Importance of keeping Social Work political

A quick plug for   this piece I wrote for Community Care about why it’s important for social workers to be political.

Just as an addendum (because I had to keep within a word limit), I’d add that the Social Work Action Network (SWAN) whom I mention in the article have their annual conference in London next year.

I recommend it if you want to see collectively how social workers in the public sector can be political and build links with user organisations. It’s the only way I see our future as a profession.

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Returning to the Paralympics

Tower Bridge

On the day the Paralympics begin, I’m looking forward to ten days of excellent competition and sport. One of the things that brings me particular pleasure is the return to the Paralympic Games for athletes with learning disabilities. These athletes were involved in the Paralympic Games for the first time in 1996 only to be barred en masse in 2000 after a Spanish Basketball team were found to be cheating by entering athletes to compete who did not have learning disabilities.

The Paralympic movement felt that eligibility requirements for learning disabilities should be re-examined, at the cost of those athletes who did compete and work fairly through the process. It seems oddly perverse when those who did not cheat are punished more heavily by being removed from the competition than those who did.

And now, after 12 years of exclusion, the 2012 games will see the return of some top class athletes with learning disabilities although the return is limited at this point with competitors taking part only in athletics, table tennis and swimming.

One of the things to get used to with the Paralympics, if you are not already used to following, is the classification system which tries to ensure that there is a fair system of competition depending on the needs of particular athletes and so they are banded together into these ‘classifications’ which are explained on this BBC page.

The classification to look out for if you want to follow these athletes in the track and field  is T20 and F20 respectively. It is 11 in the table tennis and 14 in the swimming.

I’ve been lucky enough to get tickets to go to the swimming and athletics. My delight has been compounded by the fact that I’ll be in both venues to see these athletes compete at the highest level and will be able to add my voice to the thousands cheering for them and the additional battle against discrimination which has needed to be fought in the world of sport which is supposed to value fair play above all and has punished those who have competed fairly particularly hard through their exclusion for twelve long years.

Welcome back, T20, F20, S14 and TT11 – I’ve missed you.

I hope to see many more sports and events added for 2016

Picture by Gary Huston at Flickr

NHS trust advertises clinical post as unpaid internship

Working for nothing, it seems, is the new having a job. There’s currently an advert on the NHS Jobs website for an “honorary assistant psychologist”, for which the pay scheme is euphemistically described as “other”. [Hat tip: @DrPhilHammond]

We are seeking an enthusiastic and committed individual to join a community service within the Addictions & Offender Care Directorate. You will be based in a Substance Misuse team, a multi-disciplinary team, under the supervision of a Clinical Psychologist. You will need to be able to commit to working in an honorary capacity for at least two days per week for at least 6 months. We would look favourably on individuals who can make a greater commitment.

You must be willing to work with individuals with substance misuse problems, many of whom also have complex mental health needs. You must possess the relevant skills and attributes to facilitate service users to engage in the service. You must have a strong commitment to teamwork and be able to work sensitively within a culturally diverse environment.

The successful applicant will possess a degree in psychology, and be eligible for Graduate Basis for Registration with the British Psychological Society.

We offer regular, high quality, clinical supervision and strong professional support. The psychology department has close links with UCL, UEL and Royal Holloway DClinPsych courses.

Please Note: These are UNPAID positions.

Oh Lord, is this how it begins? The world of unpaid internships, sorry, “honorary” posts migrating over from business and the media into actual clinical roles in the NHS?

It’s perhaps unsurprising that it’s an assistant psychologist post that seems to have attracted this method. There’s lots of keen, bright psychology graduates out there desperately scrabbling about for a few jobs as assistant psychologists, which they hope in turn will make them more appointable to the fiercely competitive doctorate programmes in clinical psychology. Plenty of the nursing assistants and support workers I’ve worked with in mental health are psychology grads trying to get relevant experience. Quite a few of them eventually give up, and go back to university to train as mental health nurses.

In other words, a field where you’ve got a good chance of finding someone of sufficient quality who’ll do it for free.

No doubt it’ll save Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust a bit of cash, but it’s yet another kick in the teeth for social mobility. There’s going to be a lot of psychology graduates who won’t be able to apply for this – not because they aren’t good enough, but because they can’t afford to take two days off a week from stacking shelves at Poundland.  If this turns out to be the shape of things to come, this could be yet another deepening of class divisions where a whole slew of top jobs are simply closed off to everyone except the offspring of the wealthy. Welcome to the new aristocracy.

The Power of Death

As a health care worker and a nurse the probability that someone will die in your care is highly likely at some stage in your career. This is not something that we wish to happen of course but  we know it is possible especially  when the people that we care for might be very ill or very old. Helping people prepare for a good death however is not something we often discuss or research (except for the fantastic work carried out by Kubler Ross in the 1960s) and is something missing in today’s health and social care manifesto. The government of course want people to remain in their own homes for as long as possible because it is cheaper and many people when asked prefer to die at home. We are trying to make this last wish happen for people so that they can at least feel in control over what happens to them in death as well as in life. 

