Research into practice

Social workers in the US and Canada have, for some time, insisted that social work programmes deal with issues of religion and spirituality as mainstream curriculum topics. This came about principally because they found themselves dealing with this in their everyday social work practice and felt unprepared by their social work education and training. It is now such an essential ingredient in the curriculum that without it no programme would be validated by the US or Canadian equivalent of the GSCC.

Here in the UK – in our highly secularised society with social work’s traditional suspicion of things religious, let alone spiritual – it is difficult to imagine a groundswell among social workers demanding that these issues are put on the agenda.

The reasons for the suspicion are rooted in concerns about the role played by churches in cases of abuse, where church members have been responsible for it or have covered it up, or in cases of mental illness where religion has been used to give an inadequate and damaging explanation. For example, Marie Th’rŠse Kouao took Victoria Climbi’ to a church claiming Victoria was possessed by evil sprits. But this should not mean that social workers are trained to disregard religion and spirituality in their practice. It is not just the Children Act 1989 that encourages us to take such issues into account.

In small-scale research (as yet unpublished) conducted last year I contacted all the diploma in social work programmes in England to discover the extent to which diploma tutors were covering this.

The research provided no more than a snapshot. Some tutors were delighted to talk about such issues, others proved impossible to contact. Some provided detailed answers based on their own teaching, others thought that another colleague might touch on such issues but were unsure. A few had taken soundings from colleagues to prepare for my telephone call; others gave an impressionistic response which, by their own admission, was not very grounded in curriculum documentation.

What emerged from this survey? Out of the 30 programmes willing to discuss these issues, 26 per cent admitted that their syllabus did not tackle these issues at all. However, 46 per cent claimed that these subjects were included as part of a wider module looking at values and the celebration of diversity, while 36 per cent said that such issues were covered in modules dealing with death and dying or working with older people. Only three programmes claimed to provide specific workshops or sessions.

Significantly, there was very little acknowledgement of religion and spirituality being empowering or resilient influences in people’s lives. By contrast, several programmes highlighted some of the flash points in the ways in which minority groups and women are often badly treated by religious organisations. Moreover, students who themselves belonged to faith communities were sometimes seen as being potentially “problematic” when it came to implementing professional values.

Religion has also become an issue in the General Social Care Council’s evaluation of courses. One reviewer recently asked: “What steps is your programme taking to help social work practitioners function professionally in a multi-faith society?” to get a team thinking seriously about the issue.

The challenge remains, not least for the new social work degree, to take these issues with the seriousness they deserve. As one DipSW tutor put it, it cannot be good enough “to rely on corridor discussions among students after the lecture” for this to be tackled.

Bernard Moss is a principal lecturer in social work and applied social studies, and teaching fellow at Staffordshire University. Contact:

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