5th Edition July 14th, 2020 Charlotte Pitt

Working better together: How do we build stronger relationships between social workers and people using services?

The relationship between social workers and those who use services has been described as both the “cornerstone” of practice (Alexander and Grant 2009, p. 6) and the “heart of social work” (Ruch et al. 2010, p. 1). When individuals are asked what is important to them when engaging with services, a recurring theme endures: the quality of their relationship with their social worker is paramount. Despite this consensus numerous commentators have emphasised the need to ensure that relationships remain at ‘the heart’ of practice (Ruch et al. 2010, especially in the climate of austerity (Featherstone et al. 2014; Hingley-Jones and Ruch 2016). Furthermore, this is especially pertinent given the current situation we find ourselves in with the added pressures and new challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic (Golightley and Holloway 2020).

Whilst many points made in this essay may be relevant to other areas, the focus will be on social work with children and families. When researching this area it was impossible to ignore the interconnectedness between the personal and the environmental, the individual and the collective. To navigate this I have developed a model presented in Figure 1, loosely based on Bronfenbrenner’s (1992) ecological systems theory.  

Figure 1: Model of factors impacting relationship-based social work

To address the question of how we build better relationships, I thought it would first be useful to consider what constitutes a strong relationship. The centre therefore represents the basic ingredients of a positive relationship as identified by children and families in various research studies (Ridley et al. 2013; Oliver 2010; Hill 1999). In essence children and families say they want their social worker to: stay the same (if it’s positive), be around when they need them, to care about them, to have mutual trust and to involve them in decisions that affect them. I will discuss each of these.


Having the same social worker is crucial if a meaningful relationship is to flourish particularly for individuals who have experienced inconsistent personal and professional relationships in the past  (). Unfortunately due to a high staff turnover we know this stability and continuity is difficult to preserve (Longfield 2018). This picture also features alongside reliance on agency staff which further compounds inconsistent care (Solem et al. 2020). These themes have been identified in serious case reviews which clearly highlights not only the importance in providing quality service but crucially in keeping children safe (Solem et al. 2020). Whilst more can be done systemically to address staff turnover is it important to acknowledge that we need to approach this issue in a relational way. To promote stronger relationships it therefore becomes important that relationships are seen as a ‘phased process’ making sure that transitions between one worker and another are not only limited but also caring and sensitive.

Accessibility and time

Relationships cannot be expected to grow if they do not have the time or if social workers are not available. This is affected by high caseloads, strict timescales and bureaucratic demands (Ferguson 2014). An observational study following social workers on home visits to children on the child protection register highlighted how often the “system needs triumphed” over more compassionate work with families (Ferguson 2014 p. 289).  As social workers we need to become more ‘visible’ by placing ourselves within communities. This again needs to be meaningful and adaptive to where people are. A good example of this is a recent pilot of social workers being placed within schools gaining further government funding (What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care 2020). If relationships are forged this could make interactions with social workers the mainstream rather than a shameful and embarrassing experience for children. This community-based work could help to build strong relationship with children, families and teaching staff. Additionally, direct work is often now referred on for specific agencies to complete which perhaps misses an opportunity for further strengthening the relationship. Furthermore direct work is something that social workers have expressed that they want to do more but unfortunately are dominated by bureaucratic tasks (BASW England 2018).


Involving children and families in decision-making about their own lives is considered central to effective practice (Diaz 2018). This is about working ‘with’ individuals rather than ‘doing to’. A good platform for this to be enabled is Family Group Conferences (Brown 2007). It is important however that participation is encouraged in a meaningful way rather than tokenistic: not as a one-off but as part of a wider picture of involvement (Diaz 2018).

Empathy and trust

Empathy is about being able to understand and share feelings of the person you are supporting. Forrester et al. (2007) recommended the potential in social work adopting skills from the field of counselling in facilitating more empathetic work. Like the other elements listed above, trust in the social work relationship is affected by a number of wider factors. Many commentators agree that the media portrayal of workers as ‘child snatchers’ has negatively impacted public trust in the profession (Westwood 2007).  Trust is closely linked to the second layer of the circle which highlights the psychological space in between the social worker and individual. For example a previously negative experience with social services may impact a family’s initial willingness to engage. Having an awareness of these issues and by striving to understand and reflect on the social issues people are facing are crucial to relationship-based practice (Featherstone et al. 2018).

The wider picture

The outer layer and one concept in particular has featured throughout the discussion of barriers to relational practice: neoliberalism. Neoliberalism can be understood broadly as an economic theory which favours free markets, individualism, reduced public spending and privitisation (Spolander 2014). Private sector principles of performance indicators, cost-effectiveness and targets have been adopted by policymakers and enforced upon the social work profession. As shown the impact of this for relationship-based practice is significant with the increasing pressure on practitioners to meet deadlines, undertake assessments and meet targets instead of focussing on the ‘quality’ of the interaction.

To further address the question, I am proposing that to ensure relationships are placed at the ‘heart’ of practice we need to acknowledge the elephant in the room; politics. I agree with Fraser’s et al. (2017,p. 1) proposition that “social workers need to re/politicize their purpose”. To do this, avenues for change need to be forged. More integration between Universities and Trade Unions should be encouraged. Universities could go further than encouraging awareness and knowledge about structural factors and politics but support students think about ways in which this can be acted upon. Also, the linguistics of  ‘radical’ social work may also want to be reconceived instead as ‘standard’ practice; there shouldn’t be anything extreme about standing up for what is right. Perhaps if it is viewed as part of our role then it will seem more imaginable that wider change is possible.

Currently we are living through a global pandemic due to COVID-19 which has perhaps shone a light upon politics and how it directly affects us all. The tragic murder of George Floyd has invoked a series of protests and social media campaigns to challenge wider systemic racism that exists not only in the US but worldwide. Maybe now is the time for social workers to engage more with politics and structural inequalities that affect them and the people they are trying to support.

“Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much” (Helen Keller)

Charlotte Pitt, Social Work Student, University of Cardiff


BASW England. 2018. 80-20 Campaign: How much ‘direct’ time do social workers spend with children and families? Children’s Commissioner’s Office.

Bronfenbrenner, U. 1992. Ecological systems theory. In: R. Vasta. eds. Six theories of child development: Revised formulations and current issues. Jessica Kingsley Publishers: London, pp. 187–249.

Brown, L. 2007. The Adoption and Implementation of a Service Innovation in a Social Work Setting – a Case Study of Family Group Conferencing in the UK. Social Policy and Society 6(3), pp. 321-332.

Diaz, C. 2018. A study into children and young people’s participation in their Child in Care Reviews. PhD Thesis, Cardiff University.

Featherstone, B. et al. 2014. Re-imagining child protection: Towards Humane Social Work with Families. Policy Press: Bristol.

Featherstone, B. et al. 2018. Protecting Children: A Social Model. Policy Press: Bristol.

Ferguson, H. 2014. What social workers do in performing child protection work: evidence from research into face-to-face practice. Child and Family Social Work 21(3), pp. 283-294.

Forrester, D. et al. 2007. Communication skills in child protection: how do social workers talk to parents? Child and Family Social Work 13(1), pp. 41-51.

Fraser, H. et al. 2017. Is there a renaissance of radical social work? Editorial. Aoteroa New Zealand Social Work 29(2), pp. 1-15.

Gibson, M. 2019. The shame and shaming of parents in the child protection process: findings from a case study of an English child protection service. Families, Relationships and Societies, pp. 1-17. DOI: 10.1332/204674318X15447907611406

Golightley, M. and Holloway, M. 2010. Social Work in the Time of the COVID-19 Pandemic: All in This Together? British Journal of Social Work 50(3), pp. 637–641.

Hill, M. 1999. What’s the problem? Who can help? The perspectives of children and young people on their well-being and on helping professionals. Journal of Social Work Practice 13 (2), pp. 135-145.

Longfield, A. 2018 Stability Index 2018: Overview and Findings. Children’s Commissioner.

Oliver, C. 2010. Children’s views and experiences of their contact with social workers: A focused review of the evidence. Children’s Workforce Development Council. Available at: [Accessed 4 June 2020].

Ridley, J. 2013. Investing in the relationship: practitioners’ relationships with looked‐after children and care leavers in Social Work Practices. Child and Family Social Work, pp.55-64.

Ruch, G. 2010. Relationship-based Social Work: Getting to the Heart of Practice. Jessica Kingsley Publishers: London.

Solem et al. 2020.  A study of serious case reviews between 2016 and 2018: what are

the key barriers for social workers in identifying and responding to child neglect? Journal of Children’s Services 15 (1). pp. 1-14.

Spolander, G. 2014. The implications of neoliberalism for social work: Reflections from a six-country international research collaboration. International Social Work 57(4), pp. 301–312.

Strier, R. 2019. Resisting Neoliberal Social Work Fragmentation: The Wall-to-Wall Alliance. Social Work 64(4), pp. 339–345.

