The Meandering Social Worker

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Archive for the tag “government”

Should social workers be political?

There was a time when that question didn’t need to be asked.  Social workers entered the profession knowing that the people they would be working with would, largely, be the poor and dispossessed, forgotten and unloved by society and so by governments.  Standing up for the rights of services users came with the job.  However, coinciding with the encroach of managerialism in the 1990’s so the political desire and muscle of social work has steadily weakened – at least on the front line: academics have, by and large, continued to bang the political drum.

Can it continue this way?  We live in a society where the ruling political class appears to be as far removed as possible from the reality of daily experience of large swathes of society.  It’s not just the traditionally disadvantaged, dispossessed and disaffected who are being impacted on by the austerity measures of UK governments since the global financial crisis of 2008/09.  The number of working poor has risen, dependent on tax credits, while there has been an exponential rise in the use of food banks.  David Cameron’s government squirmed under demands for evidence on the catastrophic impact of benefit sanctions policies, amid mounting anecdotal evidence of real hardship leading to deaths of people with chronic physical and mental health conditions.  Jeremy Corbyn swept into the leadership role of the Labour Party on an anti-austerity ticket, despite complete derision of him and his policies in the popular media.  Labour Party membership has since eclipsed membership of other political parties.  Corbyn has gone on to impress with his calmness, authenticity, and his doggedness at revealing the hypocrisy of government policies.  Regardless of whether you support him or his policies, there is no doubt he is having an impact.

With another financial crash forecast (and the evidence is compelling) the situation can only get worse.  The poor, disadvantaged, dispossed, and disaffected need champions more than ever.  Whether we work among children & families, adult services, with people affected by physical or learning disabilities, or mental health problems, we see the impact of poverty and austerity.  It’s not easy to fight the political fight when you too have been affected by years of managerialism, budget cuts, austerity, and frequently working way more hours than you are paid for, but maybe in the renewed interest in politics there will the re-politicalisation of social work long advocated by the academics.

References:

Tax Credits – there are too many news reports to cite here – however among the most recent has been the vote in the House of Lords which has delayed, for now, the implementation of cuts to tax credits before the implementation of a new national living wage.  George Osborne, responding to the decision in the House of Lords, made it clear that they will be continuing to pursue their policies and will be looking at taking action against the House of Lords to prevent such votes in future.

Labour membership – despite the claims that Jeremy Corbyn was a train crash waiting to happen for the Labour Party, party membership has continued to rise, something that began following their defeat in the May 2015 general election.  This has been reported in several places, including here in the International Business Times.

Benefit Sanctions – among the plethora of online news reports is this article in The Guardian.  It has got so bad that the UN is intending to investigate the UK government over benefit sanctions, as reported here in The Mirror.

Next financial crash – again reported in several places, this article in The Guardian brings the story up to date.

Why soundbites don’t work for society

I often see Facebook images and articles about social issues and share them on my own timelinepensions image, but I don’t think I can share this one.  It’s not that I don’t agree with the sentiment behind it.

Let me start by saying that I support people of retirement age getting an appropriate pension. It’s a part of human decency in supporting society. Not least as, after forty years of working myself, my own retirement is on the near horizon.

This image came with the comment that ‘inept governments who did not invest wisely over the years shouldn’t blame the olds’. But it’s not as simple as that. Firstly we elected those inept governments and then put our trust in them to act in our best interests. At one time we genuinely believed they did, now as a society we are much less sure (NatCen’s British Social Attitudes Survey highlights just how much our trust and belief in our governments have declined over the years).

But did our governments act ineptly in this matter? Surely governments over the years (1) could never invest the money because it was always paying out this year’s pension with this year’s Tax and National Insurance income and (2) why should they because in the early days of pensions they could reasonably assume that it would always be possible to work that way. Isn’t that how the majority of us budget our own weekly or monthly income?

They didn’t have a crystal ball any more than the rest of us to see how technology and globalisation would change the world. And so for all sorts of reasons that balancing of the budget between pension income and pension outgoings became harder and so in recent years we have seen the promotion of the private pension provision and the raising of the retirement age. That doesn’t take into account the fact that there are only so many jobs in the market place and if the old are working then the young aren’t – but that’s another debate.

