By Peter Hay
So let’s cut to a summary of the evidence that there are stand-out social workers and excellent social work within systems that are under so much stress.
- ‘Compassionate, committed and creative’ – a description of Gareth Benjamin , Mental Health Social Worker of the Year 2017
- “Innovative and different – thinking outside the box …experiential and evidence based” – the view of Prof Hugh McLaughlin about Essex County Council’s Virtual Dementia Tour, award winners in 2017.
- Or the words of The Chief Social Worker for Adults, Lyn Romeo, about Jennifer Staude, Adult Social Worker of the Year, 2018 ‘ (Jen) has won the confidence of the other professionals and most importantly service users! Brilliant’
The Social Worker of the Year Awards exist to raise the profile of social workers as they support people to live great lives and to change the systems that influence lived experience. Over nearly a decade, the awards have consistently developed our approach, striving to do more to support our purpose. Here are six lessons that we have learnt along the way that might help with thinking about social care futures:
- Great practice needs to be nurtured: there are employers who foster a culture of recognition through practice development that facilitates the leadership shown by great practitioners. (A particular shout out for the sponsors of the awards and those who have repeatedly sponsored and supported our work!)
- We need a narrative about good from people with direct experience of social work that changed them. The awards continue to develop the direct involvement of people with lived experience. My personal reflection is that there is untapped power in the stories that people tell about social workers which set an expectation of courtesy, understanding and building up self-control. When hospital social worker, Vidhya Bju became the Overall Social Worker of the Year in 2017, the testimony of friends and relatives of people she had worked with rang out; “if ever I needed a social worker, I would want it to be Vidhya’.
- Social work needs great story tellers from more than just social care background. In 2018 BBC News Reporter Ashley John-Baptiste shared his story of how his social worker made Cambridge University possible for him. James Corden made a surprise interview from his US studio that you can find on social media illustrating the power of such support. We’re indebted to our amazing patron Lorraine Pascale, and many of us (ok, me!) share the gratitude that her social worker introduced her to cakes! Lorraine’s support, alongside her tweets and blogs link the awards and the sort of social work to the public in very different ways.
- Social work is at its best when it stays grounded in social justice and human potential. The awards centre on the international definition of social work and over recent years have put more stress on the balance between great work with people and the requirement of social work to promote social change. The awards to Social Workers Without Borders, Norfolk’s People From Abroad Team or to Carolyne Willow of Article 38 amongst others illustrate that these values are alive and well.
- Social work’s edginess and image mean we have to work hard at creating new spaces for political support. The Awards have enjoyed consistent support from our political patrons, Tim Loughton MP and Emma Lewell-Buck MP who have built up Ministerial support and involvement over recent years which we hope to sustain. Their tours and talks at our winner’s reception in Parliament do much to open up an understanding of the context around social work and public policy. Many of our sponsors have strong local political leadership who ‘get social work’ and are delighted to support it.
6. We can do more and the Awards want to continue to develop. We are being led more and more by people with experience and by social workers. We want to develop an offer to learn from the amazing practice of social work that we recognise and we continue to strive to shape public understanding. We are undertaking some survey work with the University of Birmingham to help us further understand our impact.
We have just shortlisted entries for the 2019 awards so look out in November for the stories about the 2019 winners. There is little doubt that their work will show the development of social work values rooted in ‘social justice, human services and human potential’. (To borrow a phrase from one of judges, Clenton Farquharson MBE).
The life changing role played by a great social worker was brilliantly captured by a person receiving social work from Sian Miljkovic, the Student Social Worker of The Year 2018:
‘When you knocked on my door, you literally turned my life around. Finally, there was a woman who understood and knew exactly what to do to help. My eyes have been opened and I feel free.’
So great, life changing social work is out there: it’s innovative, brave and builds the confidence and freedoms of those who experience it. Sometimes the last people to see the power of social work can be social workers themselves and the Awards continues to work to raise the level of support for a culture of reward and recognition. As we continue to debate reforming adult social care, perhaps we need at times to remember the refrain from the Imitation Game that there are people doing things that can’t be imagined and make the aim of further reform to create the conditions where we can imagine social work being this good (and better) everywhere.
Peter Hay, Chair, Social Worker of the Year