“And the winner is…” — Why we still need to talk about the Social Work Awards

Christian Kerr
16 min readMar 8, 2021
“It’s no use, Mr. James — it’s turtles all the way down.”

I really hadn’t planned to write about the Social Work Awards again, having previously written about corporate sponsorship of the Awards as well as more generally about basing a ‘celebration of social work’ on an industry awards model. However, two recent events have given me cause to revisit the topic, with a third, in my view, adding an important contextual consideration.

The first was the announcement (in late 2020, I think) that Sir Martin Narey had been appointed to a non-executive board position at Sanctuary Personnel, the social work recruitment agency which for the last ten years has been the ‘headline sponsor’ of the Social Work Awards, his key role to advise Sanctuary as it “continues to transcend from a recruitment company into a solutions-provider”.

The second was my recently discovering that a ‘free’ online social work news outlet, Social Work News, is owned by Sanctuary Personnel.

The third is the recently launched Review of Children’s Social Care in England, announced by the Department for Education on 15th January 2021.

Sir Martin Narey

Sir Martin has had a varied and impressive career, including in the prison service and as CEO of Barnardo’s . He has been an advisor to Michael Gove and was once engaged by G4S to write a report on Rainsbrook secure training centre in which he stated “very challenging children” were treated “overwhelmingly well”. This ran counter to findings of a joint report on Rainsbrook by Oftsed, the CQC and the then chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick, published in the preceding months.

Sir Martin authored a report on social work education which supported the splitting of social work education and training into children and families and adult specialisms, a move already underway with inception of the childrens and families social work fast track Frontline. It is perhaps worth noting that Frontline was founded and, until recently, led by social/policy entrepreneur Josh MacAlister, who stepped down as CEO of Frontline upon being appointed by the Department for Education as chair of the aforementioned review of children’s social care in England.

Sir Martin has previously led a review of children’s residential care in which he made a number of recommendations around local authorities making better use of private and voluntary sector providers. He has expressed views in favour of increasing adoption. (The terms of reference of the aforementioned children’s social care review contain an explicit reference to ‘boosting adoption’.)

Sanctuary Personnel and its growing network of social work businesses

Sanctuary Personnel has been the ‘headline sponsor’ of the Social Work Awards for the past ten years, during which time its revenue from social work recruitment has increased more or less year on year. I understand from those who have attended the Awards that the CEO of Sanctuary Personnel ‘gives out the gongs’, as it were. Quite aside from any specific concerns, I think we social workers should question the very fact that a CEO of a large private business which profits from social work is giving out awards at a celebration of social work.

Sanctuary Personnel’s CEO is also listed as sole director of a number of companies:

Innovate Invision Ltd, Innovate Therapeutic Care Ltd, and Innovate (H & SC) Services Ltd — These are all relatively new ventures. Innovate Invision was incorporated as a private company on 24th February 2021 and provides a tool for local authorities to quality assure Educational Health and Care Plans. Innovate Therapeutic Care Ltd was incorporated in April 2020 and provides a ‘sustainable alternative to high-cost placements’ by either ‘managing cases to identify suitable stable placements or by taking children and young people through our residential Innovate Therapeutic Care programme’. This looks to me very much like a privatised/outsourced social work model combined with a privatised residential care option. Innovate Services Ltd was incorporated in September 2019 and provides, among other things, a CIN (Children in Need) programme which ‘involves Innovate CYPS taking full case management of all cases, ensuring the local authority’s statutory responsibilities are met’. Again this looks very much to me like a privatised/outsourced social work model. Given concerns that the recently launched review of children’s social care (‘the Care Review’) (see below) is held by many to constitute another step toward deregulated and privatised models, something the chair denied, unprompted, when I met him (more on this meeting at a later date) these are not insignificant pieces of information. While I don’t doubt the chair’s sincerity, we do have a government — and a Chief Social Worker for Children and Families (a staunch proponent of and frequent member of the judging panel for the Social Work Awards) — who have consistently pursued a ‘deregulate to innovate’ agenda, so with respect to the chair and the civil servants supporting him, it is not necessarily the Care Review team that I am concerned about.

The team at Innovate Services includes none other than Sir Martin Narey, in a non-executive director role, Innovate’s managing director stating the appointment ‘represents an important milestone for Innovate Services as we continue to promote innovation within children’s SEND and social care… I have no doubt that he will play a pivotal role at Innovate Services as we expand our service offering.’