In the meantime there are some things for which we should still be grateful – the UK state pension has only existed for 106 years and when it was introduced in 1909 it was as a non-contributory but means tested benefit claimable only over the age of 70 when only 25% of the population lived long enough to claim it. And, due to poor working conditions and health, many of those who did reach 70 years of age would have been among the better off and so not entitled to a means-tested benefit. Before 1909 you went to the workhouse or died if your family couldn’t keep you if you couldn’t work for any reason. (for more detail see History of State Pension Age)

When the new contributory pension was introduced in 1925 this was still an era when married women did not work. Men became entitled to pension payments at the age of 65 but had to wait until their wife retired, often 4-5 years later, to receive the full couple’s entitlement, forcing them either into poverty or the wife into the impossibility of entering the workplace, some for the first time in 40 years. Fortunately in those days employability depended less on employment record, although she would still have faced the barrier of married women not being seen as needing employment. This was no doubt harder on the women of the middle classes at the time as the women of the working classes were more likely to have had to supplement the family income through domestic work, taking in laundry, ironing and mending, and could continue to do so.

Women didn’t work outside the home because that was the social norm. A young woman might begin working when she left education but when she married she was often forced to resign her job to allow that opportunity to be passed on to another young person. My own mother was forced to resign her job in a local pharmacy when she married in the mid-1950’s as she was now perceived to be the ‘responsibility’ of her husband. But her husband was a manual labourer and on low income and not earning enough to keep the two of them. One day when my mother went into the pharmacy she was talking to her old boss and said how hard it was. He offered her her old job back – on the condition that she was called Miss, used her maiden name at work and took off her wedding ring at work: he feared the disapproval and that he would lose customers if they thought he was employing a married woman. As a carryover from that time, when I married in 1981 my new aunts (all in their 70’s) were shocked and disapproving that I intended to continue working once married.

In the meantime, in this same cultural environment, when the retirement age for women was reduced to 60 in 1940 it allowed couples to receive their pension entitlement at approximately the same time, based on the average age differences between husbands and wives, reducing pensioner poverty but with the happier side effect of allowing long term marrieds to retire and spend their last few years together, particularly as men were still likely to die of old age before their wives retired before that time.

Of course the second world war (1939-1945) did a lot to change the culture then, with married women making up the backbone of the domestic workforce while so many of the men were away fighting in the war. Expectations changed and with the end of the war things were never the same again.

The continued changing nature of society and relationships, powered by technological developments and globalisation, has changed our society almost beyond recognition to those times and things like the age differential has ceased to seem quite so defensible, allowing for legislative changes for men and women’s pensionable ages to be increased and brought on a par again.

Finally, with improved health care for everybody under the NHS, far more people have been living longer not only to reach pensionable age but also to be entitled to a pension income for half as long again as they worked and contributed for, thus increasing the burden on those still working and contributing. Back to my own mother’s story: thanks to the generosity of her employer she was able to work full time for around 8 years between leaving school and giving birth to me. Thanks to a local employer who specialised in exploiting young mums in need of an extra income she was able to work part time for a further 11 years. Then she worked a further 12 years full time until she retired at the age of 60. Had she not retired at 60 she would not have been able to work for much of the next five years as she underwent two hip replacement operations, one of which took much longer to heal than normal, due to infection. On a low income or working part time for 31 years, it is questionable whether she could ever have invested enough in her working life to have funded what is already over 23 years of retirement. Why should I consider a government capable of doing that (as suggested by the commentator I quoted at the beginning of this article)? For comparison, my own pension arrangements include two private company pensions now invested in private insurances that represent 10 years of working life and a combined anticipated income of £70 per month. If that is representative of the potential investment over 50 years I would have £350 per month to look forward to – less than the rent on a one bedroom flat. The rest of my private pension entitlement is better for having been with a local government pension scheme for a number of years but since halved due to divorce and a compulsory pension sharing agreement, just one of the newer challenges faced by today’s pension investors and not anticipated by the original pension planners 100 years ago, and still, in my case, not enough to pay the rent on a one bedroom flat. Admittedly I started late, having been born into the generation that was still being told our National Insurance contributions included an investment for our pensions. For all governmental intentions, private sector pensions are never going to fill the Welfare Benefits gap.

