There is a scene at the end of Mary Poppins where the Banks Family go to fly kites together. It is a joyous scene, celebrating a family with a renewed identity, purpose and open to possibilities about many exciting futures. But it’s also really quite sad as it marks the moment where Mary Poppins realises how much she cares about the Banks Family just at the point when they don’t need her any more. She gathers up her bag and quietly floats away presumably to another family in need. The mix of emotions on display are really familiar to social workers. As is the decision to walk quietly away from a successful intervention, leaving the family or the person to determine how they frame telling their story to the world.
For several weeks now there has been a lively debate taking place about the media image of social work following an episode of Dispatches featuring a Social Worker calling themselves Vicky. There are concerns within the profession that the constant barrage of negative media images about social work is resulting in people leaving the profession. Some voices argue that we must step up and that individual social workers should tell their story about why they entered the profession and what it is that drives them. The thing about Mary Poppins though, is that you never find out her back story, and crucially, that never detracts from the movie. You never stop and think, oh if only there had been a bit all about Mary. As deeply frustrating as it is that the media continue to only tell negative stories about social work, that doesn’t mean that individual social workers should be rushing to fill the press with their story.
There are lots of factor which influence retention within the profession, level of professional autonomy, access to resources and CPD, the professional relationships between agencies in the sphere of practice that social workers operate and most importantly alignment of the values of the employing organisation with social work values. Media image however, there isn’t much evidence that negative media has quite the effect many appear to be assuming it does. Given the extent of media coverage of the role of social workers in the cases of Victoria Climbie, Baby Peter, Winterbourne View, Stephen Neary, Connor Sparrowhawk and in the most recent of tragedies Liam Fee, it would surely be hard to find any social worker who has qualified in the last 10 years who wasn’t aware of the media image of the profession when they joined.
The thing that Mary Poppins reminds us, is that it isn’t our story to tell, it belongs to the person we are there to support. If they choose to include in how they want their story telling that a social worker was involved, then we should be honoured to respect their decision. However, the really hard thing about social work is that in most cases, the real test of the success of the social work intervention is that the person no longer wants or needs to acknowledge the social work. Good social workers get that.
A while ago a script writer made contact who was looking at making a six part TV drama ‘about social work’. The conversation with the writer was fascinating. She wanted to know stories ‘about social workers doing social work’ and the impact it had on them. We decided that we couldn’t help her. Our ‘best’ social work stories were essentially not ours to tell. Social work stories include the family in absolute crisis following a ‘honour killing’ which claimed the death of one family member and the incarceration of many others; a young mother admitted to hospital under a section following the death of her baby; a man ‘escaping from a care home’. These were stories and experiences that were vivid, powerful influences shaping our practice. But they weren’t what the writer wanted. She wanted to know the impact on us of being involved in complex case work, what we felt and our role in ‘dealing’ with the pressure. Whether its part of social work training or our particular approach to practice, this isn’t something that we could articulate. It wasn’t important. The effect of experiencing other people’s lives genuinely didn’t feel like a story we could tell. Only the people we have worked with know if their lives were any better as a result and only they have the right to tell their story however they chose to frame it. People who experience social work are the ones who should be telling the media what social work is, both good and bad.
A palliative care social worker told us that good social workers are like chameleons. They blend in. You don’t often see them its enough for people who need social work to know they’re there and that’s enough recognition for the social worker too. Thinking about it, Mary Poppins had chameleon like qualities, her carpet bag of social work having moved on from the traditional contents (day care, home care, respite, supported living) to a more exciting range of modern options (Direct Payments, Individual Service Funds, Personal Health Budgets, Integrated Personal Commissioning). You can still find if you look deep enough into the bag her spoon full of sugar.
But social work isn’t about looking down a deep hole at someone, turning on a blue light and inviting the paparazzi around to film the drama unfold. Social work is about getting into the hole with the person to give them the leg up so they can wherever possible scramble out of it clinging onto whatever dignity remains. If the person tells someone of the great work of the social worker then that’s great, if they don’t then that’s great too. It doesn’t lessen what the social worker did. Social workers have their moments of fame. They know their worth. They are honoured at least one night every year when they have an award ceremony. The Queens honours list regularly includes social workers. But for the rest of the time they are OK going under the radar acknowledging that ‘their story’ was never really theirs in the first place.
If we are really critically reflective, is the desire to sell positive social work through the press really about us trying to get a message out that ‘we are here, please fund us?’. If it is then lets be honest. In times when food banks are reporting increased usage, records of people are requiring mental health care & the numbers of safeguarding referrals are reaching epic proportions we need to rejoice and celebrate social work. Our unseen, unheralded social work, is keeping more children and adults safe and alive. But hold the front page, we don’t want it.
Mary Poppins intervention in the lives of the Banks was mesmeric. But in the end, only the Banks knew about the magic she brought into their lives. Having made that difference, she blended into the background and floated off. No headline required.