Time will tell if that expansion will benefit from the recommendations of the Care Review.

The Sanctuary CEO is also the sole director of Migrate Group Ltd. It is unclear whether that company is linked to this website, which offers visas to Australia and Canada. Aside from that, I can find no other mention of the company.

Tessellate Technologies Ltd was incorporated in September 2019 but I can’t find any information on it other than that held by Companies House.

There are a plethora of Sanctuary-named companies: Sanctuary Social Work Projects Ltd, Sanctuary Social Care Ltd, Sanctuary Personnel II Ltd, mostly dormant. There are a few reasons why a dormant company would be kept. Sanctuary Recruitment Marketing Ltd is interesting in relation to my experience regarding Sanctuary’s apparent misuse of my personal data (see below). This page not only mentions Social Work News (‘Sanctuary’s quarterly social work magazine’) but also Sanctuary’s database: ‘From many years of marketing activity, Sanctuary has built an extensive database of experienced candidates from professions across the health, social care and criminal justice sectors.’ Hmmm. Quite. Well, they can remove my details from it for a start.

The mother-company itself, Sanctuary Social Care Limited, has only two board members, including the CEO. He is also a director, along with Sanctuary Personnel (does that make him a director twice-over? How does it work?) of Skylakes Social Work Ltd, another recruitment agency which also occasionally contacts me unsolicited despite it being listed as dormant on Companies House.

Social Work News and concerns about the use of personal data held by Sanctuary Personnel

My recent connecting of Social Work News — which I’d never heard of until a few days before writing this — to Sanctuary Personnel took a decidedly personal turn when I realised I had been receiving promotional emails from Social Work News despite never having registered on the website. I had, however, registered with Sanctuary Personnel as an agency worker some years ago, though had not taken up any employment through them. It is reasonable, therefore, to believe that Sanctuary Personnel may have provided my email address to whoever is responsible for maintaining the mailing list at Social Work News. As Sanctuary holds other personal data of mine from my previous registration (I know this because they still ring me and email about potential roles, as do Skylakes, a recruitment agency which is affiliated with Sanctuary — see below) it is extremely concerning that Sanctuary may be using personal data in ways that are not transparent and for which I, for one, have not given explicit consent. Given that you have to register on the Social Work News website to receive the latest issue of the magazine, concerns that it may be serving as a data mine for one of the largest health and social care recruitment agencies in the country are, I would say, not unreasonable.

The Social Work Awards

The Social Work Awards (formerly the Social Worker of the Year Awards) began in 2006 and for a number of years appears to have been a fairly modest though well-regarded celebration of social work. Since 2011, however, the Awards have been a far more ostentatious affair involving an “exclusive” gala ceremony. This current iteration of the Awards is due to Genesis PR, appointed in 2011 by Sanctuary with a brief to achieve charitable status for the Awards and advance the Awards’ overarching mission to raise the positive profile of social work. The main thrust of Genesis PR’s strategy appears to have been to reinvent the Awards as corporate sponsorship-based industry awards ceremony. PR companies understand perfectly how industry awards work because industry awards are all about the things that preoccupy PR people: networking, business opportunities and brand promotion. Many PR firms have it as their core business to set up and run industry awards systems, or to help organisations win awards. The industry awards scene is an industry in itself and PR companies themselves win awards for, um, setting up and helping organisations win awards. It appears to be awards all the way down…

Need, philanthropy and corporatism — A toxic trio?

During Sir Martin Narey’s time as CEO of Barnardo’s the organisation grew by 40% while at the same time leading a national ‘End Child Poverty’ campaign. When looked at in isolation neither of these things would appear to be anything other than commendable, and certainly in the case of the latter, absolutely crucial. However, looked at together, they touch on a key dichotomy at the heart of our contemporary conceptions of the role and functions of large, corporatized charities such as (but not limited to) Barnardo’s with stated aims to support people experiencing social disadvantage and vulnerability. Put simply, a reduction in childhood poverty should surely lead to less need for these charities. The fact that many large charities focused on supporting children and adults experiencing social disadvantage are growing — indeed organisations with, by definition, successful business models — should give us pause to consider an uncomfortable question: is it really in these organisations’ interests to properly address and seek to eradicate the root causes of the problems besetting those they are meant to be for? It’s not just me that thinks this is a problem. Tory MP Gillian Keegan and Tory peer Baroness Stowell have expressed similar concerns. Jane Addams, in 1910, wrote eloquently of ‘Charity and Social Justice’, presaging the contradiction that’s always been at the heart of philanthropy and which is playing out in a global industry of welfare that has grown exponentially over many decades while stark health and social inequalities persist and, in fact, deepen. The question at the core of Addams’s piece is: if charities aren’t about social justice, what are they about?