Like most people of her age, my mum could not work if she wanted to. She may have lived well beyond the life expectancy of a woman at the beginning of the 20th century, when pensions were introduced, but like so many of her friends, it has not been in the kind of health that would have enabled her to compete in the workplace.

The fact is, when life expectancy means that retirement is going to last for as much as half as many years again as we are able to work (more if you add a long university education in to the equation), governments need to budget for an aging population that is based on more than ‘investing wisely’ what is paid in National Insurance contributions.

Public spending on Benefits in the UKIn 2011-12 pensions and pension credits amounted to £82.33b, almost double what was spent on disability benefits combined (£24.58b) and almost a third of the total welfare benefits bill; although neither figure takes into account Housing and Council Tax Benefits, which will somewhat increase both these figures and their proportion of the overall benefits bill. These are not figures that can be easily changed. Age and disability cannot be ‘undone’. And ironically a capitalist society needs a pool of unemployed people to keep wages in check and provide incentives to workers to conform.

Some things might be changing. Concerns over the impact of the rising incidence of diet related health problems, including obesity, diabetes, heart problems, and more, have raised the possibility of a lowering of the average lifespan. The very real issue of antibiotic resistance, compounded by use of antibiotics in intensive farming methods and reduced research into new antibiotics under the growth of privately funded medical research where antibiotic development is not profitable, will have the same impact.

While the mercenary view suggests this will reduce the pressure on pension provision in the future it will hardly help the wider financial picture as pressure is put on health providers and disability benefits, while reducing the pool of people available to work.

Emotive photos with captions that pensions are not a benefit but something that has been paid for over years is sound-bite propaganda. It’s not helpful in the wider debate. We are collectively a part of a wider community. Bunkering down into our own field of concern, whether it be pensions, disability benefits, child poverty, NHS, or education, will not help. The creeping privatisation of our National Health Service and Education system (through increasing academies) will not produce an answer. Just as communism fell because of the greed of a minority and the oppression of the majority, so too will capitalism eventually follow for the same reasons.

The whole system needs an overhaul. Society as a whole needs to recognise shared responsibility for the functioning of society. That includes the domination of our food industry by companies that put profit before community health (and global impact); the impact of the privatisation of research that means that essential but unprofitable research doesn’t get done; the privatisation of healthcare that will disadvantage the already disadvantaged (just look to the United States to see why the NHS should be saved); the privatisation of education and social care that means that costs and services have to meet the needs of shareholders often at the expense of service users, because that’s how capitalism works; governments that make policy decisions based on short term objectives, or what will get them voted in again next time, because that’s how democracy works, instead of on what society needs five generations into the future, as the old American Indians thought.

I have become a fan of Margaret Heffernan’s book Wilful Blindness (she’s also on TED Talks). Its human nature, it’s in the way our brains have been wired, to see only that which is easy to see. Facebook works that way: ever noticed how you always get more of what you believe, that’s because facebook works like your brain and ignores that which you will find intellectually uncomfortable. But we have to make the effort to see beyond the natural blindness, to see beyond the soundbites, if we ever want to be a part of a fully functioning society that cares for one another.

David Ruffley in the news

Reports of the incident of common assault by Bury St Edmunds MP David Ruffley on his then partner from the Daily Mail online.

Ending victimisation and blame comment on the news that MP David Ruffley has been convicted of common assault on his now ex-partner.

Ending victimisation and blame comment on the Jeremy Vine interview with local conservative party member defending his MP David Ruffley on his recent case of domestic violence against his now ex-partner.

After pressure from a number of different quarters on what David Ruffley described as a “private matter” of his caution for “common assault” this incident is now being re-branded for what it was, “domestic violence”.  As reported in the Independent online, a result of these pressures is that David Ruffley has decided to resign at the end of this current term in Parliament, blaming not his own actions but “the protracted media debate” and “the unrelenting orchestrated intrusion into [his] private life”.  The Telegraph online further quoted Joanna Spicer, local party member and former chairman of the Suffolk Domestic Violence Partnership, supporting David Ruffley’s decision to continue in his role until the next election, saying “[he] has been a very good MP for many years and has earned a great deal of affection and respect” and “given the wide debate locally and nationally about domestic abuse and the high standard of expectations we have of our political leaders I feel that he has made a sensible decision.”

