Social workers have seldom enjoyed much public support. Attacked in the media, and associated with the roles they play in child protection and mental health crisis work when emotions are running high anyway, it is perhaps surprising to find that something has changed.
Results published today of an independent telephone poll of 1,000 members of the public reveal that 93 per cent of people think the contribution of social workers in the community is very or fairly important.
This growing appreciation of social workers may in part be explained by the fact that more people fear long-term ill-health or disability than they do crime and terrorism (see Public Fears). Suddenly, it seems, the penny has dropped that many of us may one day need a social worker.
Significantly, two-thirds of the sample say they would trust social workers to help them or their families. And even four out of five of the 29 per cent who wouldn’t trust them still recognise the importance of what they do.
The poll, carried out exclusively for Community Care and sponsored by the General Social Care Council and the British Association of Social Workers, is welcome news for a profession lacking in confidence and unaccustomed to positive headlines.
One reason for the change of heart is that, as the population ages and the number of people with complex disabilities grows, more people have personal experience of social services.
Anne Williams, adults’ services director at Salford Council and president of the new Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, says: “With the changing demographics, a large majority of people now are going to have had contact with social services because of themselves or relatives.
“Social work is a hidden service until people need it. Now more people are using social services and seeing for themselves the positive things.”
But Williams is not complacent. She knows more needs to be done to further improve the profession’s image – particularly in ensuring balanced media coverage.
She says: “One of Adass’s priorities for its first year is the media and communications. And we recognise that it’s not just about a voice for the public but about other professional groups hearing the message – and social workers too, obviously.
“We are having discussions with various people in terms of getting the message out through the health media to raise awareness about the value of social care.”
For Martin Gavin, a local authority communications officer who has covered social services for several councils in England and Scotland, any such action cannot come soon enough. He blames the media’s “one-sided coverage” for negative perceptions of social work. “When something goes wrong, the media will report the story widely,” he says. “But then social work as a sector fails to balance that out once the crisis is over.
“It is so difficult to get social workers to stand up and say what they do on a day-to-day basis. They don’t want to expose themselves to any degree for fear of something going wrong further down the line. But if they don’t do that, they will never get that confidence.”
Lynne Berry, chief executive of the General Social Care Council, agrees. She is urging social workers to build on the survey’s positive findings and “start supplying stories of success”.
She says: “There’s a feeling they should be talking about the challenges of social work. But let’s have stories about how social workers have really changed people’s lives. Let’s use this opportunity to get brave and tell a few stories and stand up and be proud of what they do.”
Illustrating the impact of positive media coverage, Berry refers to the way the media covered individual social workers’ involvement in the aftermath of the London bombings in 2005. “Social workers were there at the beginning but they were also the ones who stayed with the victims and those affected by the bombings for the long-term. We got a lot of goodwill from the public about that. It gave a broad picture about what it’s like to be a social worker.”
But Berry also accepts that it cannot be down to individuals alone, and that her organisation, among others, has an important role to play. “The GSCC will champion good practice,” she promises. “We will champion social work. We will champion the fact that social work is an independent and emotionally demanding job that uses the expertise these people have. And, in order to do that, we will tell the stories about the changes that they have helped to bring about in people’s lives.
“We need social workers to have some positive role models. There was a story recently about a woman who went through the mental health system and is now shortlisted for the Orange Prize for new writers for her novel [Poppy Shakespeare by Clare Allan] based on her own experiences. She says the most important person in her life was her social worker. The education secretary, Alan Johnson, is on record as saying that the most important person in his life was the social worker who allowed him to live with his 15-year-old sister when his mother died when he was young. We need to celebrate stories like that.”
British Association of Social Workers chief executive Ian Johnston welcomes Berry’s commitment, urging the GSCC and its counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to live up to the sector’s early expectations of the regulatory bodies as “champions, fighting to create a more confident workforce”.
“I think we try to do that on behalf of our 11,000 members,” Johnston says. “But it is really up to the regulators. The UK’s four regulatory councils have more than 90,000 social workers registered. We are quite small by comparison. They need to be doing more about promoting the sector.”
Berry is confident the regulatory bodies are already making a difference – and that the results of Community Care’s survey are testament to this.
“When most professions are going down in people’s perceptions, and trust levels are going down, these findings show that social workers are going up,” Berry says.