Westwood, J. L. 2012. Media and Social Work. In: Worsely, A. et al. Key Concepts in Social Work Practice. SAGE Publishers: London, pp. 137-141.

What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care. 2020. New funding announced to evaluate school-based interventions to improve outcomes for children and young people with social workers. Available at: [Accessed 5 June 2020].

5th Edition July 14th, 2020 Christian Kerr

Pennies in the karma bank? Big philanthropy, English social work reform and the neoliberal bind

This article expands on themes and topics I introduced in a recent webinar on privatisation and marketisation in children’s social care.

Neoliberalism is a label often lazily applied, which has not been helpful. However, discussion about contemporary social work cannot ignore the impact of the neoliberal turn on practice, policy, working conditions in social care and, crucially, on the lives of those we hope and aim to support. Within the debate about privatisation and marketisation, usually held to be key signifiers of neoliberalisation, relatively little attention has been given to the influence of global big business on social work and social care reform. As a result, there has been little critical exploration of the potential implications of this for social work practice and policy.

A key example of big money’s incursion into English social work is Frontline, the Department for Education (DfE) funded child protection social work fast track training scheme. During Frontline’s gestation, strategy consulting firm Boston Consulting Group (BCG) ‘volunteered to step in and give Josh [MacAlister, Frontline’s chief executive] the ‘nuts and bolts’ support (resources and expertise) to turn his idea into reality’. The pro bono support Frontline has received from BCG has increased in monetary terms year on year — £200k worth in 2015–16£230k worth in 2016–2017, and £235k in 2017-2018. An annual report for 2018-2019 is yet to be published so it is not known whether that trend continues.

BCG is one of the largest management consultancies in the world, with a total annual revenue of $8.5 billion (2019-2020). It has extensive connections to the public and private sectors worldwide, consulting on everything from education to agriculture to defence procurement. BCG’s business offer is knowledge and expertise in literally every aspect of modern commerce and the societies in which it occurs. Frontline touts BCG as one of its ‘founding partners’. BCG partner and Managing Director, Jacob Rosenzweig, is currently a trustee of Frontline, as is Rosenzweig’s predecessor, Craig Baker.

BCG’s extensive business interests include UK government contracts totalling many millions of pounds, including consulting and advising on Brexit. In 2018, in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Kashoggi, Senator Elizabeth Warren called on BCG and other consultancies to answer questions about their roles in providing services to the Saudi regime. BCG supports the Saudi government with numerous projects, including education, the development of a highly ambitious futuristic mega-city and defence procurement – that latter while Saudi Arabia regularly conducts air strikes against Yemeni civilians. In 2019, BCG was implicated in the Luanda Leaks scandal, when the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists produced evidence that the firm, along with other Wall Street management consultancies including McKinsey, KPMG and PwC (all of which also key players in UK public sector reform) had facilitated the capture of Angolan state assets by Isobel dos Santos, daughter of Angola’s former President.

It is notable that Andrew Adonis and Michael Gove, who were both instrumental in the genesis of Frontline, have links to BCG – Adonis is a former BCG education advisor while Gove’s former special advisor, Jamie Hunt, held a consultancy role with BCG. Gove’s register of interests contains four references to him having ‘received direct help in research development from the Boston Consulting Group’ (though it does not say what that help was). Even cursory internet searches combining the names of key government figures and special advisors, past and present, with ‘Boston Consulting Group’ reveal the extent to which BCG is enmeshed in our governmental apparatus.

Frontline has a plethora of other corporate partners from which it receives cash donations. This is known as ‘corporate social responsibility’ (CSR) – philanthropic activity by global big money in the form of tax-sheltered social change schemes. More recently, CSR has morphed into the explicitly more interventionist ‘corporate statesmanship’ – big business CEOs having decided that with their great power comes the entitlement to actively intervene in public affairs.

The lineage of Frontline clearly indicates the direction of travel for social work and social work education in the UK. The template for Frontline is Teach First, an English fast track teacher training scheme which is based on the Teach for America programme that over the last 30 years has grown to be a major force in education reform in the US.  The largest private funder of Teach for America are the owners of supermarket giant, Walmart, through their Walton Family Foundation, whose £20m donation in 2013 came with a condition that trainees placed in public (state) schools would attract less funding per head than those placed in charter schools (analogous to our academies) – $4000 and $6000 respectively – a pertinent example of how corporate donors influence the focus of social change movements. Like Frontline, Teach First is generously funded by the DfE while also being funded and backed by many corporate partners, notably management consultancies Deloitte and PwC, transnational bank Credit Suisse and outsourcer Accenture. Again, it is reasonable to ask: what is in it for them? Even a passing look at, for example, BCG’s business links to the Saudi regime and its role in the Luanda Leaks scandal would appear to put the lie to these connections being attributable to simple altruism. Pennies in the karma bank? Or concerted effort to advance private business interests in the public sector?

It is hardly a revelation that global corporations are frequently involved in morally questionable activities. Few, if any, of us can claim moral purity in respect of our own direct and indirect relationships and intertwinements with such organisations. What does your bank get up to with your money? Is your university free of links to the global arms trade? What contracts does your employer have with global consultancies? How do you benefit from these links? The triumph of neoliberalism is to make us all complicit, even if many of us do not know it. We are all neoliberals now, because we are all of us enmeshed in systems in which the advancement of neoliberalist ideas and interests is hardwired. As much as it is anything, neoliberalism is a permeating worldview — a seductive set of ideas and reflexes, remarkably efficient at spreading, replicating and adapting itself to any context. The success of neoliberalism in becoming the dominant organising principle in Western societies derives from its ability to enlist, co-opt and colonise other ideas and movements in order to turn them to its own ends. English social work, ever on the lookout for new ideas to help in its mission to solve social troubles and already well down the path of corporatisation, is ripe for such co-option.

But our complicity, witting or not, is no reason not to challenge the regime. In fact, it makes it all the more urgent and necessary. The answer to the inequity and injustice that beset lives and communities is surely not to ladle on more of the stuff that caused those things in the first place. The rhetoric of saviourism that surrounds fast track course like Frontline are the problem, not the solution. To be truly anti-discriminatory and anti-racist, people with privilege (and I include myself in this) first need to get out of the way and then advance, before their own, the rights and interests of those with less privilege. Put simply, people need allies, not saviours. And those of us with privilege need to put the work in to get alongside, collaborate, and do with, not to, those in need of social support.

It is unprecedented for an English social work training programme to be part-founded by a global management consultancy andto have the backing of no less than four of the largest and most powerful law firms in the world. The scale and scope of these firms, and the operations of unfettered business logic driving them, means the taint of something unsavoury is never far away. Take, for example, BCG’s connections to the Trump administration. Senior BCG adviser, Ron Nicol, was a member of Trump’s transition team. BCG’s CEO, Rich Lesser, chose to remain on Trump’s Strategic and Policy Forum following the announcement of Executive Order 13769, otherwise known as the Muslim travel ban, even as others, such as Uber’s then-CEO Travis Kalanick – hardly a moral paragon himself – resigned from the Forum following the widespread adverse public fallout. More recently, Trump announced his intent to nominate BCG Associate Director, Bradley Hansell, a ‘recognized expert in strategy [who] serves as a leader in the North American Public Sector practice’ as Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security. A key question, given recent and ongoing events that have exposed the deep-rooted racial inequalities in Western societies, is how any of this squares with Frontline’s seemingly new-found commitment to anti-racism, as set out in its recently-produced Racial Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan. Will this plan extend to Frontline condemning BCG’s involvement with the overtly racist Trump presidency? Or will Frontline, much as BCG itself avoids taking a stance on Trump’s particular brand of reckless nationalism, continue to publicly ignore the (white) elephant in the room?

While recognising we are all of us caught in the invidious compromise of neoliberalism, it is still legitimate to ask, given these organisations’ records, why Frontline has actively sought and continues to partner with firms and corporations whose conduct – as becomes clearer with each successive scandal – runs starkly counter to social work values. What have such firms to offer an English social work training scheme? What do they receive in return? And, given the litany of questionable practices, at what cost to the public trust in the profession?

Christian Kerr is a social worker.




5th Edition July 14th, 2020 Dave Collins

The Profession’s Pièce de Résistance as an Act of Resistance: The Use of Art in Social Work

No Play Today’ by the Author. Acrylic on Canvas. June 2020.

It has been heartening to see a variety of creative submissions in this online Magazine. Poems, creative writing, video, and cartoons have added to the richness of analysis of the current pandemic and affirm social work as a creative profession. Of particular note to me was Dr Ariane Critchley and Dr Autumn Roesh-Marsh’s article (2020) on the importance of poetry as a response to the impact of the virus, which highlighted the role it plays in expressing emotion, seeking understanding, and as a means of reflection. There has been an abundance of creative output throughout the world during the lockdown. Many have turned to artistic endeavours as a means of occupying their time, working through fears and anxieties, communicating with others, and even as a means of escapism. All this at a time when the arts have been decimated by social distancing, with many of those in the creative business having lost not only face-to-face engagement with their audiences, but also their livelihoods. However, you cannot keep the creative spirit down for long. Many galleries and museums have opened their doors to virtual tours, art forums have thrived, and do-it-yourself art exhibitions have emerged across the world. Nevertheless, a point made by Critchly and Roesh-Marsh particularly resonated with me: poetry (and de facto the arts in a wider sense) can play a role in political resistance and giving witness to the truth.