Although David Ruffley has apologised for his actions he is not resigning because he believes what he did was wrong.  He is resigning because his position in Parliament has become ‘untenable’.  What is surprising is that even the ex-chairman of the Suffolk Domestic Violence Partnership is placing weight on the media pressure that has arisen out of his case.

The petitions and media pressure have called for his resignation and although that is being deferred to 2015 they have achieved that initial goal.  But what do we really want?  Is resignation alone right or enough?  Will David Ruffley go off in to the wilderness for a few years, until the current furore has been forgotten and he comes back as a consultant or even an MP again?  Will the argument be that he has served his penance in losing his job? A job he apparently loves.

Just consider the question of why anyone would want to become an MP in the first place.  Modern politics is a power game.  Although not exclusively it attracts men and women who want public recognition and power.  Of course that’s only public recognition for being good – as David Ruffley’s case demonstrates as soon as the publicity becomes negative they want to retreat into ‘personal privacy’.  But power is another matter.  Power can be used for good or bad.  Power is behind bullying whether in schools or employment.  Power is behind domestic violence.

In his exile will David Ruffley be given the opportunity to consider his actions, the misuse of power, and whether the way he treated his ex-partner was appropriate, whether ‘common assault’ of anyone let alone ‘common assault’ of someone you purport to love and care for, your partner, your wife, your husband, is appropriate.  From the comments of her friends this was not an isolated or first incident.  Or will he be allowed to fester in his resentment at the public furore that didn’t understand the private nature of his personal life and so forcing him out of a job he loves, embedding in him a sense of self-righteousness?

Just questions?  No need to answer them.  The answers are pretty obvious.  I expect to see David Ruffley back in the public eye in due course, having served his ‘undeserved sentence’ and without having addressed any of the reasons he got the ‘sentence’ in the first place.  I hope I’m wrong.  In the meantime let’s support the messages from Ending victimisation and blame.

 

 

 

 

Counter-productive reform in helping disadvantaged young people get good jobs

A “major reform” in education, one that will specifically “help hundreds of thousands of young people get good jobs” has been announced in a government press release on Monday 2 September.

The “major reform” is that all children who leave school without a grade C in Maths or English must continue to study these subjects “in post-16 education until they get these qualifications”.

“The reform was proposed in 2011 by Professor Alison Wolf in her ground-breaking review of vocational education and backed by Education Secretary Michael Gove.”

And there are some very sound reasons behind the reform, in particular the press release outlines that:

  • many employers are not satisfied with the literacy and numeracy levels of young people leaving education, despite considering these skills essential in the workplace, and
  • many young people do not continue to study once they have left full-time compulsory education or go on to improve their literacy and numeracy skills.

I didn’t need to go to the Guardian online to know that many teachers will be sitting, like me, with their heads in their hands groaning in woe at this latest madcap idea.  None of us disagree with the importance of literacy and numeracy skills, but collectively a number of concerns are being raised:

  • Funding is of course an issue.  As this is still only a press release little information is available as to how the reforms will be funded, although there is reference to colleges being able to offer “other qualifications – including functional skills and free-standing mathematics qualifications accredited by Ofqual – as a stepping stone to GCSE study” and this being “a condition of funding for colleges from 2014”.  And, “a new 16 to 19 funding formula ending the link between funding and qualification success rates”, as well as “reformed performance tables”.
  • Apart from the acknowledgement of ‘stepping stone’ qualifications little has been said about children with special educational needs or those for whom English is a second language.  As one teacher comments, for some children with additional needs, a grade D or E is a major achievement?
  • The third key concern coming from comments by teachers is around availability of additional teaching staff in the midst of a crisis in teacher training as well as the strains the additional workloads will produce and the climate of changing relationships between schools and local authorities.

But I have some other questions and concerns about this “major reform”.

