I recently attended a meeting at a school on a new case. I
introduced myself to the head teacher with my first name. She did
not give me hers, so I continued to call her Mrs Brown.* She sat on
a high chair behind her desk while the foster carers and I slouched
in armchairs. Mrs Brown spent most of the meeting telling me how to
do my job, where my predecessor had gone wrong, and how lucky the
children were to be attending her school. I think she perceived me
as having a lower status than her and treated me accordingly.
This is a common experience. In court, the lawyers and judges
frequently seem to assume that because they are paid more than me
they are also worth more than me. My professional opinion on a
case, based on months, if not years, of working with everyone
involved, is worth nothing compared with the views of an expert
witness who has spent a few hours interviewing the parents and
reading my case recordings.
Any newspaper will tell you that this lowly perception of social
workers is also held by the public at large. We feature only as the
subjects of blame and derision. No wonder no one wants to be a
social worker any more.
Why have we sunk so low? Although most people will need a social
worker at some time, they don’t like to think about it. We mostly
work with people at the bottom of the social pile, at the lowest
points in their lives.
Compare us with France, where social workers have a higher social
standing. It has been argued this stems from the relationship
between the state and the individual. In France, raising children
is considered a duty the good citizen performs to benefit society,
so the state has the right to intervene, and the citizen has a duty
to comply with such intervention. Genuine partnership with families
Here, the Englishman’s home is his castle, with the drawbridge
raised. Raising children is a job women do for their men, and
everyone else can keep out of it, thank you. So society’s support
for social work intervention is much more ambivalent, and the work
becomes more about finding evidence to justify acting than about
The Children Act 1989 tried to change this by replacing the
language of parents’ rights with responsibilities. But the
responsibility is due to the child, not society as a whole, and
intervention is seen as a last resort.
Now the General Social Care Council is here to generate confidence
in social work by registering and regulating us and “championing
social care”. Will this be enough? I suggest what we need is a
shift in the way our society views its responsibility to its most
* Not her real name.
Clea Barry is an adoption social worker