Practice ideas from the past that could benefit social work today

Revivals are all the rage in music and the arts. But perhaps not yet in social work. Here, Clare Roskil, Andrew Pithouse and Jane Naik look back over the previous three decades to see what should be brought back

(Pic: Globe photos Inc/ Rex features)

Blasts from the past are in vogue. Take That, Boyzone, Spandau Ballet, Kajagoogoo and many others from times gone by are all at it.

So, is it possible for social work practice to mirror what Take That’s Gary, Mark, Jason and Howard have done? Are there forgotten social work practicesnow ripe for revival?

1970s: Clare Roskill

In the 1970s and 1980s a number of forward-looking local authorities set up student units in their social services ­departments. Thesetended to involve one dedicated and experienced supervisor or practice teacher overseeing a number of university or college social work students at the same time. Supervision was one-to-one but there was also scope for group supervision.

It was crucial that the student unit supervisor or practice teacher posts were fully integrated into the local authority’s social services departments. This ensured suitable cases were identified for the ­students, and the specialist practice teacher acted as a champion for practice teaching, supporting practice teachers when they had problems and encouraging others to take on the role. Sometimes they also ran in-service training.

Creative placements

Creative practice placements were possible where students were supervised at arm’s length – for example, when they wanted experience in a specialist, local voluntary agency where there was no qualified social worker to act as supervisor.

The student unit supervisor or practice teacher was ideally placed to bridge the gap between practice and academic settings. They assessed standards of supervision, commenting on a range of reports at the end of placements. Many became regular lecturers, and informed their colleagues about research findings that would otherwise have remained unknown.

Nowadays there are even more potential benefits to restoring student units. The supervisor and practice teachers posts could be organised to support newly qualified social workers, and could make a major con­tribution to a department as a learning organisation. They are well placed to develop interprofessional education and practice and e-learning resources. Several postholders could be appointed part time sothey also fulfil a training or a senior practitioner role. The potential for local variation according to local need is considerable.

Although some specialist practice teaching has continued through practice learning centres, the social work profession has reached a dangerous position. There are far too few resources within mainstream social work dedicated to training the next generation at qualifying level.

Student units led by specialist supervisors and practice teachers funded and employed in significant numbers in local authority social work settings are the resource needed to ensure that the next generation of social workers qualifies ready to practise.

Clare Roskill is a freelance social care consultant and formerly ran several student units


1980s: Andrew Pithouse

As a qualified social worker who practised and researched statutory childcare in the early 1980s, and who still undertakes research today, I do not cling to the idea of a golden age of social work. Yet the differences between today’s practice settings and those 25 years ago could not be moreunwelcome.

The obvious and most compelling contrast is our chronic sensitivities towards risk in children’s services. This is coupled with centrallydriven sets of prescribed actions and targets incorporated into IT templates. We cannot object to procedure, transparency and accountability. But the excessive absorption of time by screen work and meetings in order to make organisationally-defensible decisions seems to deform the professional purpose.

Today’s social workers need two things that were available in early-1980s practice in order to navigate the contingent and moral world of making judgements about children’s lives. First, they need time and discretion to explore options before making practitioner-led decisions. Second, they need to be closer to the communities they are serving.

Legitimate discretion

We need to restore legitimate discretion to allow social workers to engage with cases without the time-compressing cage of electronic practice models that predetermine workflow. This robs social workers (and partner agencies) of imaginative individual responses to children in families and weakens their sense of commitment over a case. Different cases need different strategies. Trust and flexibility has to be returned to frontline practice if decision-making and interventions are to be commensurate and appropriate. This must be accompanied by good supervision that encourages intelligent discretion and risk-taking by workers within more malleable timeframes.

The drift from local patch offices to large centralised corporate entities leaves social workers more socially and geographically distanced from families today, and with less neighbourhood knowledge. Put crudely, much practice nowadays is insulated from the worlds of the children and families with whom social workers are dealing. Bringing back patch offices would benefit everyone.

In the 1980s there was a sense of control over the occupational mission rooted in modest practitioner discretion, and a care ethic wrought by dint of local working. We can’t return to the past but we do need to regenerate some of its lost practice attributes if we are to ensure social work’s continuing role as a valued public profession.

Andrew Pithouse is professor of social research at the Cardiff School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University


1990s: Jane Naik

In 1991 I was a student social worker on my final CQSW placement with a small charity that returned into the community previous long-stay hospital patients with mental health issues or learning disabilities.

The emphasis was on integration. None of the staff wore identity badges, carried diaries or had anything to mark them as a professional. I worked with service users to identify their needs and help integrate them into their local community.

There were no time constraints, and no boundaries; anything was possible. As a student it was exciting but terrifying. It made me challenge my insecurities and develop strong advocacy skills. I started to think more laterally about how to meet people’s needs. Our service users got our time and attention – and our care.

Flexible boundaries

There were boundaries, of course. But they were incredibly flexible. If I wanted to take a client shopping to buy clothes I could. I didn’t need to have it approved by anyone, a form signed, or a budget agreed. Today I’d have to ask a carer to do this because time constraints and tighter criteria mean these are no longer typical social worker roles.

The charity at which I did my placement is still running. Although the aims remain the same, the social workers now broker and care-manage rather than do the hands-on stuff I enjoyed. Lots of the practical tasks social workers used to do are now contracted out. The emphasis is now on assessing and commissioning services, measuring outcomes and ensuring performance indicators are met – all important stuff, but not the personal practice I loved.

I relish the “old style”of social work I used in 1991 – it felt more effective and demonstrated to service users a sense of commitment from their social worker.

To join the debate about what elements of practice you would like to bring back from the past, go to

Jane Naik is a review and assessment project team social worker for Redbridge Council, London

This article was published in the 28 May issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Relight my fire

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