How should we define social work?

The Social Work Task Force has signalled its intent to come up with a new definition of social work to counter public misconceptions. Anabel Unity Sale reports

What with the negative coverage that social work attracts, it is hardly surprising that the public is not clear about what social workers do. They are led to believe that professionals swoop in and steal babies from families, give older people with limited mobility a bath and then make their dinner. Other frontline public sector workers have no such trouble; the work of doctors and teachers is much more clear cut in the public mind.

The Social Work Task Force’s interim report to government early last month revealed that social workers felt misunderstood. It states: “We have been told that social workers feel that their profession is undervalued, poorly understood and under continuous media attack.”

The report adds social workers have also told the taskforce “they do not feel that the profession is good at articulating the role and purpose of social work; existing definitions of social work are not felt to reflect the reality of the role and its purpose and are difficult for members of the public, other professionals and even social workers themselves to relate and engage with.” To address this problem the taskforce has pledged to consult over the summer on a new description of social work.

It is a pretty grim conclusion considering that it was only in March 2008 that the General Social Care Council, Skills for Care, the Children’s Workforce Development Council and the Social Care Institute for Excellence produced their social work “roles and tasks” statement. The 19-page document – the result of 18 months’ consultation and deliberation – was supposed to explain the wide-ranging roles and tasks of social workers, thereby giving the profession a much needed boost. Despite being commissioned by the government it has never received an endorsement by any minister.

New definition

The GSCC has welcomed the taskforce’s interim report to create a new definition of social work.

Ray Jones, professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London, believes the GSCC’s existing social work definition captures the essence of social work, the value base the profession operates from and emphasises the importance of helping clients achieve better lives. It is obvious, he adds, that a lot of time and effort went into producing the statement but it falls down because it is “not very punchy for public consumption”.

“It could do with editing by a tabloid journalist, maybe someone at The Sun,” he laughs. Joking aside, Jones believes social work itself does not need redefining – despite calls from some of the redtop newspapers – but just the way the profession represents itself.

Malcolm Jarman is one frontline social worker who has to explain to clients and other professionals what he does as an assistant team manager for Weymouth and Portland community mental health team. He says in his 31 years as a social worker there has constantly been a debate about how to describe what social workers do. “I tell people social workers act as a link between people with difficulties and the community around them and the services they need to live fuller lives,” he says. The GSCC’s definition of social work, he adds, is “very comprehensive and I couldn’t have come up with anything better myself”.

But Trevor Humphreys, training and development officer at Coventry Council’s youth offending team, says the GSCC statement gives the impression that modern social work is still primarily about intervention and makes no reference to the functions of assessment and recording “that consume so much time and energy”. It would be helpful, he adds, if the GSCC put greater emphasis on the safeguarding and protection functions in its definition.

Plain language needed

So does the profession need a new description of social work? Humphreys says a “broad inclusive definition, couched in plain language, would surely be helpful to the public and workforce alike”.

Jarman says he understands how the current definition of social work may confuse the public, professionals and practitioners alike but is not convinced it can be improved. “It is going to be difficult to produce one that accurately reflects the range and diversity of social work roles,” he says. “It is much easier to describe nurses and GPs’ roles and it is easier for people to understand them.”

Any new definition of social work must emphasise the special combination of values, competencies, role and tasks, says Jones.

“Other professions may rightly claim some of this for themselves as well but none have the special combination which characterises social work,” he says. “Social workers have a professional concern for social justice, tackling discrimination, and valuing not rejecting people while not necessarily accepting their attitudes and behaviour.”

Bob Holman, a veteran voluntary neighbourhood worker in Glasgow, would like to see a social work description stress the importance of addressing inequality. He says: “Social workers must attempt to ensure that all individuals are safe, protected and have a good quality of life. But, more than ever, I believe this has to be in the context of promoting a more equal society in terms of income, wealth and opportunities.”

Community social work

Holman argues greater emphasis must be placed on community social work, where staff are based in “neighbourhood teams, often in deprived areas”. He supports a reframing of the relationship between a social worker and their client, so that social workers are regarded as “helpers and not monitors” and are “more akin to equals”.

Defining what social work is and what social workers do – and therefore do not do – will never be easy. The role is challenging by its very nature. Whether or not the taskforce can improve upon what the GSCC produced in spring last year remains to be seen. Whatever the outcome is, perhaps the sector should heed Jones’s advice: “We have to be careful not to beat ourselves up too much about capturing everything we do in a succinct way, it is very difficult to summarise.”


Suggested definitions from contributors to our CareSpace discussion forum

Bushwacker: “For any statement to be generally acceptable it must attempt to be inclusive. I would suggest for debate ‘social work is about supporting and advise that the government on the delivery of health and social care policy, while supporting the disadvantaged and ensuring their voice is heard within any agenda for change.”

Digital Oracle: “Social workers may work for various types of organisations, where they are the glue between environments or the interface for the social fabric of society and they provide links to services offered to clients.”

BamBam01: “Definition of social work: a group of people who are pissed off with quangos costing fortunes who spend all of their time contemplating their navels. We are in a crisis; we cannot cope with the bureaucracy that has been imposed upon us. People are being promoted too quickly and we are being robbed of vital skills at the frontline. We have no national voice, we have databases that have increased our workloads by 500%. The resultant work produced is an embarrassment thus robbing us of whatever small amount of job satisfaction we once had. We would like the Social Work Task Force of academics and agony aunts to pull their fingers out of their collected rears and do something about the above immediately. If they can’t we would like them to go away and stop robbing us of the tiny piece of sanity that we are only just clinging on to.”

Skirmish: “Social work now is a series of procedural tasks, with 80% of your time taken up doing administration work. Social work as I would like it to be is working with individuals and their families to promote positive changes in their lives and having the time to get to know these individuals properly.”

LindaBrown: “Social work, as I understand it, is an activity which a social practitioner undertakes in order to help a service user live better within their community. To succeed, the social worker must not work with the client alone but also with his family, friends as well as others from other agencies such as the police, carers, housing officers, health workers.”

Join the debate on CareSpace

This article is published in the 11 June issue of Community Care magazine under the heading What is it that you do again?

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