Harry Ferguson says social work academics
should play more of a role in presenting the profession in a
Why has a profession such as social work,
which is essentially dedicated to doing good and helping vulnerable
people, become so unpopular that the government has had to launch
an advertising campaign to change its dire public image and attract
Governments carry a heavy responsibility.
Public contempt for social work in the wake of Margaret Thatcher’s
attacks in the 1980s was captured in a Guardian cartoon, which
showed a couple on their way to a party. The woman, a social
worker, was agonising about what to tell people she did, to which
her partner replied: “Tell them you’re a poll tax inspector.”
Yet the roots of the malaise go deeper. A
barely acknowledged aspect is the contribution by social work
education and academics who have largely failed to publicly say
anything positive about the profession.
This can be traced back to the 1970s, when the
radical social work movement emerged in response to a profession
then dominated by social casework. Scorned as a method to control
poor and oppressed individuals, social work began to be seen as
part of the problem rather than a possible solution to social ills.
In a classic political cartoon of the time, two “slum kids” hold a
conversation: “We’ve got rats,” says one. “Shit, man, we’ve got
social workers,” says the other.
As social work has confronted sexism and
racism, critical awareness of tackling discrimination has been
crucial in enabling it to respond respectfully to the diverse needs
of all social groups. But one byproduct has been to create the
dominant view that there is something inherently wrong with social
Social work education has usefully rallied
round to try and defend the profession from over-simplistic
criticism for failures to prevent the deaths of children in abuse
cases. But this has never gone so far as an unequivocal defence or,
God forbid, a celebration of what social work has contributed to
keeping so many children alive.
While, ironically, so many social work
academics do work hard to develop the profession, the entire way in
which it is represented publicly needs to change. Social work needs
to showcase what it routinely does well by developing evidence of
best practice and making this visible both within the profession
and to other professions and the public. Social work needs to apply
its own humane values to itself and care and affirm much more and
judge and criticise a good deal less.
Harry Ferguson is professor of social
work at the University of the West of England,