Social work and social care are going through a period of
transition as a result of social change and the government’s
modernisation of public services. It is a period of anxiety and
potential: exactly the right time to look ahead and take stock of
Unified social services departments were established as a response
to social need and as a remedy for the neglect of social work and
social care by local councils and the NHS. The departments have
been responsible for major improvements and innovations: removing
children from long-stay hospitals; setting up community care for
people with learning difficulties and mental health problems;
supporting older people in their own homes and good quality
residential settings; and improving fostering, adoption and
residential care for children. They have done well in keeping
children safe and promoting the social model of disability.
They have also faced some big challenges: rationing scarce
resources, co-ordinating inter-agency working when other agencies
have retreated from their responsibilities and standing alongside
people rejected by society.
As a result, social services departments have been placed in a
defensive position, increasingly disconnected from the preventive
agenda, which set up modern social services departments. Given the
vast experience of practitioners in poor neighbourhoods and the
aspirations for comprehensive community services, why hasn’t social
work been more evident in the fight to overcome social exclusion
and regenerate local communities? Over time, social work has become
narrower, and community and groupwork have been placed
Many new agencies such as Sure Start have been created to meet
needs in a more immediate way. The experience of organisations such
as Barnardo’s and Coram Family suggests that the prevention of
social exclusion requires local services that focus on meeting
parental needs in a non-stigmatising way. Sure Start has an
inclusive multi-agency focus, and programmes are planned by
partnership committees meeting parents’ representatives. Staff have
to balance agency loyalties and professional backgrounds with an
emancipatory ethos. Sure Start is a key element in the much wider
early years revolution based on Early Years Development and
Childcare Partnerships. It includes the 30 early excellence centres
that aim to link education and social care, offer family support
and link into other services.
Other programmes also offer “wrap around” support to children and
young people in deprived areas. The Children’s Fund pays for a
range of initiatives overseen by a local board of stakeholders.
Those initiatives are increasingly being linked to support for
children at risk of educational failure and involvement in youth
crime. The youth offending teams were created to reduce crime and
meet national objectives, performance measures and protocols of
good practice. Connexions was established to help teenagers handle
the transition into adult life. All three involve staff from
several backgrounds, including youth work, teaching, careers
counselling, social work, nursing and probation.
Local authorities have been developing new organisational models to
bring services for children and young people closer together and
there has been debate about more extensive organisational
The new initiatives represent a serious commitment by the
government to tackle the root causes of poverty and disadvantage.
The paradox is that they are settling into specific niches that
were once associated with social work and the Seebohm vision for
social services departments. Lack of attention to that vision over
recent decades has produced the circumstances that have, in turn,
forced social work into a more reactive mode.
Similar developments have been taking place in the fields of mental
health, learning difficulties and services for older people, with
examples of joint commissioning, lead commissioning, integrated
budgets, joint management and integrated service delivery. The
first four care trusts are up and running.
So far, debate has focused on structures, but there is a growing
interest in the developmental and training needs of staff and their
implications for the professions.
Integrated post-qualifying training has been available in a number
of specialist fields for some time. Joint professional training for
nurses and social workers exists at degree level and there is
currently discussion in social work and nursing about the potential
for common training.
It is worth noting that the nursing profession has been able to
incorporate seven strands of specialist training within its generic
identity, and that nursing degrees involve a year of general
training and two of specialisation.
The new agencies for children and young adults are developing their
own core competences and training programmes. It has been suggested
that the most appropriate model for early years training is a
climbing frame, not a ladder, with multiple levels of entry.1 The
NVQ framework includes NVQ Level 4 in early years care and
education, integrating existing services’ functions and
establishing competences that have much in common with social work
and social care. The Diploma for Connexions Personal Advisers has
been designed jointly with the Youth Justice Board.
The evolution of personal advisers and youth offending team staff
will probably lead to a new profession, rather like the “social
educators” found elsewhere in Europe. This could eventually
incorporate residential child care and some staff from adolescent
mental health settings.
These changes in occupational territory and staff development are
taking place rapidly around social services departments. They raise
several uncomfortable questions about the identity of social work
and its links with specific agencies. Social workers employed by
the new agencies report a strong sense of professional satisfaction
that is not always available in social services.
Does it matter whether it looks like social work, thinks like
social work, behaves like social work – and calls itself something
different? Does dual qualification in any way hinder good social
work practice? Will the professional development of “social
educators” not be useful in residential child care?
The new agencies have been given a clear focus and set of
objectives. Services have been redesigned and staff deployed to
meet them. Services separated by organisation boundaries, or
containing different divisions that pull against each other for
resources, may find it more difficult to achieve coherent,
integrated service delivery and to develop a common culture.