Since the publication of Hugh England’s seminal book ‘Social Work as Art’ in 1986, I have followed debates about the relationship between the arts and social work. England mounted a spirited defence of the creative, intuitive and self-expressive notions of social work practice against a rising tide of hard scientific empiricism, proceduralism and managerialism. He posed the question ‘can the arts … offer a paradigm for knowledge and practice in social work?’ (ibid.: 83). Answering this question remains important, particularly as social workers carry out their interventions in a climate of neoliberalism and challenging public sector economics, where creativity is ill-defined and related to the managerialist mantra of ‘doing more with less’.

Central to the debate is the threat neoliberalism and managerialism pose to the profession’s aspiration of promoting social change, social cohesion, the need for collectivisation, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Schubert and Gray (2015:1351) stress that managerialism and a prevailing risk aversiveness have ‘squeezed out room for creativity’. Social workers’ experience of working within codified, prescriptive and bureaucratic systems can have a diminishing effect on their creative abilities. Creative thinking is generally only permitted within the limits of the administrative and institutional frameworks of social work service. Nonetheless, social workers continue to be creative, and empower those they support to be creative, with little resources and sometimes in hostile situations. Could this be due to our creative selves being irrepressible and enduring, even in challenging circumstances? In his book ‘The Origins of Creativity’ eminent evolutionary biologist and naturalist Edward O Wilson firmly maintains that human creativity is innate to us, and is a defining feature of our species (Wilson 2017). However, in social work terms, being creative is often seen as an act of doing, rather than a part of personal and professional identity. I think that being creative should be seen as more than an act or activity: it should be central to the professional identity of the social worker.

There are numerous examples of socially engaged art across the world where artists and communities have co-authored and co-produced creative projects, environments and social interactions. Moxley et al. (2012) profile several projects involving communities, social workers and artists, giving people voices and the opportunity to engage in empowering collaborations and social betterment. These projects explore themes such as women and homelessness, positive aging, and environmental design. Several social work courses, including those at my own university, work with local theatre companies to explore supervision, social work interventions, and the application of theory to practice. For example, the Geese Theatre Company make effective use of masks, which powerfully evoke critical reflexivity and reflection. Responding to the pandemic, many homes have been transformed into art galleries, showcasing rainbows, and personalised expressions of thanks to key workers; such messages foster community networks and support. Artist Shaun Leonardo has used performance to argue for prison reform as coronavirus has devastated prison populations. Media activists in Brazil, Perú, South Sudan and elsewhere are sharing public health information in their communities in the form of comics, videos or cartoons. During lockdown, artist Pablo Helguera has produced a singing telegram service delivered via Zoom, to increase connections and respond to loneliness and grief. These are only a few examples of artistic outpourings, but in this context, socially engaged artists are presenting social agendas, taking their practice outside institutional systems, and placing themselves in direct engagement with audiences in public spaces to address social and political matters. Although we need time to assimilate the recent developments in art and culture, some think that the pandemic has significantly reshaped notions of ‘culture’ from a previously inaccessible and elitist domain.

There is a connection between the arts and radical social work in more provocative terms, to trouble, antagonise, frustrate and subvert dominant social structures and power imbalances, and to unravel and reveal political hegemony (Chul Kim 2017). The arts present many faceted perspectives. The use of visual, verbal and written metaphor engages with matters that are not easily quantified or understood. The arts also provide an openness that offers opportunities for different interpretations and multiple readings, engaging us in social and political dialogues and debates. At such a time of profound social change presented by the pandemic and recent events that have precipitated ‘Black Lives Matter’, these qualities help us on our journey and enable us to resist structural inequality and oppression. The arts support us by enhancing our critical skills, so that we can achieve more certainty about the experienced world, how it is expressed, and how it can be changed. Socially engaged arts can be contentious and controversial. Nevertheless, like others, I believe that social work, and its emancipatory ambitions, can be reinvigorated by exploring its relationship with socially engaged arts practice. Vive la résistance!

David Collins, Senior Lecturer, Birmingham City University


Chul Kim, H. (2017). A Challenge to the Social Work Profession? The Rise of Socially Engaged Art and a Call to Radical Social Work. Social Work.62(4):305‐311

England, H. (1986). Social work as art: making sense for good practice. London: Allen and Unwin.

Moxley, D. P., Feen-Calligan, H. and Washington, O. G. M. (2012). Lessons learned from three projects linking social work, the arts, and humanities. Social Work Education. 31(6):703-723.

Schubert, L. and Gray, M. (2015). The death of emancipatory social work as art and birth of socially engaged art practice. British Journal of Social Work, 45(4):1349-56.

Wilson, E. O. (2017). The origins of creativity. London, Allen Lane.

5th Edition July 14th, 2020 Dominic Watters

Food insecurity and social work: Reflections from my placement

The setting of my first social work placement was a local authority contracted scheme that provides accommodation for young people with high support needs (the scheme). What brought these young people to live together is a shared experience of state involvement in their childhood and the local authority’s duty to house them under section 20 of the Children Act 1989. Their presence in the scheme has been a consequence of unique experiences of neglect, abuse, trauma, loss, and marginalisation. All of the resident service users receive state benefits in differing but limited amounts. The key workers at the scheme arranged up to five visits a year to the local food bank when requested although predominantly the residents relied on weekly collections of food with little or no re-sale value from supermarkets and local businesses. I will to focus on the dynamics of a particular weekly food surplus collection as this I will argue illustrates many salient issues around power and food insecurity. Defining food insecurity in the journal International Social Work, Burgess and Shier draw on a definition provided by the United Nations as follows:

‘Food insecurity refers to a situation where individuals have inadequate access to the resources that are necessary for a nutritious diet (Burgess and Shier, 2018, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations [FAO], 2015).’

Food insecurity was not an issue I had previously considered, and in researching for this article I was made aware of the real lack of literature regarding the existence of this phenomenon in England. Writing at a time of social unrest, during which football star Marcus Rashford has put debates around free school meals on the political centre stage, it is pertinent to address the states approach to food supply for some of the country’s most vulnerable. The practices I witnessed during my placement made me reflect deeply on, the centrality of food in social work contexts and the importance of reflexive engagement with this issue in social work training and practice.

At the scheme, Thursdays were the residents’ favourite; a collection from Greggs bakery of sausage rolls, donuts, and baked pastries. I was struck by how staff used access to the valued cooked food to administer a regime of reward and punishment and how the project workers would justify consuming these products themselves. Food distribution of the most desired products rested on an unwritten code that differentiated ‘deserving’ from ‘undeserving’ residents, reflecting ‘a discursive separation between deserving and undeserving poor’, (Boone et al, 2018, p2384).Moreover,this approach to food revealed a gap between formal policy and ‘street level’, (Lipsky, 1980), micro level practices. The residents’ shortages of both finances and food resulted in a heightened importance to be placed on the collection from Greggs bakery.This led me to reflect on how food insecurity impacts the resident’s sense of belonging, raising questions regarding the values and ethics within the scheme’s organisational culture, and how these contend with British Association of Social Workers practice capabilities framework (PCF), and issues around social injustices and human rights.

In reflecting on the United Nations definition, I considered further the elements of the ‘inadequate situation’ referred to above, and the need to add a socio-political framework to the concept of food insecurity.  I aimed to achieve this through systematically discussing the supply of, and access to, food as experienced by children in care, as this perspective invites analysis regarding broader points such as; the socio-economic context, the vulnerabilities highlighted by local authority practices, the varying levels of oppressive practice at play, and the effectiveness of food restrictions in control. All of these considerations will require unpacking. I also note the current Coronavirus pandemic and the states response to it, makes my chosen area of food insecurity in social work all the more significant due to both the increased, difficulty to access, and reliance on, community food resources.

*Please note details of the service users and or service provider have been edited or removed to ensure anonymity but have been included in this form to give body to my reflection.

A seventeen-year-old service-user-resident I worked with at the scheme, Bobby, previously was in foster care and then supported lodgings. He described himself as homosexual and has been experiencing some relationship troubles with his boyfriend, Ken. Bobby receives £115 from the state every fortnight through a Local Authority money card that he can then access. Advice on using the local authority money card included the following, ‘You don’t have to send in your statements as we can see them online’. Bobby was subject to the scheme’s policy allowing him three-nights-a-week he can spend elsewhere. He booked a night in a hotel chain via his money card, in the hope of repairing his relationship with Ken. His social worker was notified of this transaction. Due to safeguarding concerns surrounding this relationship and Bobby owing rent at the scheme, the local authority social worker with consent of her manager blocked and cancelled this transaction. He was returned to the scheme later that night by the police. This behaviour was considered by the project workers as warranting excluding Bobby from the weekly collection of Greggs. I provide this information to give a context to discuss the restrictions placed on Bobby’s right to self-determination and a backstory to an instance where the project workers remove access to the Greggs products. The restrictions placed on Bobby give rise to considerations of issues of liberty and its exercise. As Sakamoto and Pitner establish, ‘social workers inevitably bring more power to their interactions with service users than vice versa.’ (2005, p436).

