Birmingham city children’s social services have been found “unfit for purpose” as child deaths in that city hit the headlines.
I cannot be the only social worker to have read that statement and thought, “too bloody right, we’ve been saying it for years.” The current round of adverts for social work depict a glossy picture which is very far from the reality of the best social work teams at the moment. The report by the Scrutiny Committee in Birmingham shows how different.
The report raises many issues, including cramped and inadequate working conditions for overworked and stressed staff, inadequate or non-existent supervision and support for staff, high caseloads, high vacancy levels, and surprise, surprise… high sickness levels. But while the report may be accurate, it had little to offer in terms of solutions.
Firstly the problems in Birmingham Social Services, as elsewhere cannot be uncoupled from the reality of the society we live in, the poverty, inequality, and violence that prevails. Social workers interviewed by the BBC have made it clear that they feel unsafe going into many of the places where the families they work with have to live.
Secondly we have dismantle the current system. The combination of relentless targets, IT-driven performance management, underfunded privatised services, bureaucracy, and high thresholds for intervention, along with high workloads, poor morale and a devaluation of traditional social work skills, results in a system that has let the vulnerable in our society down, again and again. Hard enough for experienced qualified social workers to deal with, but in Birmingham, one third of the social work staff are unqualified: poorly paid and poorly trained. Yet they have responsibility for safeguarding vulnerable children.
Something has to change. Even in our profit driven society, there is a recognition that children have rights and deserve to be protected from abuse. The existing system cannot do this.
To achieve even the minimum safeguarding service for vulnerable children, massive investment and change in management culture will be necessary. Yet we now face further degradation of services as we brace ourselves for huge cuts.
To prevent more tragedies, and to fight for a social services system that is “fit for purpose” a concerted fightback throughout all social service departments is urgently needed. Unison members need to go beyond the rhetoric of their union, and actively organise to protect services, and fight against the crippling performance management tick-box culture. This is the only way to empower social workers to provide the services needed to protect children and support families.