It is when people want to end their own lives prematurely that we struggle both morally and spiritually. For whatever reason some people decide that they have had enough, they cannot see anything changing and they want to get off this planet,  we refuse to help them plan their own endings.

In the story of life Buddhists teach that we should all prepare for a death in which there is least suffering. This means talking about it and even planning it. Two people have died this week  many miles apart but very close in spirit. Tony Nicklinson and Tony Scott both decided to take matters into their own hands when they could no longer see a way out of their predicament. This is the power of death – to end all suffering – for ever. But it does make me wonder every time I hear about these sad endings , had they been allowed or even encouraged to talk about  planning their own death – things might have been different and the stigma of dying in less dignified ways can be addressed. 

There is an urgent need for compassion around this taboo subject which  for many of us, is still difficult to grasp. 

Privatising or Pioneering Social Work Practices

Yesterday, I came across this article on the Community Care website about new pilot ‘independent social work practice’ set up as a social enterprise. It made me pause for thought and ponder a number of things about where social work is going and what social work is.

The article extols the wonder of the ‘Topaz’ team in Lambeth which is described as

One of the six independent social work practice pilots for adult services, it has £91,300 start-up funding from the Department of Health until August 2012.

and explains

The team has three core aims: early intervention, preventive work, and promoting people’s independence and wellbeing in the community. To keep funding next year, it has to show that this is keeping people at home for longer, which saves the council money in care home and nursing fees.

Working with local health services, voluntary, faith and community groups, the idea is to create more resilient communities and raise awareness of services within Lambeth.

People who were assessed in the previous year and deemed ineligible for services are contacted to review whether there has been a change in circumstances.

It sounds wonderful. Really it does. So this team looks at people who might be at the lower end of the ‘needs’ spectrum and works towards ways to prevent a future dependence. It sounds a little like some of the work some voluntary sector organisations like Age UK might have scope to do but the council have gone a different route through this social enterprise model.

Topaz, according to it’s websitealso provides support and guidance to those who are ‘self-funding’.

So why do I have to rain on this parade of wonder and innovation?

Firstly, it’s about my discomfort about the talk about ‘getting back to ‘real’ social work’. What does that mean? Is that disparaging to the current social workers in a statutory setting who don’t get have the same role regarding ‘cherry picking’ those who need to use the services. Or is community social work (which no doubt is very valuable) the only ‘real’ social work that goes on. There’s a little hint of superiority in that attitude that I find discomforting and disconcerting.

The Team Manager says

It’s about improving the image of social work, telling people what we do, how we can help, that we are not agents of control who take children away

Which is great, but you know, sometimes we are ‘agents of control who take children away’.

As I said, I think it sounds like a fantastic project but it employs social workers and pushing them out of local authority ‘bounds’ – it seems very benign and creative – but – I see it as the start of a slope to eventually push statutory functions outside the local authority control and most importantly, beyond the local authority democratic mandate. While that’s fine as long as you are working with people on the fringes of eligibility criteria and having picnics in the park with them, it may carry a very different status when involving more serious safeguarding issues that arise – indeed, that would be my question back to the Topaz team – how do they deal with safeguarding investigations? Do they go back to the local authority for that or hold them within the team themselves?

My other concern is the terms and conditions of those employed in the service – they are employed on locum type contracts – as the article says

No pension, sick pay, maternity leave or job security beyond next year might not sound like ideal terms and conditions. But for a group of pioneering social workers in Lambeth, the risks of working in a community interest company are worth taking because it’s enabling them to do use all of their social work skills.

Well, you know what? I believe I make full use of all my social work skills in the job I have now. And I have sick pay. Who’d have thought that should be something I should be surprised at expecting as a social worker.

And this team won a wonderful award last year in an award scheme which, like most, operate by either self-nomination or endorsement by senior managers. I can see why it is completely in Lambeth’s interest and the government’s interest to promote these social enterprise teams. I can see why they want to be presented as ‘pioneering’ but actually is this going forward or is it going backwards? Isn’t this about the roots of community social work so actually far from pioneering?

Perhaps I’m overly cynical. I do want more scope for social work in communities however I’m not convinced by this model and propaganda which brushes over working conditions and limited contracts will not help allay my scepticism.

Because my worry is that it is a slippery slope towards pushing essential services away from the democratic mandate and when the cuts come, these services which have been presented as the ‘pioneers’ will be the forerunners as far as models go but when the other core services follow, these will be the ones which will be the ones to go when the cuts come. And the cuts will come.

So tell me if I’m wrong or just over sceptical because I want to find hope in the future of social work but I don’t want to be blind to the risks that may exist if we embrace these ‘practices’ without critical thought.

