What is the role of social workers?

What is social work? The College of Social Work Development Team has produced a document which clarifies the contribution of social work to the well-being...

The College of Social Work Development Team has produced a document which clarifies the contribution of social work to the well-being and care of people and communities in the early part of the 21st century.

It aims to provide an initial core statement regarding the contribution of social work as a background to the development of The College of Social Work.

Context and background

The Social Work Taskforce report (The Social Work Task Force, 2009. Facing Up to the Task: the interim report of the Social Work Task Force. London: HM Government, pp.5) included a public statement on the wide range of situations where an individual or family might need social work support, including:

● caring for family members

● experiencing problems with family relationships and conflicts

● struggling with the challenges of growing old

● suffering serious personal troubles and mental distress

● having drug and alcohol problems

● facing difficulties as a result of disability, including feeling isolated within the community and experiencing practical problems with money or housing.

Social work is the safety net of society. Trained and qualified social workers intervene into private and/or family life in order to:

● protect individuals from harm to themselves or to others

● promote human development and security, social inclusion and participation across the lifespan.

Social work is an established professional discipline which works with other professions to play a key role in helping children, adults and families to take control of and to improve their lives in conditions where their security, safety or ability to participate in civic life are restricted. There are currently approximately 84,000 registered social workers in England.

1. Legislative framework

Social work operates within a framework of legislation and government policy relating to children, families and adults and is subject to the General Social Care Council’s codes of practice for practitioners and employers. Legislation relating to adult social care is currently subject to comprehensive review by the Law Commission in England and Wales.

2. Identifying need for social work intervention

Social work employers are responsible for identifying situations where a registered, experienced social worker should become involved. Intervention may occur on either a preventative or statutory basis when: ● vulnerable adults and children need safeguarding from abuse, neglect or exploitation, and possibly need removing from their home.

● a child or adult could cause significant harm to themselves or others.

● there is a serious likelihood of family disintegration or relationship breakdown, which threatens to impair health and well-being.

● parents or carers are no longer able to look after their children.

3. The purpose of social work

Social work encourages creative ways of working to resolve the challenges vulnerable people face and aims to promote empowerment, enabling people to take action to improve their lives.

The profession works with people in a variety of different ways appropriate to individual circumstances, to help them achieve independence and exercise their human and civil rights.

Social workers work holistically with people and families in complex social circumstances. Often, there are no clear answers. Recognition of value judgements and the ability to understand conflicts of interest are essential skills which social workers must possess to achieve the best possible results for people.

Effective communication, a non-judgemental approach, building trust and maintaining strong relationships are crucial to enabling change. Social work is therefore practised, whenever possible, in partnership with children, adults, families and communities.

4. What social workers do

Social workers take on a variety of roles, often acting as a critical friend, broker or advocate, facilitating the support that people need through creative use of all available resources. Social workers aim to:

● enhance parenting and support the physical, intellectual and emotional development of children and young people who need help, in line with the Children’s Plan.

● help disadvantaged people of all ages improve their health and well-being.

● arrange good-quality alternative care for children whose parents cannot care for them, and for adults who can no longer manage in their own homes.

● aid people in poverty to improve their financial position, informing them about their entitlements and helping them to access training, work opportunities and benefits, in line with Putting People First.

● prevent children and young people from re-offending and protect the public from harm as a consequence.

These tasks do not all have to be carried out by social workers, but they should be led by an experienced social worker. Some tasks may be shared with other specialists, such as play therapists or, under supervision, delegated to benefits officers and volunteers. Some tasks fall into the remit of nurses, teachers, police officers, court officials, benefits staff and probation officers.

Social workers have the expertise to build bridges with other disciplines and agencies. They make a vital contribution in interdisciplinary teams and multi-agency settings, helping to overcome barriers between different professions and services.

5. The core values of social work

Social work, alongside other professions, shares and draws on a set of core values and principles relating to:

● the human, legal and civil rights of the child and adult.

● the equality, worth and diversity of all people, respecting their individuality, privacy and dignity.

● protection from discrimination and prejudice.

● personal autonomy, independence, choice and control.

6. The wider contribution of social work

Day-to-day social work has a clear role in supporting parents and carers, reducing the risks of abuse, neglect and youth offending, preventing family breakdown and helping adults to maintain or recover their independence. Skilled social work often avoids the need for compulsory intervention, and enables children or adults to remain safely in their homes.

However, social workers may have to intervene directly in people’s lives, to ensure that individuals are safe and to support people to make their own decisions and changes to their circumstances. Such intervention often involves representing an individual when communicating with other agencies.

7. The knowledge base, skills and qualities of social work:

Through extensive training, social workers can make a vital contribution in situations where there are high levels of uncertainty, stress, conflicts of interest and risk. Social work draws on specialist analytical skills and knowledge to assess situations where there may be no obvious answers and where a careful judgement has to be made whether or not to intervene, and to commit valued resources while identifying and balancing the associated risks. In some situations, social workers may have to initiate legal action to protect a child or adult who is at serious risk or poses a threat to themselves or others.

8. Knowledge and evidence base for social work practice

Social work has developed its own academic discipline with a knowledge base that draws on psychology, sociology, social policy, law, philosophy, ethics and other subjects as they relate to complex social work tasks. This knowledge is developed through research, tested in practice and informed by the experience and expertise of people who use services.

In a difficult situation involving conflicting interests, social workers will often need to refer back to their knowledge base and their core values and principles in order to make a clear judgement. A tested and robust knowledge base is essential when social workers have to draw on their internal emotional and ethical resources.

An evidence-based approach to practice is essential to social work. For example, it is needed to fully meet the expectations of legal and court processes and to effectively represent cases in courts of law.

Reflective practice is key to effective social work. It enables social workers to reflect on the impacts and outcomes of their methods of intervention. Social workers require good and regular support and supervision, as well as continuing professional development (CPD) in order to ensure that they are up to date with research and best practice.

9. Social work and social policy development

Social work makes a vital contribution to policy implementation, ensuring the viability of any proposals and assessing their likely impact. Social workers on the front line can identify when services are working well and when they are not. The profession also has a major contribution to make when services are being developed and commissioned, by identifying needs, gaps and overlaps.

10. What support do social workers need to be effective?

Employers must provide social workers with good quality working conditions, to enable them to fulfill their duty of care. Regular supervision, realistic workloads, access to learning support, CPD, supportive information technology (IT) and management systems, and a suitable working environment all contribute to effective social work.

Social workers share with other professions a personal responsibility for updating their knowledge and practice and contributing to research, student learning and briefings for other professions. Ready access to the knowledge community is therefore also essential.

Good social work relies heavily on robust methods of workforce selection, training and ongoing motivation. Regulation through the GSCC, inspection through Ofsted, the Care Quality Commission and the Quality Assurance Agency, along with effective supervision, ensures that appropriate standards are consistently met.

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