I listened with particular interest to a recent discussion on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme about the ongoing concerns over social worker competence in child protection cases. Peter Hay, who has been in charge of Birmingham Children’s Services since July this year was interviewed on the programme. He accepted that the department’s performance remains inadequate, as evidenced by the Ofsted ratings.

Hay highlighted that the scathing criticism of social services could affect the city’s ability to recruit social workers. Hay defended social workers, ” who have to make really risky decisions” and ”tough calls on when and how to act”. It was “unfair to expect them to have a crystal ball”, he suggested, as “you can’t predict everything that’s going to happen.”

Hay’s comments specifically resonated with me, as over the last year or so, I have been involved in projects aimed at preparing social workers to deal with the challenges of their complex and often emotionally demanding work.

Frontline support and better training

Through collaborative projects with the Leeds Metropolitan University, I had the opportunity to contribute to such worthwhile projects that are aimed at supporting social workers on sensitive matters. Having spoken to a number of social workers during this period, I was constantly struck by their commitment to supporting the most vulnerable members of our society, despite the pressures of workloads, negative press reporting, and resource issues.

There is a huge amount of effort and money committed to training for new and existing social workers already, but how can we maximise the effectiveness of such training? We know that learning by experience is critical in areas like social work but how do we enable that experience to be gained without risk to the people involved?

One solution was to create digital media simulations that integrated real life situations into the training programmes in a way that has proved to be realistic and meaningful for the learner and helps prepare them for the ‘risky decisions’ Hay refers to, in advance of having to tackle real life situations.

Child protection is a highly emotive issue and one which is under greater scrutiny both by the public, Government and experts. We couldn’t provide the ‘crystal ball’ that Hay refers to, but by simulating real life experiences and providing decision paths, we can help people to explore the ‘risky decisions’, choices and consequences that they will face in professional practice.

Digital media simulations have received feedback from users that has been overwhelmingly positive, with many commenting that they felt more confident about the safeguarding process after working through the learning tool. They welcomed the opportunity to practice gaining experience in a near to real life – and therefore safe – environment.