The Bobby case study links human rights and social justice elements of the Code, (BASW, 2014) through providing evidence of a clear connection between self-determination and ‘socio-economic status’, (Ibid, 2.2.1). Boone et al (2018, p310) argue that ‘non-poor people who actually have some power to bring about social justice and social change often, and quite unintentionally, also maintain the status quo.’ There can be seen to be an overarching issue framing both human rights and social justice. This is that injustices relate to both the domains of rights and principles. Lady Hale (2016, p11) acknowledges this dual framing when criticising the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR, 1950), ability to address the social conditions of the poor. She argues quoting Justice Yacoob that, ‘There can be no doubt that human dignity, freedom and equality, the foundational values of our society, are denied to those who have no food, clothing or shelter’ (Ibid).  What of the schemes’ project workers reaction to punish Bobby’s display of freedom by denying him Greggs for the week? Is this not an arm of the corporate parent reaffirming Bobby’s limited resources, as this denial of food would not have the same impact on someone with greater means. The exclusion of Bobby from a nutritional and sharing event not only raises issues around ethical practice but also acts against the aims of social work, (and perhaps project worker) principles. The globally recognised definition of social work (International Federation of Social Work 2014), Social Work England Professional Standards (2019), the British Association of Social Workers Practice Capability Framework (PCF), and the British Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics, all contain directions around promoting service user participation and empowerment.

Hobson, writing as a social work student on placement in a medical setting, argues that procedures could be a mechanism for discrimination, noting that ‘institutional forms of oppression and discrimination may operate within the daily procedures, (and) policies,’ (2012, p81). In the example of Bobby we see how project workers are empowered to use discretion in this setting in a way that is reflective of Lipsky’s concept of street level bureaucracy: ‘public service workers who interact with citizens in the course of their jobs, and who have substantial discretion in the execution of their work’, (1980, p3). Lipsky discusses a gap between the policymakers in central government and the first point of contact between the citizen and the state. The project workers, arguably underpaid and underqualified to deal with the complex challenges faced by the residents, invent devices ‘to cope with uncertainties and work pressures, effectively become the public policies they carry out’, (Lipsky, 1980: xii, emphasis in original).

The project workers consumption of the Greggs baked goods intended for residents can be seen as a routine to cope with the uncertainty and undoubted emotional strain of the job, but the exclusionary practices in response to behaviour unfortunately becomes the food policy the young people who live in the scheme experience. I found it ethically conflicting to witness, but inadvertently be a part of, this oppressive practice. While mindful of the limited influence I had in my role as a student, on reflection I see how I should have stressed the conflicting ethical considerations of this practice to my Practice Educator with a greater emphasis. Hobson (2012, p 82) discusses such conflicts with a value system as, ‘difficult to be part of, and to me did not always involve working within ethical systems and value bases in the manner codified by the social work profession’. I would go even further than Hobson arguing that work with marginalised vulnerable groups of service users, when done without critical reflection, can limit a parity of participation, (Fraser, 2007), creating a culture of street level oppression, as the work is done in the absence of an understanding of the structural inequalities faced by service users such as Bobby.

Drawing from this example, I wish to sharpen my focus on how food insecurity as not only an individual problem, as stressed in the above UN FAO 2015 definition, but a systemic one inextricably linked to poverty. Given these broader concerns, it can therefore only be described as a failure that the latest updating Department of Health statutory guidance on this issue in 2015, appears to do away with any detail regarding food, nutrition, and meals, only mentioning ‘diet’ in passing on page 28, in the context of ‘lifestyle, including diet and physical activity’. The lack of emphasis placed on nutrition throughout this document has been challenged by key charitable voluntary and community organisations such as the Children’s Food Trust, the Fostering Network, and the National Association of Care Catering in their round table meeting report, (2016). In line with this concern, the NGO Food Active, in their 2019 Position Statement: ‘Food as a Safeguarding Issue’, call for action to be taken in light of the 2015 guidance stating that, ‘There is a need for nutrition to be explicitly mentioned in updated statutory guidance on promoting the health and welfare of Children in Care, along with physical, emotional and mental health’, underlining the 2015 Department of Health guidance as an ‘inadequate statutory resource’ and that local authorities, when acting as corporate parents, need clear policies and pathways to access suitable professionals on the subject of food and nutrition advice. Food Active’s Position Statement, (2019) goes further calling for an audit to be conducted regarding local authorities’ current practices. A point and demand that my experience on placement underlines as Children in Care are amongst the most socially marginalised groups in England (Ibid) not only through the deprivation experienced but also through a lack of autonomy available to them within the social structures that influence and may define their trajectory.

During my lunchbreaks I often visited another bakery café chain that supplies hot drinks and baked goods located just down the road from the scheme. Motivated by the residents’ lack of food security and my on-site supervisor’s willingness to expand the food collection system, I took the initiative to discuss the nutritional challenges faced by the residents with the bakery’s area manager.  Highlighting the connection between a right to food and a right to health, together with the possible benefits to his business that supporting the scheme could bring, contact details were exchanged and after some emails a weekly collection of surplus un-sold goods began. Although I was pleasantly surprised by the area manager, my on-site supervisor and Practice Educator’s reaction to being able to achieve a convenient additional food collection, I was aware of the short-term nature of this provision and had some concern as to the extent to which the food would reach the residents. This led me to reflect on Boone and colleagues point that ‘the affirmative strategies of social work in offering food support might contribute to the pacification of the problem of poverty when these practices merely compensate for material deprivation because people in poverty are urgently in need of this relief, without questioning the underlying societal mechanisms,’ (2018, p 2390).

My journey on placement and in completing this paper has in part left me with a sense of sadness as I believe on some level I failed to express the severity of the un-ethical practices that took place at the scheme. However, this experience has equipped me with an increased awareness and knowledge of how to discuss such matters. Social workers need to meet the challenge of addressing the far-reaching macro to micro pervasive impacts of poverty through primarily demonstrating an understanding of the forms of oppression experienced by service users. This, I would argue, should be done together with an appreciation of the ways both human rights and social justice matters intertwine, and therefore should not be treated exclusively or as if they are distant cousins, but rather fundamentally interrelated. Revealing and interrogating the manifestation of poverty-based obstacles creates an opportunity for social workers to develop a radical reflexivity necessary to meet the challenge of food insecurity awareness in a post-covid-19 world.

Dominic Watters, Postgraduate social work student at the University of Kent

Twitter – @SingleDadSW


Boone, K., Roets, G. and Roose, R. (2019) ‘Social work, participation, and poverty’, Journal of Social Work, 19(3), pp. 309–326. doi: 10.1177/1468017318760789.

Boone, K., Roets, G. and Roose, R. (2018) ‘Social Work, Poverty and Anti-Poverty Strategies: Creating Cultural Forums, British Journal of Social Work, 48, pp. 2381–2399. doi: 10.1093/bjsw/bcy006.

British Association of Social Workers, (2016). Professional capabilities framework. Birmingham: BASW.

Burgess, D and Shier, M (2018) Food Insecurity and Social Work: A Comprehensive Literature Review. International Social Work Vol 61(6) 826-842. Sage.

Department of Health, Department of Education, (2015), ‘Promoting the health and well-being of looked-after children: Statutory guidance for local authorities, clinical commissioning groups and NHS England’, Crown copyright, DFE-00105-2015.

Fenton, J. 2016, Values in Social Work: Reconnecting with social justice, Macmillan Palgrave.

Food Active, (2019), Position Statement: Food as a Safeguarding Issue – A Call for Action

Fraser, N., 2007. Re-framing justice in a globalizing world. In (Mis) recognition, social inequality and social justice (pp. 29-47). Routledge.

Hale, B. (2016) York University, Festival of Ideas 2016 Human Rights and Social Justice Lady Hale, cited at

Hobson, L., 2012. Critical Reflections on Ethical Practice. Ethics and Social Welfare6(1), pp.80-87.

Lipsky, M. and Bureaucracy, S.L., 1980. Dilemmas of the individual in public services. New York: Russell Sage Foundation71.

Sakamoto, I. and Pitner, R.O., 2005. Use of critical consciousness in anti-oppressive social work practice: Disentangling power dynamics at personal and structural levels. The British Journal of Social Work35(4), pp.435-452.

5th Edition July 14th, 2020 Ffion Evans

Considering children and young people’s digital rights after the pandemic

Since lockdown there has been a plethora of contemporaneous accounts of how practitioners have adapted to the challenges of physically distanced social work. A reoccurring theme to many reflective accounts centres on how the global digital shift, for which social work has long been playing catch up (Taylor, 2017), has ruptured into something akin to a digital shock.

