The right values, skills and attributes
Social workers need to be confident in applying their professional value base, in making decisions with young people and families, in being creative, in taking risks and in learning from mistakes.
Challenges we face
A solid grounding in social care law, practices and theories is central to good social work practice with young people with learning disabilities. More important still is having a set of attributes and values that, combined with the benefits of in-depth knowledge, can help young people work towards their life goals.
Bureaucratic social workOpen
Whatever values social workers bring into the profession, the young people and families we spoke to as part of this project too often fed back that humanity and compassion were absent in their interactions with social workers, to be replaced instead by a bureaucratic, gate-keeping mindset which creates a barrier between professional and client.
While many social workers will recognise the dynamic by which their better selves are chipped away by the demands of their work, what was even more worrying to hear from people engaging with social workers was that there can also be a lack of honesty and transparency.
Lack of transparencyOpen
Too many young people and families said that social workers would make promises that they did not then keep. Often, families suspected, this was because the social workers were uncomfortable about sharing unwelcome news: about how long a wait there might be; about how a care package may not cover everything that was hoped for; or about the simple unavailability of a necessary service. No one likes breaking bad news, but the very least young people and their loved ones have the right to expect is a social worker who can be open and honest about what lies ahead.
The notion of there being a transitions cliff-edge, in which services drop off sharply when someone enters adulthood, is a familiar one, and there may be an element of truth to it in many areas. Whatever the options for supporting people at the cliff-edge, pretending it is not there is surely the worst.
Lack of confidenceOpen
Any lack of frankness here is perhaps a matter of confidence. Another theme to come through in our sessions with young people and families was that of the unconfident practitioner. Often, this manifested itself as not being able to agree to anything without checking with managers, a habit which inevitably builds delay into a system which many families already experience as frustratingly slow. Where funding decisions need to be made, this check with people higher up the hierarchy is predictable (although many local authorities have made progress in delegating some funding decisions to the front line), but where the checking is for practice decisions, families expressed frustration that social workers did not feel able to act on their own authority.
Clearly, there is a balance to be considered here. Supervision (and other systems whereby staff can test out and debate practice decisions) are important parts of social work, and need to be preserved and encouraged. But there is a sense from the people we have spoken to that some social workers are operating in systems that have become so risk averse that they feel somewhat paralysed, and only able to move forward when they have checked in with a manager.
Because many social workers in the transition area will lack experience of working with either children or adults, people often come to this sector of social work feeling unconfident, for the reasons we have explored in Underpinning knowledge. We spoke, for example, with experienced adult social workers feeling deskilled by having to grapple with local education systems, or needing to get quickly to grips with EHCPs. The NSW project also highlighted the issue of social workers feeling unconfident within multidisciplinary teams, related to perceived disparities in status with health colleagues.
Making it better
The issue of confidence is clearly closely linked to that of knowledge (Underpinning knowledge). If a social worker knows their ground in relation to people’s legal entitlements, and their legal duties, then they can act with more assurance; a virtuous cycle can develop in which effective interactions breed more confidence for future work.
Good quality management support is necessary for confident practitioners to develop. This is especially true when working with newly-qualified workers, including those in their Assessed and Supported Year in Employment (ASYE), but it applies for all staff. As we have seen, even experienced social workers can find transitions working challenging, and it should in any case be non-negotiable that any practitioner is properly buttressed by supervision, appraisal and expedient support.
Work on which Innovation Unit led during the NSW pilots made interesting points about the notion of a confident practitioner. The pilots demonstrated that some social workers, perhaps used to feeling like junior partners in multidisciplinary settings, were empowered by being part of a government-backed initiative, and being given the specific title of NSW. People spoke of the sense of the permission that the role, and the programme, gave them to try things and to speak more assuredly in joint planning meetings. Giving social workers a higher profile led to greater confidence.
I feel confident in challenging other professionals, and enjoy this. Saying:Named Social Worker, Bradford
Can you explain to me why?, and giving advice like
We need to be looking at it like this, from the individual’s point of view.
With the NSW pilots behind us, then, how can social work departments, managers and practitioners themselves, ensure that social workers feel able to speak up, and to try different approaches?
Social work valuesOpen
We have looked at the issue of being well-informed, and the effect this has on confidence. But social workers also need to recognise the unique contribution they bring to any discussion about a young person’s life. Social workers have a value base which prioritises human rights, and is reflected in the definition of social work, as published by the International Federation of Social Workers, and brought into UK practice in the Code of Ethics of the British Association of Social Work (BASW):
Social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work. Underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and indigenous knowledge, social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing.International Federation of Social Workers, 2014
Understanding that social work is an established academic and practice discipline, with a profoundly important value base that supports and empowers people in times of change, can help practitioners recognise what they do as being much more than gate-keeping scarce local authority resources, and can encourage them, as the NSW work showed, to work in more creative ways. The pilot programme involved surveying social workers, and the effect on the staff was clear:
The impact of the programme on social workers has been overwhelmingly positive, with people consistently reporting higher levels of knowledge and confidence, feeling more satisfied with their work and feeding back that the NSW label brought greater visibility, authority and respect to their role as a social worker.Innovation Unit and Social Care Institute for Excellence, 2018
Creative social work and making mistakesOpen
But of course, permission to work creatively has nothing inherently to do with any government programme. It should be a fundamental strand running through what social work teams do, particularly teams supporting young people preparing for adulthood. People’s whole adult lives can be shaped for the better if social workers are confident enough to try new things. This will require professionals to be confident enough to deal with mistakes as well.