  • My greatest concern is the impact this reform will have on vocational education.  As one of the Guardian comments points out, literacy and numeracy skills are an essential part of much of vocational post-16 learning, which inevitably includes a number of students with additional learning needs.  If these colleges have then to focus on students passing one particular exam it will undoubtedly be at the expense of them studying a wider range of skill sets.  THIS WILL BE HIGHLY COUNTERPRODUCTIVE.  Especially for students with additional learning needs.
  • No reference is made to life-long learning.  Even without having taken part in formal post-16 learning most people continue to learn new things as they get older and come against new experiences.  Skills that remain unpractised fade away.  I remember little of some subjects I supposedly have an ‘O’ Level in while in others my knowledge has continued to grow over the years due to exposure to reading, television and sources internet as sources of information.  We know that if we learn a foreign language but don’t practice it we soon forget it – sure, it comes back again but not as quickly as in ‘riding a bike’.  The emphasis on passing an exam and not in encouraging a real appreciation of using the skills learned is not necessarily going to have the desired result of producing young people ‘fit for work’.

My other concerns are a little more pedantic.

  • When does it end?  The phrase in the press release which says young people leaving school without a Grade C in Maths or English will continue to study “until they get these qualifications” has been ill thought-out.  What if they never get the qualification?  Is there an upper age limit?  Will adults still have to go to college when they are in their 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, until they get the required Grade C in these subjects.  The press report’s references to funding only refer to the 16-19 age range.
  • No acknowledgement is being made of the fact that Grade C was always meant to be an ‘average’ grade.  For Grade C to be the benchmark for average there has to be As, Bs, Ds and Es.  Call me old-fashioned if you like.
  • But most of all I hate the lie that is in the title of the press release: “Major reform will help hundreds of thousands of young people get good jobs”.  It won’t.  Cramming for an exam, being pushed through the mill to write the correct (or correct enough) answers to questions on a piece of paper in an exam room, probably at the expense of learning other skills, is not the route to young people getting good jobs.  Literacy and numeracy are vitally important, but when these skills don’t come naturally there are other (better) ways of learning them, as pointed out by the vocational teachers in the Guardian comments.

Instead of wasting time with reforms to put right what’s missing as young people are leaving school, research time should be spent on how literacy and numeracy skills can be better learned in the eleven years between 5 and 16.  What are the pressures that encourage or deter developing these skills in those years?  What are the existing policies that make it either harder or easier for teachers in promoting these skills?  And then let the vocational teachers do what they do best – develop literacy and numeracy skills alongside vocational skills.

Why should I be interested in educational reforms as a social worker?  Well, education IS relevant to social work.  It’s relevant to the people, the families, we work with.  It affects families with children especially, but the long term consequences of good or bad education policy affect every age group.

Who should prepare young people for work?

In a recent interview with the Daily Mail (albeit not exactly Britain’s most reliable source of news), Nick Hurd, minister for Civil Society has been quoted as having expressed a number of concerns about the fitness for work of Britain’s school leaving generation:

“young people are failing to find work because they lack ‘grit'”;  “social skills and discipline are every bit as essential for success as qualifications – yet they are not being taught in schools”;  “the ‘crushingly low’ self-confidence of many youngsters [affects] their employment prospects”;  “[employers] are saying [they] are not seeing enough of [the so-called soft skills, character skills, the ability to get on with different people, to articulate yourself clearly, grit, self-control] in kids coming out of school”

A message that has unfortunately been timed to coincide with those same young people receiving their GCSE results, surely not the best way to build confidence and resilience and help their employment prospects!

The Daily Mail article goes on to quote economic analyst at the Left-wing think-tank, Spencer Thompson: “employers … value employability and those skills are lacking among young people.  They need people who turn up on time, look presentable and know how to present themselves in an interview”.  And the British Chambers of Commerce  who say bosses are disheartened, if not downright frustrated by school leavers.

None of this of course is entirely new: Aristotle (384-322 BCE) and Socrates (469-399 BCE) are both much quoted as having complained about the youth of their day!

