Thanks, Bridget [Bridget Robb, BASW Chief Executive], it’s a pleasure to be here.
Many of those speaking here today will, quite rightly, pay tribute to what an incredible, inspiring, life-changing job all of you do - and I can only add my own gratitude and admiration.
But social work has a personal resonance for me that goes beyond politics, beyond my role as a minister.
Having grown up with around 90 foster children - 2 of whom we adopted – and worked as a family lawyer in the care system for 10 years, I’ve seen up close and personal the pressures that social workers are under - and also the wonders they can work in the most desperate circumstances. It’s something I always remind myself of when I see social workers being pilloried.
I remember, as a young child, social workers coming to our home so regularly that on occasion I naively thought they were family friends. But what I also saw were social workers (as I now know them to be) coming round irrespective of the time day or night, to settle in a new foster child fulfil a long-distance contact arrangement or deal with another emergency on their watch.
And I’ll never forget the look of sheer relief on the face of a social worker who arrived at our house to drop off 9-month-old triplets having ended a desperate search for a suitable placement. An example of never knowing what the life of a social worker and a foster family can throw at you.
And later, in my work in the family courts, there were many times I sat alongside social workers making difficult and momentous decisions that would change lives and having to justify them both in and out of court. Often cooped up in a stuffy conference room for most of the day, planning, negotiating, resolving conflict, seeking legal advice, seeking out a sandwich, all whilst trying to juggle the other cases outside of court they were responsible for. A tough environment and a tough job.
So I understand better than most what you’re up against and the hard work and dedication it takes to deliver for our most vulnerable children. Now I’m not in the business of ignorantly criticising the social work profession. Yes, I think it needs improvement. Yes, I think we can do better. And yes, I think the structures you work in are often outdated and don’t support you as they should. But I’m not negative about the profession as a whole.
Because, as the Prime Minister has also acknowledged, you carry out some of the most important work in our society - work that’s on a par with other front-line professionals - doctors, nurses, police and firefighters - who save lives.
But, as we know, too often you only get public recognition for the bad things - when things go wrong. I’m keen to work with you to break this cycle, to build public confidence in the profession so you can get on with doing what you came into social work to do: your best for our most vulnerable families.
It’s why we’ve supported Frontline and Step Up, programmes which both, in their way, are changing the image of social work; making it an aspirational profession rather than one which has too often been viewed by the public as a last-choice career. So it’s hugely encouraging that Frontline received 2700 applications for its first 100 posts, all of them from top graduates. That shows that we can change the image of the profession.
But it isn’t just about image, as you all know well. I also want to change the way social work operates. It’s right to say that we’ve made some progress already in reducing red tape and freeing you from unduly restrictive assessment timescales. But as social workers I’ve met on recent visits have told me, there’s no point us telling you we’ve removed a timescale if you’re spending your life filling in forms.
And there’s no point claiming that our new graduates to the profession are going to change the way we do things, if they end up operating in the same old unchanged structures of the past - undersupervised, overwhelmed by the responsibility of individual case-holding, exhausted within a few years and looking for a way out.
The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Work’s Inquiry into the State of Social Work, published by BASW last December, rightly picks up some of these themes too.
And that’s why our innovation programme is so important. It’s our attempt to free you from traditional structures which I believe have held the social work profession back.
We want to trust you to innovate and raise standards - as we do other professionals in health and in education - and not just when things are going wrong, but when they’re going right.
This isn’t about privatisation, as I’ve read a couple of times. If we wanted to privatise failing local authority children’s social care departments, we already can. The legislation already exists. But the fact is that we’ve never done it.
The innovation programme isn’t about failure. It’s about improving the adequate and the good - making them better, good, even great. It’s about letting you show us what you can do to raise standards if we liberate you from the same old structures that social work has operated in for so long. I want to see new partnerships with the third sector, with the private sector too if they can find a role to play - but driven by you, social workers and councils. This isn’t something that’s going to be imposed from the top. It’s the front line that needs to be in the driving seat, helping design services that are unashamedly geared towards the interests of children.
Look at Kingston and Richmond - an entirely new community interest company set up outside the local authorities to deliver social care for children in the two boroughs. This has been set up in the interests of children - and only for their benefit.
But I’m alive to the debate within the sector - and I know BASW’s own consultation response highlighted several concerns - and we will look carefully at what we can do to take account of concerns raised about profiteering by the private sector, but without limiting too far the freedom I want to give you.
Because, this freedom we’re trying to offer to social workers to create new, innovative modes of service delivery is an expression of our faith in you.
Why can’t social workers - like the ground-breaking Evolve YP practice, or local authorities - be trusted with any flexibility, any freedom at all in how they deliver services?
Family doctors - independent contractors to the NHS - are trusted with it. Academies - free to innovate subject to the same inspection regime as other schools - are trusted with it. But why not social workers? I find it frustrating that this case still needs making, so would welcome, really welcome it if the profession did more to stand up for itself here. And if you do, you have my support.
Because what we’re doing is freeing you, but yes also challenging you as never before, to do what you do even better. Which is why the proposals have been supported by the LGA, by SOLACE and to a large extent by ADCS - none of them exactly market radicals!
Anyway, I’m sure we’ll be hearing much more of this debate in weeks to come so I won’t labour it any more today, but I would ask you all to think about it and ask yourselves: why shouldn’t we be trusted with greater flexibility? Why does innovation have to be imposed from the top down and only when local authorities have failed, rather than us being allowed to develop it from the bottom up, to make good services better?
