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Keep momentum in social work reform

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Keeping the right balance between tackling the urgent and the important is always a challenge. This seems to be a particularly pertinent issue at the moment in children’s social care where the policy environment is perceived by many us in the delivery chain end of the business to be characterised by “shock” tactics, rather than driven by a long term and coherent strategy.

Take social work reform. Under the guiding hands of the Social Work Task Force and the Social Work Reform Board a comprehensive and integrated suite of recommendations was agreed and then acted upon between 2009 and 2012, with the express purpose of providing an holistic and game-changing transformation programme for the profession - both in terms of its effectiveness and its reputation. These long term and strategic developments were sponsored by ministers from the Departments of Health, Education and Business and they survived the change in national government in 2010 so that, by the middle of 2012 when the Reform Board was expected to disband, much of the design work was complete and delivery in many key areas getting underway. All this was - and remains - vitally important work.

However, the welcome “continuity” of commitment to, and support for reform in the transition from the Labour to coalition government has ultimately been supplanted by an expected “progression”; no government (especially a new one) ever stands still on the policy front. From my perspective, I welcome change if it’s designed to secure better outcomes, so there is much to valued in the Department for Education’s (DfE) recent focus on, for example, tackling the evil of child sexual exploitation, and securing timely permanence solutions for children in the care planning system. But there is a “but” to all this - namely, that the dominant focus in the DfE on educational reform has ultimately taken its toll when it comes to the articulation of its own compelling vision for social work. Tim Loughton tried his best, and the Munro review - at least early on - provided a successful rallying call in children’s services. But the delays in producing a new “radical” Working Together (still waiting at the time of writing), the abortive recruitment of a chief social worker (now to be two chief social workers) and the bringing together into a virtual team of the first cohort of principal child and family social workers (the first get together only takes place this month) has left the frontline - social workers and their managers - frequently wondering whether they’ve been forgotten (excepting by Ofsted which, in the eyes of some, has been testing the children’s social care system almost to destruction).

However, I am not down-hearted (and nor do I think I’m deluded in my positivity). Solace has heard from both ministers and officials recently that the notion of social work reform is still alive and well at the DfE and will become more prominent now that school reforms are gaining traction and need less attention. Consequently, the focus can broaden out - and this is good news.

But, more importantly for a local government chief executive such as myself, I am excited by the way that the Children’s Improvement Board (CIB) has been keeping the faith with the original reform agenda and is working progressively towards a comprehensive sector-led offer that will both promote and, where it’s needed most, provide practical support and resources for change. And, in this endeavour, the CIB is building its alliance with the nascent College of Social Work to ensure that the body specially created to represent and promote social work (across the spectrum - not just in children’s services in councils) is in sync with the sector’s own efforts to effect lasting change and bring about both the improvements in outcomes for children, young people and the social worker profession itself that are so needed to ensure our safeguarding and wider family support services flourish in the short and long term.

As we look ahead, success will lie in an effective partnership between the key players - government, the College and the sector. Government and the sector are already well established institutions, so both are in a position to get behind the College and ensure that they aid and abet it to become world class. The key to success over the next 12 months is for its membership to grow so that the College is truly both the voice of the profession and also the membership body of choice for the profession. Engaging and enrolling social workers in their College is something councils can - and must - encourage, starting with chief executives getting behind the body that, if successful, will help councils deliver the workforce and, critically, the outcomes we need for our local communities to thrive, and our children’s (and adult) services to flourish.

So, getting behind social work reform, sector led improvement and the College of Social Work provides one of those rare opportunities where the urgent and the important come together for a chief executive. Resistance is futile!

Mark Rogers, chief executive, Solihull MBC

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