It’s all in the image

Social work has a bad image and it may be getting worse. The
fault lies partly with the horrendous scandals that flare up
periodically, such as the Victoria Climbi’ case. I listened on the
radio to Lisa Arthurworrey, one of the social workers involved in
the case, and I found myself incandescent, unable or unwilling to
hear her side of the story – a reaction that was grossly unfair.
There are indeed appalling failures in the system, incompetent
social workers and too many vulnerable children and adults who
suffer immeasurably.

This is true of doctors too, but their image is not blighted. Every
time we discover outrageous failures it adds to the unwarranted yet
widespread impression that social workers are inept, uncaring,
dull-witted – inhumane, even. And knowing that these are prejudices
makes little difference. My young daughter is perceptive, tender
and empathetic. We often talk of how good she would be working with
people in need. I can imagine her as a nurse, a child psychologist,
a special needs teacher, but not a social worker.

The media too must be held to account for the negative and unjust
stereotypes. Most coverage involving social work is hysterical.
People do not understand how chaotic society would be without
social work provision. There is no equivalent of Holby
or Casualty on our popular TV channels – think
of the material available for an intelligent TV soap opera with
beautiful people rushing to grim estates saving lives. But no,
obviously not sexy enough.

Occasionally, television provides us with reality social work that
actually increases public understanding. The recent Channel 4
programme Edge of the City illuminated the skills of capable and
committed social workers. One young Muslim social worker was very
patient with a tearaway youngster and another professional was
unflappable. Both will have excited interest in the occupation –
and for the right reasons.

Students choosing social work as a career need to feel
enthusiastic, idealistic and hopeful. Social work will appeal only
if it lifts itself out of the twilight zone. No politician has
adopted social work as an inspirational public policy area; no
passionate speeches are made about how you can assess the state of
a nation by the way it provides for citizens who cannot manage to
take care of themselves. At present, society sees this work as a
grubby necessity.

A different vision needs to be promoted to attract young recruits
with ambition and commitment. Pay remains a disincentive and to
date chancellor Gordon Brown has not given much attention to this.
Teaching appears to be turning a corner – it is now attracting a
wide spectrum of people and an increasing number of high fliers.
The same trend is evident in modern police forces. In both these
areas of the public sector there has been considerable investment
and important shifts in perceptions.

But if this happens in social work are the courses and trainers up
to the challenge? Sometimes the educators themselves seem ground
down by what they are doing. There is no buzz, no creative energy
in too many departments. I may be wrong but too much of the
research work around families, drugs, youth offending and abuse
seems to happen in academic institutions separate from the people
delivering services.

Now social work training is a degree course, students will only
have the confidence to take out loans and get into debt to finance
their studies if universities and colleges providing social work
education are true centres of excellence involved in training,
development and research. But if social work training moves in this
direction there is a risk that it will exclude people with
invaluable skills but without the confidence or basic
qualifications to embark on degree courses. Some of the most
remarkable social workers in the country are people who would find
it difficult to pass degree level exams. It makes sense, therefore,
to have a range of options for entry and progress with career paths
which can eventually lead to degree qualifications.

The media, politicians, educators and social workers themselves
must do better to encourage and motivate the next generation of
social workers coming along – society needs them more than ever.
And the challenge for students is to make sure their chosen
profession gains real respect in the future.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a journalist and

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