Global corporations are increasingly engaged in philanthropic endeavour internationally through what they euphemistically call ‘corporate social responsibility’ and ‘corporate statesmanship’. The practice of philanthropy by elite financial organisations is predicated on the myth that such organisations are ‘doing well by doing good’. This myth has been better and deeper explored elsewhere but suffice to say for now the inherent paradox is clearly expressed in the term itself. ‘Doing well by doing good’ essentially means profiting from social disadvantage. To do that, businesses (and I would include large, corporatized, growing charities such as Barnardo’s and the other big UK children’s charities) need a replenishing stock of social disadvantage to tackle. Ergo, eradicating social disadvantage is bad for business. There is no credible or successful business model in the world built on the premise of self-redundancy. Hence the lack of attention paid by ‘socially responsible’ corporations and many large charities to tackling social problems at structural level. To do so would be literally self-defeating. Rather the focus is largely on education and behaviour modification of the poor. This model has the perpetuation of inequality baked in. Saviours need people to save. And, if you can get rich into the bargain, well that’s ok, you can sleep secure in the knowledge your success comes from ‘doing good’. But, whatever you do, don’t look at the bigger picture.

The review of children’s social care in England

What has any of this to do with, say, the current review of children’s social care in England? As I said, the chair of the review told me in person that his intention was not to privatise children’s services. The point I wanted to make in response but didn’t quite manage because, frankly, I’m not that slick a debater in person and I had no pre-prepared questions, was that ‘privatisation’ means many things. For example, it is a process that can happen by stealth/increments, and it doesn’t necessarily have to involve outsourcing to profit-making companies but can involve putting control of public services into private hands through outsourcing to charities and ‘non-profits’, which are not public bodies and whose private sources of funding are often not easy to discern. (I would like to be clear here that I am not suggesting charities and non-profits are inherently bad, untrustworthy or in cahoots with nefarious actors, but at the same time nor do I believe we should uncritically accept that something is benign just because it wears the mantle of ‘charity’ or ‘non-profit’. As social workers it is incumbent on us to look at the deeper structures.) I would also have liked to put it to the chair that parts of children’s social work are already effectively privatised/outsourced such as, I have subsequently learned, through a particular case in point: Sanctuary Personnel and its growing network of businesses, which, as is described above, includes elite teams of social workers and managers, as well as a specialist residential home for children under its relatively new and expanding Innovate Services banner.

Sanctuary and the Social Work Awards in the context of reform in social care and social work

I want to be clear that I don’t believe there is anything remiss with a business doing well per se — we live in a capitalist democracy and I am far from being a proponent of hard left policies, except to say that I believe that both health and social care should be universally free at the point of access and that higher taxation is price worth paying for a more just and equitable society. I also believe no-one should go hungry, ever, or be without somewhere to live. I don’t see these as particularly communist ideas, more communitarian. I try to be guided by ethics, rather than ideology, as far as such a thing might be possible. Aside from that, I’m quite happy for successful companies to grow, as long as no-one gets hurt or exploited (on reflection, maybe that does make me a communist!). Sanctuary has itself recently won a ‘Large Business of the Year Award’. This article about that has the Sanctuary CEO talking up the importance of industry awards (quelle surprise!) while proudly listing some of Sanctuary’s recent achievements, which includes “our own children’s home, which is a very specialist home”. It’s reasonable to assume that this is the venture mentioned above under the ‘Innovate’ banner, so it is muddying the water a bit to fold this in with Sanctuary’s business interests. Or is it? I note also that Sir Martin Narey appears to have been appointed to roles at both Sanctuary and Innovate. But then, Sanctuary, Innovate et al appear to be overwhelmingly a one-man show — the very definition of empire.

Last year, in the midst of the pandemic, the Awards eschewed giving out individual plaudits in favour of an online 'thank you social workers' event, the Awards' chair remarking, "This is not a time to be separating people through judging. " (Which raises the obvious question, when is?) The event was hosted by the director of Sanctuary Personnel, who was fulsome in expressing his thanks to social workers. And he should be grateful, for according to recently published accounts, his Sanctuary group of businesses garnered net profits of £2.3m in 2020, up nearly £1.5m on the previous year. Awards winners come and go, but it appears year on year there’s one winner in a category all its own.