“This survey provides an important opportunity to talk about the things we have been putting in place that have perhaps begun to turn the public’s perception of social work: the new degree the codes of practice continued professional development conduct hearings regulation and having social workers clear about what’s expected of them. It is all about making sure social workers are a trained and trusted workforce.”
Politicians can play a role in building this public trust in social workers. Yet mentions of social work and social workers are scarce in ministerial speeches and government press notices.
However, the Department of Health will launch the next phase of the government’s social work recruitment campaign in the autumn, which Berry insists is about “delivering a positive message about social work being a serious profession of choice”. It will follow on from the current social care recruitment campaign, which promotes the benefits for both the care worker and the client of working together.
While welcoming both campaigns and singling out Conservative leader David Cameron for praising the contribution made by social workers, Berry argues that politicians need to do more. “They can place social workers higher up the list when they are talking about public sector workers, for example,” she says.
Johnston goes further, criticising politicians who use social workers as scapegoats when tragedies hit the headlines. “I don’t think politicians are helpful in terms of their knee-jerk reactions to the small number of cases that go wrong and get highly publicised,” Johnston says.
“It is convenient for politicians to present social workers as the problem rather than the solution. But society’s problems are beyond the capacity of social workers. Social workers don’t create the problems and they don’t have the resources to resolve them in the way that would suit the government. And we, as a society, do have some significant social problems to contend with – the recent Unicef report showed that.”
Traditionally, the Association of Directors of Social Services has played a key role in lobbying government and influencing social care policy and the social work profession, as well as acting as a source of expert advice. Yet, with the ADSS now gone, questions are being asked about who or what will now take on this role.
Williams insists that replacing the ADSS with two separate organisations representing children’s and adults’ services will strengthen the voice of the social work profession, not weaken it. And she is confident, as demographics change, that the importance of social care will inevitably rise across central government generally, “particularly over who is going to fund adult social care”.
“The split gives us two departments of government to work with: the Department for Education and Skills and the DH,” Williams says. “In terms of the latter, the profile of social care is going steadily up, with the social care directorate and so on. There is also growing awareness in the DfES. There are opportunities now for a stronger voice both here and in other departments like the Department for Work and Pensions.”
For Berry, the government’s drive towards involving the private and voluntary sectors in public service delivery has also contributed to the public’s changing perception of social work.
“The new partnerships between the not-for-profit sector, voluntary sector and statutory sector all make it possible to see social workers as working in a range of settings, not just as child protection social workers in local authorities,” Berry says.
“People are seeing them as contributing to a whole range of policies – social justice, community safety, community inclusion. When people’s image of a social worker was tied up with working in local authorities in child protection it created one particular image. Now we are seeing the blossoming of that image into a much broader perception.”
As the first three men to be charged in connection with the 2005 London bombings take their places in the dock of an Old Bailey courtroom, social workers can be proud of the role they played in the aftermath of July 7 – as on so many other days – to help those in need. And, as a profession, they can take comfort in the knowledge that the public is finally starting to appreciate what it is social work and social workers have to offer.
Public fears (back to top)
We asked more than a 1,000 members of the public what their main concerns were when thinking about the future for themselves and their families. They said:
* Long-term ill health/disability – 26%
* Global warming – 10%
* Crime levels – 10%
* Old age – 9%
* Terrorism – 9%
* Unemployment/poverty – 7%
* Educational opportunities – 7%
* Family break-up – 6%
* Drug or alcohol dependence – 5%
* Mental illness – 4%
* No concerns/don’t know – 7%
Improving social workers’ image: Government action
Last week, the government set out a five-point plan to build social workers’ confidence and raise the sector’s profile: Actions include:
* Establishing a new national skills academy, SocialCare21, focusing on leadership and commissioning.
* Creating a new system for identifying and disseminating best practice.
* Establishing a new social care board to directly advise ministers.
* Publishing a high prestige social care journal on a par with the Lancet in health.
* Building on award schemes to recognise excellence and innovation in social care.
Survey of the general public
General Social Care Council
British Association of Social Workers
Contact the author
This article appeared in the 3 May issue under the headline “Good News! the public likes you”
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Impact of Al Aynsley-Green as children’s commissioner questioned