Chief social work inspector Alexis Jay on the changes that lie ahead for social work in Scotland
Alexis Jay, chief social work inspector and chief executive of the Social Work Inspection Agency (SWIA) is a well kent face in social work, having spent four decades working in some of Scotland’s most deprived communities.
During her local government career she only ever worked in areas of multiple deprivation, including Glasgow, Inverclyde, north Lanarkshire and west Dunbartonshire – “So I’ve almost got the full set, the only one missing is Dundee in terms of areas of deprivation,” she says. “And that work has formed a lot of my thinking and views about social work.” Jay had the difficult task of serving as president of the Association of Directors of Social Work at the time the profession was rocked by two high-profile service failings – the discovery of the systematic abuse of a young woman in the Scottish Borders and the death of 11-week-old Caleb Ness.
“That was a very challenging time for social work, very difficult. But I think we came through it better,” she says.
Following the incidents, the then Scottish Executive decided to create a formal independent system of scrutiny. SWIA was established in 2005, and Jay appointed to lead it.
While she says it was a very trying time for social work, it is a role that she has found rewarding.
“I didn’t know I would enjoy it, I wasn’t sure that I would,” she says. “I thought I might make myself the most unpopular person in social work circles, and I may be with some people but I’m confident that I’m not with everybody.” The work that SWIA carried out at that time was “essential”, she says.
“Social work needed the confidence and reassurance that a comprehensive system of scrutiny could provide.
“…We needed to be able to benchmark, we needed to know where we stood in comparison to others and we needed evidence.
I think that is what SWIA has provided.” So where does Scotland stand now in comparison with others?
“I think we do, in some dimensions, extremely well,” she says. “In others, less well.
It is quite a mixed picture but I’m often very proud of what I can tell European colleagues about our achievements here and our thinking here.” Soon this picture will become more apparent. Early next year SWIA will publish an overview of social work services in Scotland, drawing on evidence and knowledge gained from its 2005-09 inspection programme, which Jay describes as “the most important publication we will have issued”.
“We can’t cover everything but we have a huge amount of material that we want to capture the essence of everything we’ve been doing, obviously, for the purpose of informing people so that they can learn and so that they know about best practice and to give pointers for the future about what needs to improve.” It is important to take stock as social work is on the precipice of change once more.
The Scottish Government’s Public Services Reform Bill heralds significant changes for social work in Scotland. Among its proposals are plans to create a new single body for social work and social care services, the clunkily-titled Social Care and Social Work Improvement Scotland (SCSWIS).
Despite the bill sounding the death knell for SWIA as a distinct organisation, Jay says she supports the principles behind it.
“The principles behind the bill I was able to support because it brought together the three elements of social work and social care that are now located in three different organisations. I think it was absolutely proper that SWIA did the work it did. I don’t think any other organisation could have done it at an earlier stage and I’m sure that is true of the child protection work and HMIE and the Care Commission’s regulatory work.
However, we are at a point where it seems not just sensible and convenient to bring the three together, but that there will be added value in bringing those three elements together and unifying them as a system of regulation and inspection.” And yet SWIA is only four years young. Is she disappointed the organisation isn’t being given more time to develop?
“Well, of course, ideally we might have wanted to have finished all of the follow-up inspections,” she says with a wry smile. “But there is never the right time for reorganisation, you just have to do it. I suppose all of those involved could say the same. So I don’t think we have a case for special pleading.” What will the changes mean for Jay personally? Will she be working as part of the new body?
“The answer is I don’t know,” she says. “I am absolutely clear that I am committed to ensuring that this transition period is managed as well as it can be and I am very anxious to ensure that in my part of the world we retain as many of our staff as we can – researchers, inspectors, administrators – we need these people to populate the new organisation and play their part in making it a success. For the staff in my organisation it is a big change for them because they would be moving from the civil service, and that also applies to HMIE staff who would transfer.
This is a very big change for some people who have worked their entire lives in the civil service so I wouldn’t underestimate that, it is not something that can be treated lightly.” And while she admits to being anxious about the retention of experienced members of staff during this period of uncertainty, she is also worried about recruitment as social work deals with the fallout of high-profile incidents such as the death of Baby Peter down south, and Brandon Muir in Scotland, which have dominated media and political debate.
The more sensational reporting of these cases in the media was “truly disgraceful”, she says. While she says that organisations such as ADSW have been trying to address some of these issues through media campaigns and says there is evidence of responsible, thoughtful reporting of these difficult cases, the relationship between the media and social work remains fraught. However, she also notes that having looked back at some of the coverage of the death of Baby Peter, the newspapers were not the only source of vitriol.
“Some of it was fuelled by politicians,” she says. “While nobody, least of all me, would defend people not being accountable for their actions if they were culpable, nobody would do that and never should, but the vilification of the whole profession that occurred out of the mouths of some politicians south of the border and indeed in some of the newspapers was awful.” Does she think all the negative coverage will have an impact on social work recruitment?
“If you were a young person leaving university and looking for a future career that must be a serious question,” she says.
“Obviously it makes recruitment to the children and families and child protection work potentially more difficult. It is not to say that people will be put off other aspects of social work. But there is no doubt that it will have an impact at least in the short term.” In Scotland, Jay says that politicians such as First Minister Alex Salmond and Scottish Conservative leader Annabel Goldie voicing their support for the profession in the wake of such incidents was greatly appreciated by social workers, calling their statements to Parliament “highly commendable” and “very responsible”. More recently the political debate around child protection has been continued by Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray arguing that the system is “too concerned with fixing families rather than always doing what is in the best interests of children and their futures.” Jay says she has some “sympathy” with Gray’s argument.
“I have some sympathy for a view that says we must be clear about the circumstances in which it is not acceptable to tolerate the family environment. I don’t actually see it only applying to this kind of case [Brandon Muir].
But I’ve seen it in other cases, for example, the absolute filth and appalling physical conditions in our Western Isles report years ago, the truly appalling circumstances that children were left in significantly longer than they should have been.” There is, she says, a need for some clarity about these issues, and a need to ensure that the young person remains the absolute focus for all professionals, not just social workers.
“All professionals should be clearer about the boundaries and limits of tolerance in what they are looking at. Too often we see over optimistic attitudes where professionals, and I don’t just mean social workers, confuse cooperation and compliance by an individual with real change and improvement in the family environment for a child. Of course we want professionals to have that positive view of people’s capacity to change but not where children are not properly protected or indeed they are being neglected or harmed.
That optimism shouldn’t come at the expense of the child.”