to the community..

Although Thane  argues, this may have been due to families own depths of poverty, rather than lack of care or a shedding of responsibility. The abuse of older people was not something government identified as a problem throughout this period, although, self-neglect was identified as an issue which government sought to address in the 1948 National Assistance Act.

This is not to say it did not occur, for example, the 1942 Exceptional Needs Enquiry found most older people living with families were there under sufferance. They were often less well off than those who lived with strangers, and lacked essential items of clothing, bedding or household equipment as families used any provision, such as clothing coupons, for personal use. Whether this constituted abuse is not clear as many families who cared for older relatives were often living in poverty themselves and older people often willingly gave their families any support they could, even if this meant going without themselves. Of course, records do not exist to either confirm or deny whether such relationships were abusive or mutually supportive, however, it might suggest in terms of individual worth and personal identity, a cultural norm existed where the welfare of the younger generation was prioritised over that of the old by both young and old.

However, Peter Townsend’s landmark study of long-stay institutional care for older people in 1950’s Britain, provides a little more insight into the experiences of older people receiving care. One of the interviews he recorded was with a matron of a small private residential home in Greater London, which Townsend suggested was by far the worst home he had visited, whilst his commentary did not discuss the issues raised in terms of ‘abuse’, if, as a researcher today, I were to hear such an account I would make a referral to the local authority and the regulatory body for residential care, the Care Quality Commission, as the interview is clearly describing ‘abuse’ as defined in policy today.

This suggests the abuse of older people has been going on for a long time, but has been hidden from public view, but we do know now don’t we.