Social Work Change, Priti Patel and Gauss Linear and non-linear Problems

Written by George Bull….

Thousands of words, column inches and twitter feeds have been spilled out by our profession paining over what is going wrong; poverty, a ‘crowbarred in’ care review and profit in the sector to name just 3.   Strikingly there is very little conflict over what the problems are…………… what to do about them however is a question in a different cosmos.

This brings us to Priti Patel and her maniacal perma-grin.

Patel (the Foreign Secretary) last month pointed out that those who decried her plan to process asylum seekers in Rwanda could offer no real solutions to the immigration crisis.   The next sentence is one I thought I would never write, or any social worker would write for that matter……………………………………… Piri Patel may have a point!!!!! We are too often stuck in the ‘complaining and explaining quicksand’ with no vision for workable improvements or solutions.

The problems Social Work face are similar in nature to immigration with there being linear (straight forward) and non-linear (not straightforward) elements.

To list a few more examples from the ‘problems’ menu.

Linear – millions of people need vaccines – solution buy loads of vaccines and line loads of arms up to jab them.
Non-Linear – long covid is multi-faceted across the age range, combing mental, physical and social aspects. I for one have heard almost no credible solution or ideas on this.

Foster care
Linear – need more foster carers and more placements
Non-Linear – How do we promote, retain, train, support and develop foster carers locally and how do we remove increasing profit from sector at a time of restrained supply. How much should a foster carer be paid, should they have second jobs etc.

Linear – support families at the right time with the right service and take decisive action in the cases where children’s lives are going to be threatened by their carers
Non-Linear – how do we decide between families that can make the changes or ones where the chances of harm will just increase, how do we enhance time spent with families and away from paperwork and how do we revitalize and add respect back to our profession.

To move the debate and our profession on I argue we desperately need to hone our skills in conceptualizing non-linear problems.

To assist us we need the help of an 18th century maths genius Johann Carl Friedrich Gauss.

Gauss was born to a poor family in Lower Saxony. His mother was illiterate (Gauss had to calculate his own birthday). Very early on Gauss’s genius for problem solving and mathematics was spotted, and he added greatly to many fields and – most usefully for our discussion – non-linear geometry.  For two-thousand years maths only recognised shapes that could be drawn by a ruler and a compass. That was it!!!! That was the complete set of things. An entirely linear world with no external frame of reference. Gauss however refused to accept something that was the fundamental bedrock of mathematics since Plato was a lad. He established a world of curves and parabolas (think triangles or hexagons on a football – see picture). In short, he opened the world up to a different reality. If there was no Gauss then there was no general relativity, no GPS, no chaos theory (see below) the list goes on and on

Lorentz butterfly effect – sensitivity to initial conditions creates significantly different outcomes.

As much as I like writing about long dead mathematicians, it is a fair question to ask what does this have to do with social work etc?   The answer comes from Gauss and how he offered a totally different perspective on established fundamental problems. As social workers I feel we fall foul of not having many of our own theories and, not being a core theoretical field like mathematics, this causes us often to struggle to think outside of our borrowed theoretical world. Could this be why we get everyone from judges, McAlister/teacher types and a whole host of non-social workers being so pivotal to our future.  Equally we can ask which other professions seek our perspective. Do psychologists, doctors and others regularly seek our opinions outside of the confines of our field, sadly I think almost never.

We need to go on a journey of reconstituting and reimagining our core position…. Anyway… back to Gauss……….

Whilst sat in primary school Gauss’s  teacher, wanting to distract the class for 10 minutes, asked the young children to add up all the numbers from 1 to 100. The other children set about this linear question by just adding all the numbers up one by one – 1+2+3 etc. with the problem solved by two ingredients time and effort.

Gauss however conceptualized the problem in a different way to his school chums. He looked like all good social workers do for nonlinear connections and solutions. Young Gauss figured that 1 has a pair in 99, 2 with 98 , 3 with 97 and that there would be 50 of these pairs and 50 paring with 0, so all he need to do was 50 X 100 + the spare 50…. equals 5050.