Nick Hurd’s interview has obviously struck a chord in other quarters, with articles appearing in Huffington Post, The Times, and the London Evening Standard, and more, each bringing their own take on the subject of what the statistics show is an increasing number of young NEETS (not in education, employment or training).  Ignoring the irrelevant personal attacks on Nick Hurd in some of the articles and comments they have attracted, some very valid points are made about the availability of jobs.

But what is the view of the educators?  Should schools be teaching the ‘soft-skills’: such as self-confidence, grit (defined here by Wikipedia) and self-control?  Actually, I can imagine teachers around the country reading this interview and shaking their heads in dismay.  These skills are promoted in schools if only to achieve the purpose of actually providing children with an academic education.

Can school truly prepare children for work?  I don’t think so, only work experience can really do that.  I remember well my first week of work after eleven years of education.  It was a shock!  But I got over it.  And in the year that followed I changed, I grew up a lot.  But that was a long time ago.

I would suggest that some things have changed in the intervening years:

* there are fewer jobs open to young people with little or no previous work experience; this is because
* the modern work environment of short-term contracts, pressure on productivity, the demise of the manufacturing industry in favour of trades that depend on the “soft-skils”, etc, is less conducive to giving young people the opportunities to gain experience; and
* modern apprenticeships have not filled the gap of the demise of the old-style apprenticeships; also
* young people are encouraged to expect more – more money, more responsibility, more rights – before they have learned how to earn or handle these things.

One thing hasn’t changed:

* as any parent will recognise, young people in their mid-teens are still a complicated mixture of adult and child, mature in some respects, immature in others.

The good news is that research in recent years is beginning to help us understand adolescent development.  International reports from National Geographic, Harvard Magazine, National Institute of Mental Health and other less academic websites tell the same story.  The adolescent brain is still developing – it is neither child nor adult, some of which goes a long way to explaining what is seen as typical teenage behaviour and accounts for the dichotomy of how the teenager can seem sensible one minute and act completely immature or out of character the next.  While frustrating parents (and employers) this apparent delay in brain development seems to play an essential role in providing teenagers with an adaptability as they find their own path into what is for them still an unknown adulthood.  In fact the research suggests that the brain is still ‘adolescent’ to varying degrees until the mid or even late 20’s.  See also articles here and here.

None of this is an argument for increasing the school leaving age, a concept popular with politicians, rather the opposite.  Teenagers don’t need another year or two of the same cloistered environment they have been in for the last 11+ years.

To help the teenage brain develop and strengthen the neural pathways, the frontal cortex, etc, to increase their skills of assessment of risk and what might be summed up in what we call common sense, they need new experiences; experiences akin to work in the real world; they need an employment system (not just employers) who can provide young employees with appropriate boundaries (such as time-keeping) and space to develop and grow in skills and experience; they need the opportunity to experience working with others of different generations and experience (unlike school where children are generally kept with others close in age to themselves), observing and learning from adulthood ‘on the job’.

But for now, the problem is that employers, and Nick Hurd, are asking of teenagers something their brains are just not wired to provide.  Teaching in schools will not overcome biological development.  Just as we can see that it’s silly to expect a week old baby to be walking and running like a six year old, as a society we need to understand that an invisible development is still going on for the teenager.

That’s not an excuse for bad behaviour.  It’s not a reason to allow teenagers and even young adults to cause mayhem.  It’s recognising that as a society, as employers, as government, we all have a role to play in enabling and supporting young people, teenagers and young adults to complete their natural development.

Young people don’t need to be told they are lacking essential skills, self confidence, the ability to get on with different people, etc.  They need to be told that they are moving through the next phase of their development and learning of life skills.  They need the opportunity to move out of the cloistered environment of school and into work (or further education).  Perhaps further research show the effects on brain development of young people who don’t get the opportunity these opportunities: will their brains continue to mature or will they remain ‘forever adolescent’?

Although the National Citizen Service volunteering programme (mentioned in the same article in the Daily Mail), providing young people with “two weeks of team-building skills while living away from home … then return to run a charity venture of their choice in a local area” seems good, what is really needed is for the government and employers to work together to create real jobs, earning real money, in real work environments, and not pass the buck to schools and teenagers to deal with something that is actually outside their scope to change.

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