This article looks at the messages to emerge from a review written by James Blewett, Janet Lewis and Jane Tunstill that was commissioned by the GSCC. The review’s aim is to stimulate discussion about the roles and tasks of social work and contribute to the consultation currently taking place. Despite the challenges that exist, the paper makes the case for relationship-based social work making a crucial contribution to the development of more responsive services.
These are disorienting times for social workers. The Children Act 2004, reforms to mental health legislation and the adult services green paper, Independence, Well-being and Choice, have been among the major changes in welfare policy that prompt the question: what are the role and tasks of social work? Such policy directions make the current General Social Care Council lead consultation timely. The impact of the policy context is exacerbated by other factors, such as the crisis in social care funding, that have eaten away at adults’ services provision.
In the preparatory stage of the consultation, we were commissioned by the GSCC to produce a discussion paper, based on a representative range of literature that reflected the perspectives of service users, practitioners and social work theorists.(1)
Unique and positive
We concluded that, despite tremendous challenges, the social work profession has a unique and positive contribution to offer in this changing world of welfare. However, to realise this potential, policymakers and senior managers will have to revise their current approaches about how social workers are deployed and used.
When social services departments were led by social work qualified directors, the shaping of a professional identity was straightforward. Now, increasingly generic “joined-up” service configurations have blurred the role. However, social work is well equipped to operate in a multi-disciplinary environment.
In any given day, for example, a child care social worker may liaise closely with benefits agencies, housing departments, solicitors, nursery nurses, consultant child psychiatrists and teachers.
The lack of clarity about the role of social work arises from factors beyond organisational change and uncertainty. Social work has always occupied a more complex, even ambivalent, position within social policy. This is the result of social work’s position at the sharp end of the debate regarding the relationship between the individual, the family and the state. Writers such as Payne and Dominelli have identified three traditions within social work: the therapeutic, the maintenance of the social order and the emancipatory.(2)
Practitioners rarely work exclusively within a single tradition but what is striking is the degree to which the emancipatory tradition has achieved influence within the curricula of social work qualifying and post-qualifying programmes. This reflects the extent to which social work has sought to associate itself with the socially liberal tradition of social policy. Commitment to empowerment and self-determination in the face of discrimination and social exclusion has informed social work for 50 years.
Although much of current social policy seeks to promote better outcomes for its more vulnerable citizens, there are also elements of coercion particularly in areas related to criminal justice and immigration. Such trends can place social workers in a position where their progressive values are compromised. Practitioners’ liberal aspirations are often in conflict with the day-to-day reality of their professional lives. Too often social workers report that their ability to spend time with service users is curtailed by the bureaucratic demands of a system that often sees them working in large centralised offices and spending increasing time in front of computers.
The other major concern for practitioners is the high thresholds for social work services and the degree to which the profession has become synonymous with the management of risk and protection. Some writers have seen this as a distinctive role for the profession. Indeed it can be seductive as social workers are well equipped to assess and intervene in situations of considerable complexity. But, we felt that this was an unnecessarily defensive position for the profession to take and ignored the evidence from research, inspections and the views of users about what social work could offer.
What has long been clear from studies into family centres, for example – and currently of the implementation of Sure Start – is that social work can play a useful role in preventive services, particularly in the engaging of harder-to-reach service users. In adults’ services, social workers could play a key role in helping users realise the government’s objective of more individualised, service user-led care packages.
From the literature we examined, seven core components were identified that combined to shape social work’s unique identity and distinctive potential role:
● An understanding of the dynamic between the individual and the social.
● Social work’s commitment to social justice.
● The transformatory significance of the relationship between social worker and the service user.
● The enabling role of social work and a recognition of individuals’ strengths as well as the difficulties they face in their lives.
● The therapeutic role of social work including those settings which were not overtly therapeutic but that the intervention of a social worker could in itself be experienced as therapeutic.
● The management of risk to both the community and the individual.
● The research informed evidence base for social work practice.
Many other professions would, and do, make claim to some of these elements but what is distinctive is the combination of these factors that is captured in the role of social work. We therefore highlight the value of relationship-based social work practice in which direct work with the service user is a significant part of the service and an assessment can be based on an understanding of the individual in their social context. The most compelling evidence about the effectiveness of such an approach does not simply come from practitioners seeking a higher degree of job satisfaction but instead from the users themselves.
Even in the context of involuntary contact with social workers, users still report a positive experience if they feel they have been treated with fairness and respect, confounding the belief that contact with social workers is inherently stigmatising. A study by the Commission for Social Care Inspection into parents’ views of the child protection system concluded that parents found social workers generally supportive when the safeguarding of their children was undertaken in the wider context of family support.(3) In relation to proposed reforms in the mental health system, users have been some of the most vociferous supporters for preserving the reserved role of the approved social worker.
The messages from the literature point to a social work service that operates across the spectrum of need and is based on a relationship-based model. The debate about the roles and tasks of the profession offers an important opportunity to make the case that social work is a profession well worth fighting for.
James Blewett is a registered social worker who has worked in a variety of social work settings in south London. He currently works in higher education, as the research director for the research dissemination project, Making Research Count, based in the Social Care Workforce Research Unit at King’s College, London. He also lectures on post-qualifying social work programmes at Royal Holloway, University of London.
Training and learning
The author has provided questions about this article to guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at www.communitycare.co.uk/prtl 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.
(1) J Blewett, J Lewis, J Tunstill, The Changing Roles and Tasks of Social Work: A Literature Informed Discussion Paper, 2007.
(2) L Dominelli, “Anti-oppressive practice in context” in R Adams, L Dominelli, and M Payne (eds), Social Work: Themes, Issues and Critical Debates, Palgrave, 2002
(3) Commission for Social Care Inspection, Supporting Parents, Safeguarding Children, 2006