By a London social worker
This is how the Social Work Activities Network describes itself (socialworkfutures.org)
"SWAN is a loose network of social work practitioners, academics, students and social welfare service users united in their concern that social work activity is being undermined by managerialism and marketisation, by the stigmatisation of service users and by welfare cuts and restrictions.
We believe that good social work is a worthwhile activity that can help people address the problems and difficulties in their lives. Many of these difficulties are rooted in the inequalities and oppressions of the modern world and good social work necessarily involves confronting such structural and public causes of so many private ills."
The SWAN conference held recently at the Hope University in Liverpool, of social workers, social work students and social work academics was the 3rd such conference. It was the first conference I had been to (or indeed heard about) and it was very much focused on child protection social work post ‘Baby P’.
Overall I thought the conference was very good. I had been expecting to go with two colleagues and fellow Unison stewards from different social work teams in my London borough, unfortunately caseloads and general work stress prevented this.
SWAN was set up three years ago but I think has found new life post ‘Baby P’. Following the witch hunt of social workers launched by the Sun newspaper SWAN launched an alternative petition which highlighted the lack of resources, funding, the understaffing and undervalue of social work and the business target driven model which makes serious child protection impossible in many local authorities.
My initial tiredness and stress about workload (I did paperwork while travelling there!) were happily washed away by the sight of around 200 people mostly social workers and students here to talk about best practice in social work, despite the negative business led and target driven environment social workers work in.
The initial plenary was addressed by the Dean at Hope University Penny Houghton, a professor of social work and service user Peter Beresford and Michael Cavalette the organiser of the conference. Penny emphasised the role of social justice in social work. Peter made some interesting points about the lack of social work input into the ‘government social work taskforce’ where there is one practitioner, no service users and yet room for the Agony Aunt from the sun Diedre Sanders. There was also an acknowledgement that statutory organisations are overruling social workers judgements and moving far away from where social workers and service users want us to be. Michael gave us a brief history of SWAN and the importance of organising collectively but I did feel there was a certain snobbery with regards to the ‘red top’ papers and no real understanding of the revulsion that many people will have felt when reading about ‘Baby P’ which led them to sign a witch hunting petition. I can understand a feeling of wanting an individual to blame even though I don't put blame the individual social worker in this case. I am also glad that people feel revulsion at not just the murder of a young child but the lack of protection from state services. I saw this revulsion a lot at the conference by workers who knew in the current situation that could have been them as a worker.
There was quite a lot of time for questions and contributions and a brief Unison meeting was organised at lunchtime. Nick Barnes from North Manchester Unison spoke about the difficulties with the new computer system (ICS – imposed without consultation) and about an increase in referrals and therefore workloads, that there had been no sense of learning from previous issues, including two high profile child deaths in Manchester recently. He painted the usual picture of agency social workers walking out, high vacancy rates, workers complaining of unsafe practice, high caseloads. North Manchester Unison are having a consultative ballot ending next week about these issues, these poor systems are leading to more child deaths.
I have never found a social worker or admin worker with a good word to say about ICS and the myth that social workers are technophobes is rubbish, we just want an IT system that is fit for purpose – not much to ask you might think. The problem is that the new computer systems all embody performance management (targets) e.g. your screen flashes red when your assessment is overdue, without any sense of how long a complex assessment might take, or regard for the fact that all this will result in is a quicker decision, not the right one. It was also pointed out that people protect families and children not procedures and that the whole model of assessment divorced from intervention is flawed.
Overall I found this conference heartening, we were looking at a new social work manifesto charter to draw up in the afternoon and it was nice to see so many committed social workers putting children first despite the circumstances they are forced to work in. I was reminded of how easy it is for people to try and solve the problems of the system through their own hard work. There was also a lot of recognition for Union and collective activity although this was more amongst the older workers there. It made me sad (but not surprised) to look at research that talked about the huge gap between rich and poor children and the fact their happiness levels have not increased in 50 years of a hugely growing economy, it also gave me hope to see social workers qualified 30 years ago and due to qualify in 6 months with the same values, enthusiasm and drive and to see how much we learn from each other. Also to hear workers at the frontline discussing how they think things should be run with a knowledge that the people who work in the service know best.
My concern as the conference ended was that the task is so huge. Whilst there was a larger Union presence than at many social work events unfortunately it seemed the younger you were the less likely you were to be in a Union or if you were you were less likely to see this as the answer. Not surprising when Unison produces very good documents based on social workers ideas about how the service should be run but no strategy on how to win those improvements. We are not well organised in our fightback. The governments policy is clear: personalisation and transformation the new words for cuts in social care. Individuals are doing their best but burning out and leaving. There was little in terms of future organisation apart from a future conference (in Bath no further details on website yet) and a charter (I assume to propose to government in the social work taskforce). We should use every opporunity including this conference – we have to organise, we have to fightback; children and vulnerable adults need this service delivered — well, now there’s a challenge!