Within the space of days and weeks, a new lexicon of practice language has been deployed to describe a range of virtual practices to enable us to continue ‘doing’ social work and to engage with children and young people. As we can probably all testify, the reliance on digital solutions, including for the purposes of welfare, public health and social support, has been the backdrop to much of the Covid crisis. Mirroring my own PhD study, I am left wondering what this all means for the rights of children and young people who are caught in social work systems.

The Child Rights International Network summarise how a rights perspective can support our understanding of children’s digital experiences, identifying principles of the right to access of information; the right to be safeguarded from abuse; the right to privacy and to be forgotten; and the right to freedom of expression and be heard. In contrast, Quennerstedt (2010) questions a framing of children’s rights purely based on the 3P’s, of provision, protection and participation, instead calling for a closer connection to the wider agenda of Human Rights of ‘civil, political and social rights’. 

Lundy (2019) reminds us that concern with children’s rights should not be powered by pity or concern for wellbeing, instead she identifies a ‘right’ as something ‘demanded or insisted upon without embarrassment or shame’. Connecting universal rights to digital rights has perhaps challenged this ‘test’, as notions of digital participation and access have often been connected to concepts of luxury. In this sense, the notion of children’s digital rights is a relatively new concept, developed from research into children’s global experiences of digital technology and a growing recognition that children rights has a relationship to wider rights in relation to use of personal data, privacy and safety (Livingstone & Third, 2017). So how do we understand these tensions in relation to the digital rights for children and young people who have social work involvement in their lives?

With the arrival of lockdown, the most urgent dilemma facing social workers and allied professionals was ensuring (a right to) digital access for children and families. In this magazine, Autumn Roesch Marsh wrote a compelling call to arms for social workers to address the issue of digital poverty for children in care and care leavers describing efforts to scramble access to pre-used tech for isolated young people. Yet at an operational and policy level, the attention to digital exclusion, appears to have been predominantly driven by two distinct reasons. Primarily, how do social workers retain ‘their’ access ‘to’ children in the absence of physical contact; and secondly, how can we ensure ‘vulnerable’ children and young people continue their schooling, and proximity to teachers. Gavin Williamson’s announcement of support to provide laptops and 4G routers for children with social workers and care leavers was prioritised for those needing to access technology for the purposes of education. As such, the framing of what is regarded as a legitimate need for technology has been heavily connected to the ongoing fulfilment legal obligations of the state and access to education and welfare. Meanwhile, this scheme has been slow to respond, meaning many young people have experienced lockdown in an ongoing state of ‘digital’ isolation.

The isolating implications of pandemic has meant the availability of digital technology has been elevated and legitimised in the minds of social workers from a desirable ‘want’ to a clear ‘need’, especially as the mobile phone or laptop became the only portal through which professionals could safely see and engage with children. This reminds me of the popular ‘Meme’ that places Wifi as the foundation stone of Maslow’s hierarchy.  And yet, the use of digital technology in children and young people’s lives is about so much more than interaction with professionals to ensure physiological or safety needs, be this during a pandemic or not. Children’s access to technology is intimately connected to belonging, friendships, family life, leisure, hobbies and learning about a world outside of school. It is a means to develop a rounded identity, to build social and cultural capital, and to explore digital citizenship, especially crucial for children who are living away from their birth families (Hammond, 2018). Indeed a ‘right to digital access’ moves beyond arguments for the fulfilment of needs or wellbeing, towards the interconnected right to civil and political participation in society.

However, children and young people’s social and participatory engagement with technology, typically mediated through social media apps or online gaming is still predominantly viewed as a risk to be managed. As such the right to be protected and safeguarded from abuse is arguably the most unequivocally accepted digital right within social work. Misgivings about social media use amongst children with social work involvement tend to focus on the impact on safety and wellbeing, and incorporates a spectrum of concerns ranging from the preoccupation with usage and screen time, to significant risks such as access to harmful content, bullying, and sexual and criminal exploitation and abuse (May-Chahal, 2014). These concerns have tended to invoke punitive responses that seek to limit or control online participation (Sen 2016; Simpson, 2019). More recently, research informed approaches to children and young people’s mediated participation from safeguarding organisations have adopted a measured approach to online activity, including online activity of looked after children and children requiring protection (see here the guidance to foster carers from CEOP and the PCFSW guidance on assessing online risks). As lockdown continues into its fourth month, a parallel pandemic of online child sexual abuse from predators has been reported along with concerns from the NSPCC that online child grooming may increase due to coronavirus. So, while online risks are an understandable focus for social workers concerned with the protection of children, this preoccupation with risks from peers and predators, ‘the other’, can obscure risks from ever expanding, legitimised digital networks, including those used by social welfare and statutory organisations, such as ‘us’ social workers.

The implications of professional digitised data are likely to impact some children more than others, especially those children who are more likely to be present in welfare systems, connected to class, race and economic inequality. This includes the enduring presence of over represented children’s personal data ‘baked into’ databases (Keddell, 2019), which is then analysed by both human and Artificial intelligence. It includes facial recognition and biometric surveillance technologies used for purposes of identity, security and policing in community and education settings (Wroe and Lloyd, 2020). And it also includes the presence of children’s intimate personal details and life experiences, often captured in minute detail, within social work ICT systems children’s, and which are often incomplete (Hoyle et al, 2018), biased or inaccurate as highlighted by Kay Everard in the 4th edition of this magazine. In this sense, I would argue being the focus of the professional gaze, no matter how well intentioned, constitutes a threat to children’s digital right to ‘privacy and to being forgotten’.

As we acclimatise to living ‘with’ coronavirus, child welfare and social work organisations will be urgently looking to new digital solutions to manage all the uncertainties the pandemic brings, providing the perfect climate for Big Tech corporations to colonise health, social care and welfare ‘markets’ (Magalahes and Couldry, 2020). The cash strapped public sector will find quick fix solutions hard to resist, however, these technical solutions are likely to involve heavily marketised and datafied welfare systems, powered by infinite layers of digitised information and with a heavy reliance on surveillance technologies (Eubanks, 2017).

Andy Stirling (2020) argues, this renewed faith in systems of technology and the scrambling of strategies to manage the pandemic is a product of the ‘globalising imaginations of modernity’ and the relentless need to control. Indeed, I would suggest social work’s predominant relationship with the digital, be that children’s mediated participation or as a vehicle to manage the absence of physical proximity, is characterised by a desire for adults to retain control and manage uncertainty. Yet, with control comes limitation and notions about acceptable forms of digital practices, which may have unforeseen implications for the social and civil rights of children. As such, the need to pause and consider ethics and rights in a climate of digital expansion is pressing (Goldkind et al, 2020).

Finally, the absence of children and young people’s voices and contemporaneous knowledge about their digital experiences under lockdown is notably absent. While researchers will no doubt focus on the retrospective accounts of children, it is crucial we listen to what children tell us now about how they experience technology and what is helpful to them in living a good digital life. And in developing any digital solutions to help adults manage their professional roles in a Post-Covid age, technological solutions must be built from a position of upholding the right to be heard, and a commitment to amplify the voices of all children and young people.

Ffion Evans

Senior Lecturer



Goldkind, L., LaMendola, W., & Taylor-Beswick, A. (2020) ‘Tackling COVID-19 is a crucible for privacy’, Journal of Technology in Human Services, [Online] ‘First online’ published 02nd May 2020.  38:2, 89-90, DOI:10.1080/15228835.2020.1757559

Hammond, S.P., Cooper, N. & Jordan, P. (2018), ‘Social Media, Social Capital and Adolescents Living in State Care: A Multi-Perspective and Multi-Method Qualitative Study’, The British Journal of Social Workvol. 48, no. 7, pp. 2058-2076.

Hoyle, V., Shepherd, E., Flinn, A. & Lomas, E. (2018), ‘Child Social-Care Recording and the Information Rights of Care-Experienced People: A Recordkeeping Perspective’, The British Journal of Social Work, [Online] ‘first online published 15.12.18, DOI: 10.1093/social/bcy115

Livingstone, S. & Third, A. (2017) ‘Children and young people’s rights in the digital age: An emerging agenda’, New Media & Society 2017, Vol. 19(5) 657–670

Keddell, E. (2019), ‘Algorithmic Justice in Child Protection: Statistical Fairness, Social Justice and the Implications for Practice’, Social Sciencesvol. 8, no. 10, pp. 281.

Lundy, L. (2019), ‘A Lexicon for Research on International Children’s Rights in Troubled Times’, The International Journal of Children’s Rightsvol. 2019;27;, no. 4, pp. 595-601.

May-Chahal, C., Mason, C., Rashid, A., Walkerdine, J., Rayson, P. & Greenwood, P. (2014), ‘Safeguarding Cyborg Childhoods: Incorporating the On/Offline Behaviour of Children into Everyday Social Work Practices’, The British Journal of Social Workvol. 44, no. 3, pp. 596-614.