Gauss must have looked across at his classmates at the chalk plume from the frantic calculations just as Piri Patel looked at the twitter comments and column inches regaling against her Rwanda asylum policy. The commonalty is responses without insightful solutions.  My point is our profession has flogged the dead horse of talking about the problems and now we need to set our collective minds to creative solutions instead. The caterwauling status quo will only offer social work the same old outcomes whilst rocking all over the world with matchstick men (see what I did there!? – status quo… Status Quo!?).

How do we begin this re-imaging endeavour? Well, I would suggest we need to free ourselves of the following thought traps….

  • A baby P case could happen to me as a social worker, and I need to be mindful of that whilst dealing with every Child Protection case. Instead think… Baby P cases are rare events. I need to be thorough in my assessment but not be frozen by the thought that such extreme things are inevitable
  • Is the 1989 Children Act fit for purpose at 30 years old (many hold it in blind reverence)? Do we need more radical and critical social work that explores the application of legislation?
  • How many children should my Local Authority be removing? We should understand that there is no number, there are only individuals whose situations are assessed.
  • Are Local Authorities authorities with £80K paid Directors of Children’s Services much better than Ltd companies who provide social care services. They may be, they may not be. We need to be open to options.
  • Do our meetings satisfy a narrow professional interest or that of the family? We need to root ourselves in ‘why’ we are doing what we are doing, not in ‘how’. ‘Our’ meeting is not the important thing.
  • Do we ask too much of parents in too narrow a time-scale? To explore this one try working on more than one deeply personal issue at a time (you will struggle).
  • Do we as social workers do what we think is right or merely do we do what our mangers think is right within a Local Authority context. If we do not agree to a plan say to place a 16 year old in unregulated accommodation what action should we take as a professional? Do we show our dissent? Are we willing to? Is there a roll for radical and critical social work
  • Do we as social workers ever think much outside the narrow lanes of Child Protection, Child in Need and Looked After Children. Are we putting process before values.
  • Are our efforts as social workers redundant if austerity is levelling a far greater downside to any potential upside we can muster. Do a small but significant minority of our families just need more cash not a visit from a social worker ?
  • Why do the more experienced social workers stop working with families just because managerial and corporate positions are better paid. The best surgeons still operate, the best stockbrokers still invest. Why do the most experienced social workers stop visiting homes and providing assistance. Do we need a different career structure model?
  • Is social work best situated in local authorities? As a good friend says they are good at only emptying bins and sometimes they can’t do that. Does the bureaucratic environment of a local authority align well with a profession that should be responsive to individuals rather than process driven?
  • Would I work for a national fostering agency, or Child Protection agency? Do my morals only matter outside of the frame of reference where I am offered a job? Surely, we can carry our ethics to where ever we work?
  • Are schools increasingly taking over the Early Help and Child in Need role? Does our flimsy involvement with children and families pale into insignificance against the daily fraternal nature of school? Is that not where social workers should be located.


Just like Gauss if we seek to pose tough non-linear questions like those above we have already stopped complaining and started reimaging.  Only if we unshackle ourselves from the confines of local authority groupthink and our borrowed theories can we question fundamental truths in our profession. Whilst anybody with an ounce of humanity feels Patel’s Rwanda plan is abhorrent it is no doubt radical. How do we as social workers reclaim our Radical nature but also dance the realist tight rope of costs, political will and long term implementation.  If we don’t get our act together a steamroller driven by McAlister, pseudo corporations and neo-conservatives are heading our way. Steamrollers take no heed of non-linearity they will crush all of our professional nuance and creativity in a moment.

Rare picture of the  IRCSS 540 PPMcAlister Steam roller

About the writer…..

George Bull

George has been a social worker for 10 years working mainly in child protection and Early Help. He has lectured with Jamie Scorer at New College Durham, University of Sunderland and University of Northumbria in solution focused practice.

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