Keeping up with Research while in Frontline Practice

Gizmo studies Maritime Law

Being based in an ‘integrated’ team alongside NHS staff, I have been frustrated at some of the differences in attitude towards conducting, assessing and discussion of current research as a frontline practitioner. However, this is a better situation to be in than when I was working in a social work team. At least now, I’m aware that there is a difference and by not being given particular time and space to access research articles and journals, I’m being impeded.

While I see colleagues being actively encouraged to undertake research projects, there are no possibilities ever raised for social workers to work in similar ways. This may be wholly about work culture and attitude to research by employers or it may be about professional attitudes to the importance of being updated regarding research but there is a noticeable difference.

I try to remedy this myself and while there will not be time to actively carry out any of the research projects I ponder about – there is nothing as frustrating as seeing the same evidence being published in different ways that tells us nothing that will actually make a difference to the way we practice – I limit myself to literature reviews and trying to keep myself updated with journal articles. Sometimes we discuss them as a team – sometimes I collate the information myself and keep notes on the articles I find. I may even publish some of these literature reviews as blog posts in the future if they would be useful to others.

I used to make considerable use of the British Journal of Social Work but seeing as my access to research literature is limited (possibly like many local authority social workers) to the SCIE (Social Care Institute of Excellence) Athens scheme and they no longer are able to subscribe to that journal, I have turned to other journals to find and source information that is useful to me. It makes me think less of a journal that would play political games with allowing access or not but it is a sharp and important lesson about the need for practitioners to have good access to information.

I have though through the SCIE scheme found

Aging and Society, Journal of Social Work Practice, Practice and the Mental Health Review Journal have been particularly useful for me. It’s worth checking out the resources available via SCIE as any social worker in England and Wales working for a local authority with a gov.uk email address can gain access to them.

The College of Social Work also enables Athens access for members if the email address is a problem but I believe the list of resources available are the same and there is still a block on the British Journal of Social Work being made available.

SCIE provide useful resources generally and RiPfA have some good outlines and policy updates which can be an excellent way to start discussions and conversations in a local service area. I don’t know much about Community Care Inform as it focuses on Children’s Services but it may be something useful if there were a parallel type service for adult social workers – indeed, I’d be happy to pay, individually, for just such a service.

As an AMHP (Approved Mental Health Professional) and a BIA (Best Interests Assessor)  it is crucial that I am constantly aware of both the latest developments in terms of case law and the new interpretations as they arise – I’d say that it is necessary for anyone working in Mental Health to have a good awareness and understanding of current interpretations of the Mental Health Act and the Mental Capacity Act.  I find the 39 Essex Street Court of Protection newsletters very useful to ensure that I am aware of the latest developments. although I do attend both formal and informal training and workshops regularly which focus specifically on case law in these areas.  It is the one area particularly that I find social media enormously helpful – not just in terms of awareness of cases as they arise but as opportunities to discuss them.

Even in the toughest, busiest teams we have to take responsibility for our own learning and ensuring that we do not leave the information and research evidence to pick up cobwebs in the ivory towers of academia. Being a practice educator helps with this as I encourage students to source and discuss recent, relevant research with me in supervision but also try and find some useful and interesting articles myself to discuss.

The benefits of being up to date and knowledgeable about current research are that firstly it encourages competent practice – I don’t think it’s possible to work in a silo of information and evidence that may have been presented when you (we) last studied formally, even if that was a year ago. Things change quickly.

An awareness of research can affect policy and the development of services – I’ve been able to feed into consultations both locally and nationally using references and information that I have gleaned from recent papers and it has added a more authoritative quality to my input. I’ve also been able to discuss and reflect in my own supervision sessions some of the disconnect between what might be positive ways of organising services and the ways things happen in practice.

It has also allowed me to garner a louder voice within the system in which I work. I can build a professional reputation as someone who will invest in my own learning and progress and when I have concerns about the way the organisation might be approaching something, I can back it with references, I’m far more likely to be taken seriously.

We want to create learning organisations but they have to be filled with learning practitioners and standing still is not an option. It doesn’t have to take significant amounts of time although it can if we want it to. It can be about reading through an article with an interesting title and reviewing it mentally before deciding.

One of the chief things I’ve learnt is that just because an article is presented in an academic journal, doesn’t mean it’s well-written or useful. We shouldn’t idolise academics as there is as great a variety in quality as there is in practitioners but there is no doubt that having an active interest in current academic research and debate is the next best thing to being able to be actively engaged in contributing to research.

Perhaps that’s the next step – one day I’d like to see more effort all round to integrate active research into practice but in the meantime I’ll make all the effort I can to ensure that my practice is current and informed.  It helps keep me hopeful and it helps keep me interested.

I’d love to know if anyone else out there has other information or resources that they use to make sure they keep up to date with research while practicing. It’s a vital way of keeping our knowledge fresh and active.

pic by jmatthew3 at Flickr