Quennerstedt, A. (2010), ‘Children, But Not Really Humans? Critical Reflections on the Hampering Effect of the “3 p’s’, The International Journal of Children’s Rightsvol. 18, no. 4, pp. 619-635.

Sen, R. 2016, ‘Not All that Is Solid Melts into Air? Care-Experienced Young People, Friendship and Relationships in the ‘Digital Age’’, The British Journal of Social Workvol. 46, no. 4, pp. 1059-1075.

Simpson, J.E. (2019) ‘Twenty First Century Contact: Children in Care and their use of mobile communication devices for contact and the Internet’. PhD. University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh.

Taylor, A (2017) ‘Social work and digitalisation: bridging the knowledge gaps’, Social Work Educationvol. 36, no. 8, pp. 869-879.

Wroe, L.E. & Lloyd, J. (2020), ‘Watching over or Working with? Understanding Social Work Innovation in Response to Extra-Familial Harm’, Social Sciencesvol. 9, no. 4, pp. 37.

5th Edition July 14th, 2020 Graham Price

Two poems

Ourselves alone

Are we happy ourselves never mind the other?

Would it help,

If we made the effort to know the other

Worth a try,

Would that help us be happier ourselves?

Are empathy and compassion in our domain?

Or are they bereft of meaning,

When injustice to another doesn’t cause us pain

Just imagine changing places,

Would that help us be happier ourselves?

WE are enriched by diversity

IF so why then,

Does the other have to cope with adversity?

Let’s admit to what’s wrong,

Would that help us be happier ourselves?

We are accustomed to our own universe,

But it’s not set in stone,

To fight for the rights of others isn’t perverse,

It’s necessary and demanding,

And it brings happiness to all including ourselves.

June, 2020

Poem inspired by the protests against racism May/June 2020. 

This is it

Is this life,

A place in time,

A time in place,

Is this it?

Can we, should we celebrate,

Yes, no, maybe, if needed,

Together, work, change,

This is it.

Then all can celebrate,

A good life,

And rejoice,

This is it.

May, 2020

Inspired by Stephen  Dorrel,  Health Secretary in Tory, John Major’s  Government, 1992-97, Radio 4 VE day 8 May, who said  ‘We’re not going to see this time again, need to accept risk’.  Peter Hennessy, historian and constitutionalist, Radio 4, VE Day, saw comparisons with then and now, and the change of public mood for the better following Covid-19.

Graham Price

Brought up in care, Graham is a totally blind energetic 80 year old person living alone, independently, formerly a group leader of landscape architects at West Midlands County Council. He was the principal carer for his late wife Maureen, who was coping with Parkinson’s disease and severe dementia, until her passing in 2017. In his caring role he had experience of Direct Payments and Continuing Health Care. Graham is heavily engaged in advocating for oppressed, disabled, marginalised and seldom heard people, seeking to improve their service access and promote their wellbeing. He is vice chair of Shaping Our Lives, a national service user led group striving to meet these aims.

5th Edition July 14th, 2020 Guy Shennan

Hope – a fundamental assumption

For almost 21 years, I have been asking people what their best hopes are from our work together. It is a question that fits many contexts, potentially any context in fact where someone has a role of working with an individual, family, group, organisation or community towards some desired outcome. I first asked a version of this question as a social worker in a children and families duty team in the mid-1990s. I believe that it has become a radical question, a question that a radical social worker might now want to ask, as the boundaries of radical social work have shifted to include within them “retaining a commitment to good practice” (Ferguson & Woodward, 2009, p153). I do not believe it should be radical for social workers to be led, at least in part, by the hopes of the people they are serving. However, social work and the context in which it is practised have developed in such a way over the past forty years or more.

It was after attending a course on solution-focused brief therapy that I started to ask families this question, or rather the version, “What needs to happen for our meetings to be useful for you?” This was a little ambiguous, as it could be taken to refer to the process of the meetings – what needed to happen during them so that they became useful – rather than to the desired outcome of our meetings – what needed to happen in the families’ lives afterwards – as intended. It was not only in solution-focused practice that this process-outcome, or means and ends, distinction needed to be sharpened, with attention being given more clearly to outcomes. Child protection plans have often been criticised for focusing on means – services to be brought in – rather than ends – how it would be seen that services were contributing to a child’s safety.

When I first heard my solution-focused mentor, Chris Iveson, ask someone what their “best hopes” were, on a videotape at a training course in 1999, my first thought was how odd this sounded. I soon started using the question myself, however, and found it a clearer way to start my work with people, to focus on their hopes from this. By this time I was running a therapeutic social work service within a Family Service Unit (Shennan, 2003), an organisation now sadly no longer with us, a context in which it was more straightforward to begin with the hopes of the people we were seeing.

It is a question that has gradually travelled around the world. In a late-night conversation during a conference in Salamanca, Spain, in 2005, Jörgen, a Swedish social worker, told me he liked this question we asked at BRIEF (by this time I was working, alongside Chris and his colleagues, at the solution-focused centre they had founded), but that it sounded odd translated into Swedish. I told him it sounded odd in English too. Some time after the conference, Jörgen emailed me to say that since our conversation he had been using the question translated directly, and it had been working fine.

In my book on solution-focused practice (Shennan, 2019), I write about what I call its “fundamental assumption”, which is that if someone is talking with me while I am in my role as a helping professional, then they must have some hope that something will come from this. This assumption is what leads me to be able to ask: ““What are your best hopes from our work together?” with some confidence. I think it is more common for a helper to begin with a question based on the flipside assumption, that if someone has gone to see them, they must have a problem, leading to something like: “So, what’s the problem?”

The solution-focused assumption came to my aid at a fringe meeting the evening before last year’s Social Workers Union conference in Manchester. I was among a panel of speakers who had been asked to talk about combating austerity. I considered how solution-focused ideas and practices could be used in this endeavour, and talked about hope. In the panel discussion that followed, when we were in danger of being weighed down by stories of austerity’s impact, the panel chair turned to me and said, “You’re the hope expert, give us some hope!”  I said I did not need to give the people there hope, as they must already have it. I explained the fundamental assumption of solution-focused practice, which suggested that social workers who turned up at a fringe meeting about combating austerity must have some hope that such an activity is both doable and potentially worthwhile. So the most useful role that I could play was not to give people hope but to ask them about their own.

The same idea can be applied here. As you are reading this wonderful online magazine, and this post in particular, my assumption is that you must have some hope that something will come from your activity. What might that be? Suppose that reading the fifth and final  edition of Social Work 2020 under Covid-19 turns out to have been a good use of your time. What will it lead to that will tell you this? What will be different?

Or more generally, with regard to other activity you are engaged in, which might be working as a social worker, or in some other role, or a project you have on the go – what are your best hopes for this, at the present time?

And what tells you that your hopes could be realised? What do you know about yourself or others involved that suggests this is possible?

What else keeps you going?


Ferguson, I. & Woodward, R. (2009). Radical Social Work in Practice: Making a Difference. Bristol: The Policy Press.

Shennan, G. (2003). The Early Response Project: a voluntary sector contribution to CAMHS, Child and Adolescent Mental Health in Primary Care, 1, 46-50.

Shennan, G. (2019). Solution-Focused Practice: Effective Communication to Facilitate Change. 2nd edition. London: Red Globe Press.

Guy Shennan is an independent social worker and a therapist, consultant and trainer specialising in solution-focused practice. He was the Chair of the British Association of Social Workers, 2014-2018. Two projects he is currently involved with are the Solution-Focused Collective, which hopes to use solution-focused ideas for social change, and the ReFrame Collective, which hopes to transform the child protection system. More information about these and other activities that Guy is currently involved in hopefully can be found at

5th Edition July 14th, 2020 Jenny Ferguson & Cheryle McInroy

Staf’s Project Return: How we’re continuing to care through COVID-19

Project Return is run by the Scottish Through Care and Aftercare forum (Staf), Scotland’s national membership organisation for all of those involved in the lives of young people leaving care. It is funded by the Life Changes Trust. It is driven by an amazing steering group called ‘The Catalysts’, all of whom are 16 years old and above and have experience of the care and or justice system. Together they meet and explore how safe nurturing environments and healthy relationships can resolve trauma, and from these discussions, we create supportive resources for care leavers and their workers. To learn more about what we have achieved in our first 6 months of meeting you can click here.  

Frustratingly, many young people who have care experience have faced adversity and trauma beyond that experienced by their peers.[1] This shapes an individual, impacting upon their mind, body, and way of being. [2] Project Return is determined to address this, ensuring that relationships and other positive supports are put in place so that young people leaving care no longer have to focus just on surviving but instead can thrive.

Project Return during COVID

The current period is a struggle for many but particularly for care leavers, since the challenges they face caused by inequality have been heightened and there is not always a family net of support to help mitigate this. [3] 

During April the group used their collective creativity to develop a video highlighting issues and good practice during COVID. This is displayed below:

COVID has also changed how the Project Return group is run: from how we meet to what we focus on. What has not changed for this group is their commitment to creating change, their commitment to each other and Staf’s determination to ensure this group feels loved.

