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Ray Jones: ‘Social work is under real threat’

Posted on 20/07/2016 by Aminul Hoque

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A social work stalwart and academic says latest attempts to reform children’s services risk opening them up to privatisation

Over five decades, Ray Jones has watched the fortunes of social work ebb and flow. But nothing, he says, has prepared him for its current crisis. “I’m concerned about the profession losing its value base, its independence, and becoming politically controlled. It’s a real threat, and unlike anything we have ever seen before.”

A veteran social worker, director of social services, academic, author and media commentator, Jones retires this month from his job as a professor of social work. In recent years he has been one of the most vocal and articulate analysts of social work policy, from Baby P and child protection scandals, to current attempts by ministers to reform children’s services.

The clearest threat to social work, says Jones, lies in the changes proposed by thechildren and social work bill passing through the Lords. The wide-ranging bill is predicated on the contentious notion that both the profession and the bulk of council children’s services are irredeemably broken, and that the best way to fix them is to deregulate and commercialise services, and give ministers unprecedented power to direct professional standards and training. Not only would the bill clear a path for ministers to pursue their aim of taking children’s departments out of local authority control – in the manner of academy schools – it would create a market for services – easing the way for private companies (or their charitable offshoots) to deliver statutory children’s social care. It gives the secretary of state extraordinary powers to enable providers to sidestep children’s legal rights, he argues, without parliamentary scrutiny or accountability.

The bill’s proponents – who include the chief children’s social worker, Isabelle Trowler – insist it is not about privatisation by the back door but modernising, raising the profession’s status and introducing new ways of working. Their watchword is “innovation”: by exempting council children’s services departments from apparently bureaucratic and time-consuming legislative burdens, they argue, practitioners can become more effective and efficient.

Jones argues that this fundamentally misunderstands how services improve. “A narrative promoted widely by politicians and the media is that the public sector is sluggish and self-serving, and the private sector is stimulating, that it generates efficiency, and that it all needs to be shaken up. The focus on ‘innovation’ and ‘creativity’ is something that comes out of that, whereas what we know in terms of good services is we need continuity, stability, confidence and people who can hold their nerve on how best to help children and families.

“The excitement and clamour for innovation and change denies the experience of many years about how to do what we need to do well. Unfortunately, so many of the people who are leading the charge for it all to be shaken up really have not looked back over their shoulders – or maybe they don’t have too far to look back – in terms of knowing how to do this. The idea that local authorities are opposed to or resist change, or that the social work profession resists change, is just not borne out by the experience. It is local authorities that are generating creativity in terms of multi-professional teams, generating creativity in terms of how they engage with communities; it’s the social work profession that has led in terms of how to work in partnership with children and families. There is no lack of innovation in local government. What there is, is a lack of resource to follow through on that innovation.”

He points to Essex, Cornwall, Hampshire, Leeds and other councils lauded for the improvements they have made to children’s social care, often from a low benchmark. None have gone for fancy structural reforms; they have concentrated on the basics: investment, stability, professional support, and ensuring frontline staff have manageable caseloads. “What they have all got is experienced, wise, senior managers who stay close to their frontline, are fired up by professional values and confidence, and create the context and culture to do good social work. I contrast that with other places which, willingly or unwillingly, are having their lives made more complicated, more disrupted, and where any drive towards continuity is being undermined by a government imposing change.”

But what about the “basket-case” authorities – such as Doncaster and Birmingham – which seem to doggedly resist improvement? Jones says part of Doncaster’s problem was that it regarded novel structural innovation as a quick-fix solution to deep-rooted problems of culture and practice. “They appointed a director of children’s services with a background in the management of the frozen food industry because that was going to be the way to drive efficiency and economy in children’s social services. And then it all went pear-shaped. Should we be surprised?”

We should worry about a bill that gives so much power to the secretary of state, he says. It enables political control over who becomes a social worker, who continues to be one, how they should be trained, and who provides that training. “If I were in another profession, I would be thinking: ‘If they can do this to social work …’”. He contrasts this government with its Thatcher-era predecessors, which introduced the 1989 Children Act and saw social work as “an important way of fulfilling government ambition to care for people”. That “enabling” approach, he argues, has been superseded by a “control and determine” model. “That is really dangerous because what it has done is undermine local authorities, undermine the social work profession, and is losing the expertise that people close to the frontline have.”

There is no lack of innovation in local government. But there's a lack of resource to follow through on it.

He is dismayed by the now mainstream idea that the state can best discharge its responsibility for core children’s services by putting them into a commercial marketplace. He rejects the idea that the government’s prohibition on profit-making in child protection will deter the private sector (they will simply set up not-for-profit subsidiaries and make profits by selling services to them) and is sceptical that child safeguarding is too risky for the private sector (they seem happy enough to run high-risk services like prison, he points out).

Jones didn’t set out to be a social worker. The grandson of a Cornish miner, he intended to study geography and geology at university. After a gap year working in a hostel for people leaving psychiatric hospital, he switched to a degree in sociology and social work. He then spent eight years in frontline social work. In the 1970s people could still enter social work with no academic qualification, and graduates like Jones were quickly promoted to management. “One of my concerns about Frontline [the government’s fast track social work leadership scheme] is we are in danger of replicating the idea that if you are bright and a graduate who has got a higher-class degree, you should be able to move very quickly away from practice into management.”

Periods in academia followed, and social work management. He was one of the longest-serving social services directors. He served councils controlled by parties of all political hues. The best political leaders kept responsibility for social care close to home and keep close to their communities, he says. He learned that local democracy and political accountability – seen by some as a drag on efficiency - are of crucial importance to providing good services.

Labour and crossbench peers threatened to vote down the children and social work bill last week, amid “deep-seated” resentment and opposition”and a Tory-dominated Commons education committee called for major changes to fix the bill’s “significant weaknesses”. Three of the bill’s main political backers – David Cameron, Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan – have left government. Jones is cautiously optimistic: “It does seem there is an opportunity for the government to be a bit more reflective,” he says.

 

 

Source: The Guardian