A key question for social work, then, is to what extent might our profession (wittingly/unwittingly, depending on what and who you know) be servicing this empire through, to use this particular example, Sanctuary’s involvement with the Social Work Awards. This question points to the invidious position of social work in a world in which the tendrils of big business extend, increasingly and with stealth, into the public sector. In such a world, social workers increasingly find themselves caught between the spheres of public-professional-moral accountability and deregulated private money interests. Individual and collective capacities to advocate with authority for a fairer, more just and equal society are undermined. We need to ask: what’s the real deal with the Social Work Awards? At what cost comes this high profile platform for ‘positive narratives of social work’?

The relevance of these uncomfortable questions and the difficult conversations that should follow is not limited to these Awards. A review of children’s social care is now underway, launched by a government with an extensive track record of outsourcing, cronyism and privatisation, both overt and stealthy. There is a wider, important and far-reaching conversation to be had, one that concerns the very nature, identity and role of social work and how it will be constructed and shaped, and by what and whom, in future.

With all this in mind, I would hope and expect that social workers involved with the Awards are aware of the business interests of the Awards’ sponsors, and in particular Sanctuary Personnel, and consider the potential implications of hosting an event in the name of social work through which these interests will have opportunities to network and connect with local authorities and other key organisations and their representatives. Private businesses, including Sanctuary, involved in supporting and promoting the Awards should be required to be open, transparent and honest about their business interests in the sector and any benefit they have derived from their involvement with the Awards as part of its ‘ethical sponsorship policy’ (see below). Better still, ditch all corporate sponsorship and start again, with a celebration of social work that truly reflects the values, missions and ethical codes of the profession. (I have added to the end of this blog some suggestions taken from some tweets I posted in 2018 as to how this celebration of social work could be reclaimed from its capture by private interests in order to better reflect our profession’s values, missions and principles.)

Sadly, I have found over the years that publicly asking questions about the Social Work Awards’ links to business and its clear corporate underpinnings is, frankly, less than welcomed by some in the profession. I urge social workers to critically reflect on these matters and be guided in doing so by our professional values and our Code of Ethics, and in particular 2.3: ‘professional integrity’. A key and pressing reason for doing so is that both our professional regulator, Social Work England, and the British Association of Social Work (BASW) are current sponsors of these Awards. In BASW’s case, perennially so, and as such it has steadfastly promoted the Awards over the years, despite being made aware at the time of previous concerns about the Awards’ past sponsorship from G4S and Capita, both of which ended only after successful campaigning by the Social Work Action Network (SWAN) and others. Capita’s decision to pull out of the Awards in the wake of those concerns was swiftly followed by an assurance from the Awards’ board of trustees that it would adopt an ‘ethical sponsorship policy’. A sponsorship policy is available on the Awards website, along with a ‘values and ethics’ policy. They make for interesting reading, not least because the assertion that the awards ‘do not accept private sponsorship’ is patently untrue, given that Sanctuary (with its expanding empire) is the main sponsor of the Awards. Even if it were true, is it ethical to be seeking and accepting sponsorship from local authorities struggling to meet their legal duties under, for example, the Care Act due to being hammered by years of politically-chosen austerity, now compounded by a global pandemic.

Coincidence that the colour scheme used above reflects the colour scheme of Sanctuary’s branding/logo?

It’s noteworthy that the 2021 Awards opened for nominations on 17th May. However, at the time of this update (4th June) the Awards had still not published details of this year’s sponsors. Given concerns in previous years regarding the Awards accepting sponsorship from G4S and Capita — both significant contributors to the hostile environments for migrants, disabled people and people in other vulnerable situations in the UK in recent years — transparency in respect of sponsors is surely a key priority? That the Awards have not published details of sponsors before inviting nominations raises the question of whether the Awards board is upholding its own ‘ethics and values’ policy.

With all this in mind, it seems to me beyond question that it is high time we had a proper, full and frank conversation about the Social Work Awards, and asked whether they, as is frequently said by the Awards’ proponents and its board of trustees, truly do represent ‘the best of the social work profession’, or whether the Awards, as I believe they may, provide a vehicle for something starkly different.

Appendix — How to reclaim the social work awards

Tweets on reclaiming the awards:

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Christian Kerr

Concerned citizen/novice by experience. Thru a social work lens. Working class person.