Cheryle, our newly employed Youth Worker who started as a steering group member in this project, has described our COVID journey below:

 “Since COVID we have been keeping in regular contact with each other using zoom which we use every Tuesday. We always have a new activity every week to keep it interesting so it’s never the same thing twice and we have chill-out nights as well so that it isn’t just work. As a group, we have come up with different ways to have fun and still stay safe.”

“We have thought about creating a box with veg and flowers which we grow ourselves, called Seeds for Change, and have looked at who we would like to share these with and are they a good wellbeing resource. Before lockdown, we set up a care experience choir but as this can no longer meet, every Thursday we have Rock the Lockdown where we have Cheryl who was originally a part of the care experience choir and she goes live on our Facebook page and sings for us all and we choose which songs we would like to hear. Even though we all can’t be together we still keep in regular contact with Jenny whether that be through text or a phone call which really helps our mental health, especially during these hard times. We get a care package once a month which consists of a food voucher and a lovely letter from Jenny and other wee bits to cheer us up.”

“I hope that social work can maybe look and see that it is a struggle for care leavers and other people but most hardest on those who have no one. There’s been good stuff happening and we would like to see this be celebrated and built upon as these things make a difference and help us even if we can’t see each other. This should happen during COVID but also after as isolation isn’t just a thing that affects care leavers during lockdown, especially those who have no one.”

The Seeds for Change kit highlighted by Cheryle is an indoor plant starter kit that will bring nature to care leavers and workers’ homes. It has been created as a way to use nature as a wellbeing tool, one that given the isolating and negative mental health effects of COVID is very much needed. To learn more about Seeds for Change kits please click here.

The other resource Cheryle mentions is Rock the Lockdown. Which is an online space that has taken our care experience choir and placed its singing for wellbeing and ability to connect to others inside a closed Facebook group. This group hosts a live singing along and open mic segment every Thursday evening from 6.30 pm until 7.30 pm, to see a watch a video on Rock the Lockdown please see here. If you live in Scotland and have care and/or justice experience, or you are a member of the care workforce, you can join Rock the Lockdown here.  

Future plans  

Over the summer we will be undertaking some research and are looking to hear from care leavers and the workforce on what they think Throughcare and Aftercare services need to know about trauma and recovery. This will be done through ‘Discovery Workshops’ which will interactively explore these themes. Given the effect of COVID these are currently being re-designed but if you are a resident in Scotland, have care experience, or are a member of the workforce, and you’d like your voice reflected in these please get in touch with us.

Equally, we are looking for people to join Project Return’s steering group, The Catalyst. If this may be of interest, then please also get in touch. The group is open to anyone in Scotland aged 16 and above with care and or justice experience and members of the care workforce. In being involved you will hold a key role in a movement for change and will learn new skills and form new friendships. And most importantly you will have fun!

This article has been written in partnership between Jenny Ferguson, Project Development Worker, and Cheryle McInroy, Youth Worker, at Staf.

To find out more about any of the work described here please contact Jenny Ferguson on

[1] McCall, R.B., (2013). ‘Review: The consequences of early institutionalization: Can institutions be improved? –should they?’. Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 18, 193–201.

[2]  Treisman, K., (2019). ‘Becoming a Culturally, adversity, trauma informed, infused and responsive organisation’. Winston Churchill fellowship. 

[3] Scottish Throughcare and Aftercare Forum., (2020). ‘COVID-19 impact on care leavers highlights need to build back better’, .

5th Edition July 14th, 2020 Joe Hanley

Selling our soul for the best and brightest

Best and brightest

When the first Teach for America (TFA) corps were introduced in 1990, few would have predicted that 30 years later, the founding principles of the organisation would come to fundamentally transform and shape the debates around social work education in England. TFA was aimed at reducing teacher shortages in the USA through recruiting the “best and the brightest” from “top universities” into teaching. In order to attract these individuals, large financial incentives, a leadership focus and fast-track teacher training were seen to be essential requirements.

Since its inception, serious concerns have been raised about TFA, including a lack of student diversity, the influence of private financial interests, the role the organisation plays in pitting teachers against each other, and the perpetuation of a white saviour mentality. TFA also shifted the focus of teaching reform from difficult to address systemic issues like poverty, to blaming teachers. Furthermore, rather than solving the teacher shortage as was promised, research has shown that TFA graduates have shorter teaching careers than other teachers. These points are all addressed in detail in Jordan Flaherty’s excellent book, No More Heroes.

Despite these serious concerns, the “success” of TFA was used as justification to create a similar scheme in England, dubbed Teach First, launched in 2002. Unsurprisingly, similar problems have been raised about Teach First, but this did not stop the “success” of Teach First from being marketed to get funding for similar fast-track programmes in English social work, most notably Frontline and Think Ahead. These programmes were both proposed based on the need to bring the “best and the brightest” and “talented individuals” into social work and received substantial government funding and support. Predictably, similar concerns to TFA and Teach First were quickly, and have consistently been, raised about fast-track social work training (for a recent example, see Tunstill, 2019).  

When Frontline and Think Ahead were being proposed, in 2012 and 2014 respectively, many in the social work profession challenged and rejected them and the oppressive and elitist values on which they are based. However, dissenting voices were highly muted at a political and leadership level, and the Chief Social Workers have enthusiastically and consistently declared their support for the fast-track programmes, including the two interim Chief Social Workers for Adults in their 2020 annual report. The language and philosophy of attracting the “best and brightest” has therefore become integral to the recruitment and education of social workers.

Low-skilled workers

Fast forward to February 2020, and the Home Secretary Priti Patel has declared that a new points-based immigration system, placing a premium on speaking English, and emphasising “taking back control of our borders”, is designed to attract the “brightest and the best from around the globe”. From a social work perspective, some immediate concerns about these new proposals include the devastating impact that they could have on the social care workforce, the prejudicial undertones, and the fact that they are predicated on getting the 8 million “economically inactive” citizens back to work – including students, retired people and those on long term sick.  

On April 8th, 2 weeks after the UK lockdown started and almost a month after Covid-19 was declared a pandemic, the Home Office took the decision to update the guidance around the points-based immigration system. The specific section they updated related to so called “low skilled workers”. Considering many individuals who would be considered “low skilled” under this system have been on the frontline working to reduce the worst impacts of the pandemic, and dying in disproportionate numbers because of this, you would be forgiven for thinking that the update was to include a recognition of the value these individuals have in our most important systems and services.

However, the changes instead just reiterated the previous position more firmly: “There will not be an immigration route specifically for those who do not meet the skills or salary threshold for the skilled worker route”. As an EU citizen whose first two post-qualified social work jobs in the UK would now be considered “low-skilled”, it is hard not to feel these developments as an attack on my professional past, and it saddens me to think of those who will not be given the same opportunities I was.  


The same week of February as the immigration proposals were announced, Andrew Sabisky, a government advisor who has previously expressed support for eugenics, was forced to resign following intense media and public pressure. Sociologist David Gillbourn, of the University of Birmingham, has suggested that this scandal is reflective of the racist and regressive views held by some prominent members of the current government around IQ, race and the need to support “brightest and best” at all costs.

Gilbourn continues by forecasting a future where these views become integral to education system:

One way would be for education reforms to claim to apply “scientific” methods to identify the “brightest and best” and single them out for special attention. This would be presented as a meritocratic exercise, intended to fast-track clever children regardless of their social background… No one in authority would worry about the fact that such assessments seem to always place a disproportionate number of black kids in the less-able bracket (Gilbourn, 2020).

Additional concerns have been raised in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic (including in this magazine), that some of the language being perpetuated, including around patient triaging and herd immunity, has ‘barely concealed underpinning eugenic ideas’ (Hoskin and Finch, 2020). The greater impact that the pandemic has had on disadvantaged communities, ethnic minority populations, people in care homes and people with learning disabilities lends further credence to the idea that, increasingly, some people are just seen to be more valuable and important than others. This is the same logic that would lead Dominic Cummings to be dismissive of calls for his resignation when the rest of us know he clearly broke the lockdown rules. Why should he have to listen to us, for he is the best of the brightest!

Social work response

Social workers should play a central role in identifying and challenging this type of injustice, and indeed many do. However, when the social work profession willingly accepts substantial government funding to graduate hundreds of social work students every year through disproportionately well-funded and exclusive routes, based on the justification that these students are the “best and brightest”, we become complicit in perpetuating this language, and the discriminatory and oppressive values that lay behind it. This becomes particularly problematic when it is acknowledged that the dystopian education system that David Gilbourn theorises about above is already very much in place in social work qualifying, as fast-track programmes have been consistently shown to admit a disproportionately large number of white and middle class students, and are publically funded to provide these students with benefits that are withheld from other students, including large bursaries, a shorter qualifying period, paid fees, access to exclusive networking opportunities, and ongoing leadership development.