Isabelle Trowler, our Chief Social Worker, who spoke at the BASW AGM in April, worked from the bottom up in Hackney to transform services there. Reclaiming Social Work has been an effective model and offers an approach which others are considering around the country. We’ve had a number of bids into the innovation programme aiming to do similar things, and I‘m encouraged by that.
Isabelle’s now leading the work recommended by Sir Martin Narey, working with children and family social workers to identify and define what a children’s social worker needs to know and be able to do. We’ll be consulting on this in July, and I’m sure that BASW will wish to contribute.
And we’ll be piloting around the country the licence to practise, to see whether that is a better way of testing the high skills levels needed in the toughest areas of child and family social work which are critical to secure safer, better lives for children.
I’m also pleased to announce today that we’re supporting another cohort of Step Up to Social Work as well. It will begin in January 2016.
Step up has been a big success - producing 415 new social workers, with another 304 currently undergoing training in 75 local authorities.
According to an evaluation by Kings College London, an impressive 93% of those who completed the course have got a job in social work. And a whopping 97% of this second cohort of trainees, who come from varied backgrounds, tell us that the combination of intensive hands-on experience, academy study and close supervision left them well prepared to begin work. To quote a Step Up trainee Jessica, a manager with a background in youth work:
I’ve been raving about Step Up to all my friends and family, I’m really impressed and grateful to be on such a high quality course with such dedicated staff supporting us.
Jessica had previously been considering a move into social work, but wasn’t sure if she had the relevant skills and how she could cope financially with a more traditional entry route. Step Up has proved to be the perfect fit. We’ve had teachers and Samaritans, nursery nurses and legal executives, even a forensic examiner, joining the course.
So it’s hardly surprising that, as with Frontline, demand for places is high; with an unprecedented 3,633 applications for a little over 300 places in 2013. We receive over 200 inquiries a week about joining. So for this fourth cohort starting in January 2016, I’d like to encourage councils who haven’t yet participated to join in. We’ll be contacting all the local authorities currently participating - so if you want to join, please contact us.
Because, aside from the benefits for its trainees, Step Up stands out thanks to the way in which it gives councils the opportunity to take the lead on training social workers and raising standards.
But it’s worth remembering that when it launched in 2010, Step Up was seen as controversial and ground breaking. A bit of a daring leap.
And that’s exactly the leap I’m asking you to make when I urge you to contribute to the new children’s social care innovation programme. There’s £30 million available this financial year, and there’ll be more the following year, if the ideas are there to merit it. We want your proposals for how to develop and spread new, more effective ways of supporting vulnerable children. They don’t have to involve delivering services outside of the local authority - in fact we expect very many of the projects we fund will be about transforming things within local authorities.
We want people from every area - local authorities, social enterprises, companies, not-for-profit bodies - to come forward with their most ambitious, most adventurous ideas.
We’ll help develop, test and look to expand the most promising schemes; providing whatever tailored support is needed.
And although we welcome proposals for all areas of care, we’ve decided to focus particularly on two: rethinking support for adolescents in or on the edge of care, and rethinking how children’s social work operates.
But the innovation programme isn’t just about supporting a bright idea here and there.
It’s about creating the conditions where innovation can thrive throughout the system. Increasing incentives to excel. Removing blocks that stand in your way. And allowing the best in the field to expand and spread what works.
This isn’t - as you may have read - about ideology. It’s about what works.
We do hope that some people will ask how we can “combine the skills of local authorities with the best of the voluntary and commercial sector”.
These aren’t my words. They’re the words of Alan Wood, President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) and also Director of Children Services in Hackney.
Frankly, I couldn’t have put it better myself.
So, let me stress again, this isn’t about privatisation and nor is it about centralisation. It’s not about the government taking decisions and overriding local decision making.
It’s not about government letting giant contracts to big companies and losing sight of what - or rather who - really matters: the children.
But it is about saying to councils that they can decide how best to manage their children’s social care - by removing artificial restrictions. It’s the outcomes you achieve, not the structures you work in, that matter.
Some of our major children’s charities have welcomed the initiative, though I accept that several are anxious about private sector involvement and are keen for more discussion about the practical implications. And that’s absolutely right that that happens.
As Javed Khan, Barnardo’s’ new chief executive has said:
The future has got to be about how you invite an organisation like Barnardo’s to the table of the thinking, the planning, the rethinking and then service commissioning.
It is organisations like Barnardo’s that are big enough, experienced enough, knowledgeable enough about what the right thing to do is from the frontline that can be part of that right at the start as a strategic partner.
So my conclusion is simple. I want to do whatever it takes to help you to put children’s needs first. But you have to seize the opportunity here. It won’t be there forever - the money behind the innovation programme is only available for two years although we hope its impact will last a lot longer than that. So we’ll be seeking to spread the best ideas around the country and embed them in practice.
I’m under no illusions about the pressures you’re under to meet ever-growing demand for your services and I am genuinely grateful for all that you do. I only need to cast my mind back to some of the almost impossible situations social workers involved with my own family had to try and resolve over the last 30 years to appreciate the sacrifices you make in the pursuit of giving every child the protection, care and bright future they deserve.
But I’m also challenging you to do better, and offering you help and support if you want to step up and take it.
My hope is that we can work together to do this and give the most vulnerable children in our society what we want for own children - nothing but the best.