Social work remains one of the most maligned of the caring
professions. A Department of Health opinion survey of attitudes
towards social workers in 2001 revealed that they were perceived as
“politically correct dipsticks” or “geeky”.1 In sections
of the press they are also portrayed as “incompetent”. US social
workers who have come over here to see how the UK social care
system works feel moved to write of how badly stressed, badly paid
and badly educated their fellow professionals are.
Yet while all this negative stuff keeps doing the rounds,
thoughtful attempts to shift public perceptions of social services
are not as well known. Several local authorities have pioneered
imaginative schemes to change the way the service is delivered, the
new social work degree that began last month will change and
strengthen the intellectual basis of the profession and government
ministers talk reflectively about how we need to adapt the welfare
state to meet individual needs in a consumer-based economy.
Innovative shadowing schemes are also showing people, such as those
celebrities involved in Community Care‘s recent Care in
the Capital week, what social workers actually do. In one similar
local scheme, a teenager who had been told by her school careers
officer that she would probably make “a good dog-handler”, became
determined to be a social worker after spending a week shadowing a
local professional. She was impressed and moved by the social
worker’s ability and determination to keep a 93-year-old woman
living in her home, so keeping her sense of dignity intact.
It seems to me the problem with public perceptions of social
workers is less to do with the job itself than with the deeply
entrenched, morally fixed way in which society now sees itself. To
invoke class or race distinction or even income inequality doesn’t
do justice to our social and moral landscape, a picture held to,
often unthinkingly, by ordinary citizens, journalists and
politicians operating in populist rather than philosophical
As political thinking has become less about economic fairness and
more about moral certitudes, so a kind of character-based apartheid
has developed. On the one hand, apparently, there are all the “Good
People”, the majority who are striving to do well, get on in life
and get on with everybody else. On the other, there are the “Pretty
Bad” people who do manifestly bad things: scare us in the street,
burgle people’s homes, buy and sell drugs and make our schools and
hospitals unpleasant places to be.
But get up close, and in most cases the simplicities of these mad,
bad and dangerous-to-know labels start to dissolve. Out comes an
individual or a family story that is much more complicated, much
more intractable, much more touching than one could have
Ordinary families sometimes fighting against extraordinary odds.
Human beings in trouble. Given a chance or two, the right kind of
resources, a steer in the right direction, their lives might have a
chance to improve, a lot or just a little.
Interestingly, two leading Conservatives have recently encapsulated
these radically opposing approaches to their fellow citizens. The
Eton-educated shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin was caught at a
Conservative Party conference fringe meeting admitting he would
rather cut off one of his limbs than send his children to his local
state school in Lambeth. He has since apologised to the school in
Meanwhile, Michael Portillo, the son of a Spanish socialist and one
of the most enigmatic figures in British politics, was this month
filmed looking after a family of four on £79 a week. Portillo
emerged from his Merseyside income support experience admitting
that “I had so little idea of this sort of life, managing on this
sort of income, eating this sort of food. I really didn’t have much
understanding of how a whole swath of people were living their
Bernard MacLaverty wrote in his 1997 novel, Grace Note: “Things are
simple or complex according to how much attention is paid to them.”
Portillo’s week spent with a family on income support, a kind of
intense media version of shadowing, showed him just how complex the
whole question of poverty and the related questions of crime and
punishment really are.
If more people abandoned their cartoon-like attitudes and instead
thought more deeply about the circumstances people find themselves
in, then there just might be more public support for social work
and more thoughtful people willing to enter the profession.
1 Department of Health, Public Perceptions of
Social Work and Social Care, March 2001. Available from
Melissa Benn is a journalist and novelist.