In supporting these programmes, and celebrating their “success”, the social work profession substantially weakens its ability to challenge developments like those described above, because they are justified by their proponents based on the same basic logic and language as our own profession’s direction of travel. While the definitions used by fast track providers to determine who is “talented” or “bright” may be different from those proposed by Priti Patel or Andrew Sabisky, there is seemingly no disagreement that there is an underlying objective and scientific measure by which these individuals can be identified, and subsequently rewarded using public money. The rewards may be discriminatory in nature, but that is seen to be an acceptable trade-off for the unquestioned value these individuals are supposed to bring to society and social work.

The legacy

The apparent failure of social work to reject the fast-track model has paved the way for similar programmes to be introduced into other areas, including the police, the prison service, and most recently proposals for a fast-track youth worker programme designed to address gang violence. Instead of acting as a bulwark through rejecting fast-track education, social work has instead become a most effective poster child, demonstrating how the principles of fast-track education can be applied to professions outside of teaching in a way that makes them highly palatable to the political establishment.

It is important to acknowledge that there is a strong legacy of reasoned resistance from many within the social work profession. Notable examples include a letter by six prominent and well-respected academics in The Guardian in 2013; the joint submission by Association of Professors of Social Work (APSW) and the Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee (JUCSWEC) to the Education Select Committee in 2016; and the open letter from the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), APSW, JUCSWEC and the Social Work Action Network (SWAN) to the Children’s Minister on the proposed extension of children’s social work fast track training in 2018. This resistance provides a bases from which to continue to mount reasoned challenge to the expansion of fast-track training, and these efforts should be held up as important displays of critical resistance and social justice. However, as a result of the seemingly enthusiastic adoption and expansion of fast-track training within social work, the profession has substantially weakened its ability to now call out the more extreme manifestations of the “best and brightest” logic and language we see today.

For the sake of staving off potential protests and objections, I want to explicitly state at this stage that fast-track education is not equated to eugenics or xenophobia, and I hope it is clear that this is not the point being made in this piece. Instead, the point is about whether we are creating a profession that can mount a collective and effective challenge when presented with issues like eugenics and xenophobia. Social work should be a profession based fundamentally on social justice, and if we compromise on our principles, we lose legitimacy to call out injustice when we see it. Like any tale of selling your soul, the bill always comes due.

Joe Hanley, Lecturer Social Work, Open University

5th Edition July 14th, 2020 Kim Detjen

Reflections on social work with women who have been subjected to domestic abuse during Covid-19

As I sit to write this, I am thinking about how Covid-19 has impacted on my work as a social work lecturer.  I miss not seeing my students face-to-face.  I am sad that I did not get to hug my final year students and give them a proper send off.  I am sad that they will not get a real graduation.  I miss seeing my colleagues and having chats about difficult situations or just bouncing ideas off one another about how to improve our SW programme, and sometimes just talking about our research.  I should also be preparing for two conferences:  one on gender and violence and the other on social work education.  I look forward to conferences as they often leave me feeling motivated and encouraged, and I always get to meet new people who share my passions.  I have met amazing people through my job, as well as at conferences, and these face to face meetings are what helps to build the relationships.  However, Covid-19 has put so much on hold and has changed how we do so many things.  At the start, people said they couldn’t wait for things to return to normal.  I’m of the view that we will now have a new normal, and things will not return to how they used to be.  Perhaps this is not a bad thing.  We have been forced to be creative with how we do our job, stay connected to others, and basically change significant parts of our lives.

As I reflect on my PhD research, which explores the interactions between statutory social workers and women who have been subjected to domestic abuse, I consider how Covid-19 has impacted on both the social workers and women living with domestic abuse.  I think about how I was immersing myself in the research by travelling with social workers on their way to see a family, and interviewing them about the situation; then observing the interactions between the social worker and the mother, as I felt this was the most effective way of trying to really understand the relationship and dynamics between the two.  My research design encourages me to consider the under the surface emotions, by reflecting on my own emotional response to the interactions.  This is also something that practitioners do as they reflect on their interactions with children and families. 

With the current lockdown situation however, only high-risk cases are being visited face-to-face by social workers, and often after a risk assessment is completed.  Social workers are having to adjust how they try to assess family situations virtually, which is something that has not been thought to be necessary in a profession in which face-to-face contact is placed at such high importance.  Social workers are often taught about observation skills and being in the home to try to get a feel of what living in that home might be like for a child.  Harry Ferguson (2018) has written about the importance of getting close to children and how social workers need to get close to the lives and routines of children by using all of their senses when walking around the home and interacting with those in the home.  You need to be able to feel the environment and consider all of the senses, which you just cannot do through a computer. 

The Guardian reported that during the early weeks of Covid-19, referrals to children’s services dropped (Weale, 2020), with some areas in England reporting a decrease of more than 50%.  This is significant, especially as the increase in domestic abuse cases increased, which was reported by the Local Government Association.  Research has shown that up to 2/3 of cases presented to child protection conferences involve domestic abuse which has left me concerned about what is happening in these homes (Stanley, et al, 2011).  Karen Ingala Smith, founder of the Counting Dead Women project, which records killings of women by men in the UK, found at least 16 killings between 23 March and 12 April, including those of children.  In the same time frame over the last 10 years, there was an average of 5 women killed.  This demonstrates a significant increase during Covid-19 lockdown.   

Although I do not always feel that domestic abuse cases should be referred to children’s services, I am concerned about the children, and the women, who have been told to ‘stay home’ by the government.  Government guidance did change to state that people who needed to leave their home due to violence could do so, and they would be able to access support.  As many referrals come from education providers and other professionals, it is not a surprise that referrals to children’s services decreased.  And as people were forced to stay in due to concerns about the virus continuing to spread and take even more lives, families who were already struggling began to struggle more.  There are no excuses for someone perpetrating domestic abuse against another, but it is important to acknowledge that during times of heightened stress, this can exacerbate the triggers.  As some families are struggling more financially, children being at home all day, and the overall anxiety that many people are feeling about the lockdown, this does place more stress on families.

There is evidence to suggest that some social workers feel there have been some positives in conducting visits, assessments and meetings virtually during the pandemic.  This has been echoed by the early findings of a research project led by Featherstone and Bowyer (2020).  Some social workers state that by utilising video calling with older children and also with parents, this has actually cut through some of the barriers.  Their initial findings are that some practitioners feel this new way of working has made them less reactive and more reflective, and the interactions are more meaningful.  Social workers have had to be creative with the direct work they are doing with children.  Some of this has been positive, but it is more difficult with babies and young children.  Many feel that young people are used to communicating via video calls, and often do not want to meet their social worker at school or at the local café, as they don’t want to be seen as someone with a social worker.  Some social workers feel that parents are quite isolated during this time so perhaps they are just pleased to have someone to speak to, and without them seeing the pen and paper used to take notes, it may feel less intense.

On the other hand, social workers are concerned about the limit of what they can do via virtual platforms.  It can be difficult to have a private conversation with a woman about domestic abuse, as social workers cannot be sure that the perpetrator is not in the home and listening to the conversation.  How are the interactions between social workers and women who have been subjected to domestic abuse been affected by the change in how they interact with one another?  Even if a social worker goes to the home, it is more likely they will not be able to speak to the woman on her own, without the perpetrator being around.  Doing virtual visits does not allow a social worker to see someone’s entire body, so bruises and marks may be missed, which may have prompted further discussion in person.  Therefore, it is difficult to get a full picture, and this could impact on the outcomes of assessments, and concerns may be missed. 

In my research, women have told me that what they want from social workers is to be build a relationship of trust, not of blame.  Some social workers feel it is more difficult to build a trusting relationship with women, if their only contact is over the phone or virtually as it takes away the personal touch.  They’re also concerned that they are not able to visit and observe the lived experiences of the children, or the women.  There is limited scope for being able to observe body language and interactions between those who live in the home.  Are social workers able to build the same level of rapport with someone during a virtual visit, especially an initial visit?  How does this impact on the emotional support a social worker is able to provide?  Perhaps some virtual online work will become more common place in social work after the pandemic, but the questions remain as to how the pandemic has impacted on the rapport building and engagement between social workers and families who have been subjected to domestic abuse.  We will have to wait and see what the new normal brings. 

Kim Detjen, Senior Lecturer Social Work and PhD Student, University of East London

Twitter: @kdetj


Featherstone, B. and Bowyer, S. (2020). ‘Social work with children and families in the pandemic (part three)’ Research in Practice.

Ferguson, H. (2018). ‘Making home visits: Creativity and the embodied practices of home visiting in social work and child protection’. Qualitative Social Work, 17(1), 65–80.

Ingala Smith, K. (2020) ‘Coronavirus Doesn’t Cause Men’s Violence Against Women’.

Stanley, N., Miller, P., Foster, H. and Thomson, G.  (2011) ‘Children’s Experiences of Domestic Violence:  Developing an Integrated Response from Police and Child Protection Services’, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 26 (12), pp. 2372-2391.