Social work must brace itself

As the wind of change blows through the profession, Ray Jones mines its history in search of its unique identity and urges it to stay true to its core values

Is this a pivotal moment for social work? As social work evolves, there seems to be a renaissance of discussion and debate about its nature. This is reflected in the two major conferences  held already this year at Nottingham Trent and Liverpool universities, attended by thousands of social workers and social work students.

It also reflects the stronger professional platform for social work, with “social worker” a protected title, with the requirements for social workers to be registered and demonstrate continuing professional development, and with social work now to be a graduate profession. All of this is happening distinctly across the four UK nations.

In Wales, Scotland and England there are separate significant government reviews of social work, and in Northern Ireland new structures and leading roles are being introduced for social  workers.

There is also the growing membership of the British Association of Social Workers and its increasing public and media profile, which is championing the contribution that social workers make and commenting on the policy and practice issues that particularly relate to the role and tasks of social workers.

For example, BASW recently has been high profile in challenging (with others) policies that impinge detrimentally on asylum seekers, users of mental health services, and on the growing  usage of antisocial behaviour orders, especially as they are applied to young people.

But why now this renaissance in reviewing and reflecting on social work?

First, in England and Scotland the home base of social services and social work departments within state services, set up following the Seebohm and Kilbrandon reports on the 1960s, is now being disbanded. In England the Association of Directors of Social Services is also  separating into adult and children’s senior manager associations.

Second, social work, as has always been the case, is located not only within statutory state services, but also within the voluntary and private independent sectors. What is significant now is that the government is looking to independent sector organisations to be expanding vehicles for the delivery of social work and social care, as with Sure Start for children and now also Sure Start for older people.

Third, social workers are increasingly working within multi-disciplinary teams, and indeed multi-agency settings – such as youth offending, intermediate care, community mental health and community learning difficulty teams – where social work may not be the predominant profession and where individual practitioners may experience some professional isolation. There is also the growth of independent social workers who are not directly employed within any organisation.

Finally, there is increasing unease among social workers about the burgeoning bureaucratisation of their work, with more form-filling and performance reporting through to greater performance indicators. Social workers’ roles are  being skewed to deliver on agendas such as getting people out of hospitals quickly (sometimes too quickly when major life-changing decisions or major psychosocial transitions are having to be made), and with more rationing of more restricted resources.

Some of the current concerns may be lacking a little historical perspective. Social workers (in social services departments and in the probation service) even in the 1960s and 1970s spent no more than about 20 per cent of their work time in client contact. There were also fewer resources available then, which may contrast, for example, with the style of working in, and the  assistance provided from, family centres, and within youth offending teams and mental health resource centres today.

However, there can be little argument that there has been an increasing amount of procedures and paperwork, a decline in professional trust and self-directed use of time, and increased rationing to balance budgets.

But all is not doom and gloom. There is considerable affinity between much within current political agendas and the aspirations and achievements of social work.

In the foreword to a major new text for the social work degree (Higham 2006), I wrote that “social workers have a powerful and persuasive tale to tell of how they and their craft have been  at the cutting edge of social policy development and delivery for over 50 years. Before ‘social inclusion’ became a part of political speak, it was social workers who valued people who were experiencing social exclusion. It was, and is, social workers who stayed alongside people who were distressed while others withdrew their gaze and looked elsewhere, with their backward glances stigmatising, stereotyping, and segregating people who were poor, disabled, or who had been abused and exploited”.

It was social work, and social workers, for example who were in the vanguard of moving the policy focus from large institutional care to residential care in the 1960s, from residential care to community care in the 1980s, and (prompted and promoted by disabled people themselves and by young people) from community care to independent living in the 2000s.

And it is social work which of all the professions has most propelled services’ ethos from “doing to” people, to “doing for” people, to “doing with” people, to being alongside people as an ally, advocate and assistant as actions are taken  by young people, families, disabled and older people to gain more choice and control within their lives.

This has required a move away from paternalistic and patronising professionalism to partnerships where power is shared.

What is special, therefore, about social work is a distinctive cluster of values, competences and roles that have characterised it in the past and are important to champion, celebrate and  continue into the future, with social workers:

● Having a concern for social justice.
● Confronting discrimination.
● Valuing people not rejecting.
● With realism as well as idealism.
● Seeing people in context.
● Recognising and developing people’s strengths and skills.
● Problem-solving in partnership.
● Enabling and facilitating.
● With a focus on relationships.
● Providing structure and space within chaotic experiences.
● Being an ally in promoting independence and choice.
● Harnessing resources.
● Taking actions to protect and control where necessary.

There is something here about a clear valuebase, high levels of emotional intelligence and demonstrable skills in problem-solving supported by a professional and personal commitment.

This is what makes social work special.

Ray Jones smallRAY JONES is chair of the British Association of Social Workers. He was director of social services, and then director of adult and community  services, with Wiltshire Council from 1992-2006. In 2001-2 he was the first chief executive of the Social Care Institute for Excellence. He is a visiting professor at the Universities of Bath and Exeter, chair of the Assembly for Social Work and Social Care Education, Training and Research, and the author of five books on social work and social policy.

The author has provided questions about this article to guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be registered on a free, password-protected training log held on the site. This is a service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered professionals.

At a time of policy and organisational change it is important to recognise the particular contribution of social work and social workers. It is the distinctive clustering of values, competences and tasks which makes social work special and, building on the strengthened professional infrastructure for social work, should be promoted and protected for the future.

● Patricia Higham, Social Work: Introducing Professional Practice, Sage, 2006
Changing Lives: Summary Report of the 21st Century Social Work Review, Scottish Executive
Social Work in Wales: A Profession to Value, ADSS Cymru (“The Garthwaite Report”),
Options for Excellence (in England),



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