The excellent Protecting Our Children concluded on Monday evening. The practitioners and programme-makers deserve congratulations for an absorbing, honest and above all human depiction of contemporary social work to sit alongside the two Panorama programmes looking at children in care.
In all the meetings I’ve attended over the past three weeks, conversation has turned to the latest programme as soon as a lull in proceedings appeared and often when it didn’t. Generally it’s gone down very well, in sharp contrast to the scant few past series covering our world. I remember one dire effort that I think looked at a social work team in the north. Eminently forgettable, I nevertheless recall it began with a social worker guiltily shovelling down a giant doner kebab whilst at his desk then playing up to the camera in a manner that would have embarrassed David Brent. Gloomily we watched well-intentioned but ill-conceived and executed direct work with a young child and a succession of families unsure about what was happening.
Outside the profession I’m not sure what the impact has been. Ashamedly unscientific, but no one I know who is not a social worker has mentioned it to me. The one time when people have an opportunity to chat about my work, and nothing.
We’re all familiar with the ‘social worker at a party syndrome’. The dreaded, ‘and what do you do?’ followed by hesitation and a vacant look as the reply is digested. Best to move on. People at least take more time to consider their response these days, which is progress of a kind. When social work was getting an even worse press than it does now, I used to say I worked for the council. Safer that way.
Being a social worker is very handy if approached by a comedian, by the way. At a recent gig, lumbered in the front row, Rich Hall came my way looking for some sport. I told him that I worked with children in care who were fostered. He was visibly stunned, acknowledged how worthwhile that was and moved on. The perfect protection – no gags there. Try it next time you’re in a comedy club, works wonders. Unlike the guy at the other end of the row who told Rich he was ‘an independent social worker’. Two social workers, same gig, same row, what are the chances? Hall thought this a crazy concept and conjured up visions of this man approaching anyone he saw and counselling them or removing their children.
It’s hard to draw conclusions about the impact of Protecting Our Children on the perception of social work in society on the basis of my friends and family. In the Guardian last week, Terry Philpot persuasively argued that it cannot alter the public view of social work because the profession has no deep roots in society or in popular culture. There’s another related question – why don’t the public know in the first place?
One reason is that social work in general does media and PR appallingly badly. Also, we don’t have an organisation and/or figurehead that consistently speaks up for us and gets air-time. Then there’s fiction. We don’t have a cuddly TV series to soften the hard edges and provide a stream of gritty realism with happy endings. I’ve seen one or two draft scripts for popular dramas that include a social worker in an episode: the characters are laughable stereotypes, their actions far from good practice.
Another reason is that people think they know. They have a vague but laudable notion of social workers visiting, talking and, dare I say it, helping the vulnerable and sick. This is of course true, but there are other truths too. Even those who recognise the different role of taking children into care tend to have a similar core view – I could do that. The reason that people say they would prefer not to relates to the emotional level (“I couldn’t possibly do what you do, I’d get too upset”) rather than the skills required. The vast majority do not realise even the basic point that our role with children and adults is framed by legislation.
Because they think they know, most people don’t wish to find out more. Add this to the perception that anyone could do it and the profession is fatally undermined. The current government calls for more common sense in fostering and adoption assessments, not greater professionalism or expertise. We’re not far from Virginia Bottomley’s force of streetwise grannies.
The main reason however is that the public don’t want to know. Uniquely amongst the professions, social work exposes a side of society that is deeply embedded but which the public would prefer did not exist. Peter Connolly suffered in the midst of a community and there are other children suffering in a similar manner at this precise moment. Older people are dying lonely, forgotten and ill-cared for in the midst of plenty. Social work holds up a mirror to our society and most turn away. We, those in the profession, have no choice but to stand and stare.
What the public want are nice easy solutions. Even the profession itself buys into it. The highest profile long-running fundraising campaign in social care, the NSPCC’s ‘Full Stop’ to child abuse, perpetuates the myth that a solution exists to a problem that has been going on ever since there were children. Good tag line, simple hard-hitting message plus a dinky little green lapel badge, it’s a PR marketing dream. It’s one of the few campaigns recognised by the notoriously insular Premier League, whose players once a year dress up in t-shirts pre-match and the managers ruin their ludicrously expensive suits with the badge. The other one is ‘Kick Out Racism’, and look how well that’s gone lately. Won’t make a blind bit of difference. The public need to know that.
Protecting Our Children will at least be a reference point if we who value the significance of our role want to stand up for ourselves. However, the reality is that our job is getting tougher. Social workers are at the front end of the cuts. We have to explain to the public that the services they want and that we would wish to provide aren’t there any more. It will take some television programme to overcome that.