Adolescence is a time in which people experiment and sometimes, inevitably, fail. Good transition social work involves celebrating young people’s successes, but not treating any missteps as grounds for closing down further opportunities. A young adult with learning disabilities might well, for example, make ill-judged choices about who to spend their time with; but if safeguarding alerts arise from those choices, it may not be the best response for that to lead to a lifetime in residential care. People must be given the chance to learn and develop, and social workers have an important role to play in this.
Alongside this, simply supporting young people as they change their minds about the sort of adulthood they want can be useful to young people with learning disabilities, who are perhaps no clearer about their futures at 18 than any other teenager.
Promoting wellbeing and independence Open
What is evident, therefore, is that it is not enough to know the Care Act and the Mental Capacity Act; social workers need to be imbued with the right attitudes in order to make real the promises of these laws: that people’s wellbeing is the paramount concern for social workers, and that people can determine their own choices and outcomes. The social worker’s role is to support and enable people. It cannot be to accept quietly an austerity-driven minimisation of support, but nor should it be to over-involve a local authority in people’s lives and decisions. It should be about encouraging whatever level of independence and development is right for each person, and providing young people and families with the tailored support they need – be that in the form of services, advice, information or a listening ear.
It is highly skilled work to get this right in any setting; perhaps it is all the more challenging in transitions work, where young people with learning disabilities may not have the experience of decision-making, and where their families are familiar with a framework in which parents get to make decisions on behalf of their children – a framework which ends at 16, with the presumption of capacity to make decisions under the Mental Capacity Act. We looked in Underpinning knowledge at how social workers in the children’s and adults’ parts of the social work system work with different laws, and how this can affect the attitudes they bring to their work. To draw it crudely, children’s legislation focuses on the protection of the child; laws relating to adults promote independence. A social worker needs to be able to engage and encourage a young person to plan for their future, while supporting families to adjust to their child becoming their adult child.
Again, the ability to understand adolescence as a phase is important; it is too stark to declare, when a young person turns 16, or 18, that they can now make all their own decisions. Legally, this may be the case, but most young people will still want the support and input of their parents – often well into adulthood – and social workers need to be able to support families through what should be a gradual process of maturation, not an overnight either/or switch from dependency to autonomy.
Managing anxiety Open
Creating an environment in which young people do make their own decisions – and therefore mistakes – brings with it anxiety, for the social worker, their employer, the young person themselves and often for their family as well. Holding, managing and navigating that anxiety is a core skill for social workers in this area.
I feel I can trust what she says, she has explained everything in a way that I understand, no empty promises were made. This has not been my previous experience and I wish I had had her years ago.Carer, Stockport
As with any skill, it needs to be practised and nurtured by more experienced colleagues; and social workers need to be allowed to get it wrong sometimes as well, without undue criticism or punishment as a consequence. It takes time to work with young people with learning disabilities to promote their independence, while also building the trust of their family. And so the integrity and transparency of the social worker are key – without them, trust is damaged, and the scope to take risks as a team (of young person, parents, and professionals) is whittled away.
If honesty is a core attribute, so too is friendliness. Repeatedly, when we asked young people what they wanted from a social worker, friendliness and politeness were mentioned. Turning up on time, listening, and not being bossy: these are basics, but – we were told – are fundamental to developing a good social work relationship.
Our social worker has excellent communication skills. We were both set at ease and we felt that he had empathy and understanding at a time when I felt that no one else did. My mood has lifted considerably since he became involved.Carer, Stockport
- A well-established system of peer support, expedient and formal supervision, and appraisal is necessary for confident practitioners to develop.
- Staff with an understanding of the value base of social work, and what it brings to multidisciplinary settings and to work with young people, will be able to operate more assuredly.
- Services should develop a culture in which it is recognised that young people will make mistakes, and in which they can learn from those mistakes without the rest of their lives being shaped by risk-averse practices.
- A culture should also be developed in which it is recognised that social workers will make mistakes, and in which they can learn from those mistakes without the rest of their careers being shaped by risk-averse practices.
- Social workers need to embed human rights into their practice, to ensure that laws based on people’s rights, such as the Mental Capacity Act and the Care Act, are fully implemented.
- Social workers need the skills to support decision-making and autonomy in the young people they are supporting, while balancing this with the needs of parents and carers.
- Basic human and professional skills of politeness, empathy and transparency are the foundation stones of good professional practice.
Resources: guidance and tools
- Learning 4 leadership at transition: general advice for planning your own leadership sessions (Foundation for People With Learning Disabilities, 2011)
- Queen’s Nursing Institute transitions from children to adult community services e-learning (Queen’s Nursing Institute)
- Strengths-based approach: practice framework and practice handbook (Department of Health and Social Care, 2019)
- Strengths-based social care for children, young people and their families (SCIE, 2018)
- Supporting staff who work with young people preparing for adult life: a guide (Preparing for Adulthood, 2017)
- Transition to adulthood (Skills for Care)