Recognising good social work and social care practice
Prestige is important for universities in the UK. It helps in the competition for increasingly scarce funding for both teaching and research. It also helps to attract students, without whom they could not exist. The New Years Honours List, therefore, provides Vice-Chancellors with an opportunity to revel in the prestige bestowed upon their institutions.
At the University of York my VC, Brian Cantor, himself received a CBE this year and two other academics were awarded MBEs. A fitting start to the year in which the University of York celebrates its 50th anniversary. Former colleagues at the Institute of Psychiatry were also given gongs, with the King’s College London press office going into overdrive reporting on its staff and alumni who were also rewarded. You don’t have to search hard to find press releases on other Russell Group websites as well – just take a look at Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College, for example.
In the world of social work and social care, it is very different. According to a Community Care report only one practising social worker, Gill Timmis, was awarded in this year’s New Year Honours. She received an MBE for raising almost £500,000 for children’s charities through charity bike rides. As a cyclist who once raised almost £1,000 for charity on a bike ride, I stand in awe at her achievement. However, her gong was not for social work practice. In contrast to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, which celebrated the gongs its members received in the same way Russell Group universities did, The College of Social Work and the British Association of Social Workers had nothing to shout about.
So what’s going on? Why is social work not being recognised in the official honours system?
It is possible that social workers are being nominated for gongs, but are refusing them on political or ethical grounds and no-one gets to hear about them. One of my inspirations, Bob Holman, turned down an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours last year because of its implicit support for the monarchy and reinforcement of social distinction and inequality. He was nominated ‘for services to the community in Easterhouse, Glasgow’ but argued that others were more deserving of recognition than him. Perhaps an honours system so closely aligned to the monarchy and symbols of social status is not the best way to recognise and reward good practice in social work and social care.
It is possible that the system of nomination for honours does not count in favour of practising social workers. Sometimes the outcomes or impact of social work practice are difficult to discern. Also, social work is pilloried rather than celebrated making it less likely that practitioners are nominated. However, the Social Worker of the Year Awards are a notable exception and suggest that it is possible to recognise and reward good practice in the sector.
It is possible that practitioners are not encouraged or supported to recognise good practice. In our search for good practice in the use of personal budgets or direct payments in mental health services last year, we found that many practitioners and managers were reluctant to come forward with examples of innovative practice. We were told that some feared being reprimanded by their employer for bending the rules, contravening policy or inappropriately supporting service users’ self-directed care plans. We experienced a defensiveness about practice which I found rather surprising, but highlights the pressure practitioners are under to meet performance targets and other management objectives. However, the mid-point report of the evaluation of Social Work Practice and pioneer pilots suggests that it is possible to reclaim adult social work from the bureaucratic care management it has become mired in and use personalisation creatively. Creativity and innovation needs to be mainstreamed, though, and not solely the preserve of small pilot projects.
It is possible that we quite simply do not evidence and articulate what we do as effectively as other professions. Social work does not have a strong culture of research and evaluation; it is driven more by statute than evidence of intervention effectiveness. But we do not need expensive research projects to shed light on good social work practice. Tweets, small blog posts or other social media are a quick and easy way to share information about innovative practice. Positive interactions with the media are important, as the filming of social workers from Bristol City Council’s Children’s Services Department in 2012 illustrated. Similarly, a child protection team opened its doors to a Community Care journalist in December, which will be featured on their website soon.
So, let’s start with ourselves and recognise what we do well and tell others about it. Only then can social work hope to achieve the recognition it deserves.