Ask anyone what a teacher does and they’ll likely be able to answer no problem. They’ll frame it in their own experiences and be able to describe a day-to-day life in the classroom.
Ask about police officers or nurses, they’ll probably also have a good idea of what those jobs entail. They may have personal experiences to draw on from using these universal services. If not, they’ll probably have come across the generally positive portrayals these professions receive in the media.
Ask about social workers, and the answers will probably be less certain. Partly this is because most people have not, thankfully, needed the targeted support our profession gives to people in need or at risk. Partly it’s because we do not enjoy the same standing as other professions in the media. The discourse on social work is often dominated by failure, most notably around child protection.
Our work is hidden from view
While stories of failure may grab headlines, in reality our profession plays a vital role in the lives of millions of people every day. We support and safeguard the vulnerable and oppressed. Yet our work is often hidden from view and rarely praised. The vast majority of the public remain in the dark about what it is we actually do each day.
What can we do to address this? How do we get the message out that social work is one of the most rewarding careers to get into?
For starters we need to get better at telling our own story and telling it well. We need to show people that this is a challenging career, but also one that can be vibrant, dynamic and rewarding.
Data protection laws and codes of conduct can make it hard to share specific case details with the public. But we need to find a way to tell people of our successes and get the message out that, for every social work tragedy, there are thousands more positive stories that aren’t given the same level of attention.
Sharing our stories
To do this we need to support our unions and professional bodies, such as BASW, to make the case for social work and promote its profile. We also need to get better at engaging with the press to share our side of the story. But we don’t just have to rely on traditional media to tell the world what we do, the rise of social media and YouTube means we can also do it ourselves.
We also need to promote the range of opportunities to enter our sector, whether through graduate schemes for social workers or apprenticeships that offer younger people the chance to ‘earn while you learn’ in preparation for a social work career.
A hard but rewarding job
With an ageing population, one in five child protection social worker roles vacant and a national skills gap in social care, there’s never been a better time to enter this field for a life-long career.
It can be a very hard job at times. There are struggles along the way. But in return you have the knowledge that every day you are making a difference to the world and you’re there for people who might not have anybody else.
There are of course huge issues relating to the context in which we practice. Addressing these will be key to improving both staff retention and the quality of support on offer.
It’s simply not fair that some areas are being asked to do more with less, while other organisations receive positive Ofsted reports because they have the benefit of a more settled workforce, lower caseloads and higher funding. It is not right that a vulnerable person living in one part of the country will receive vastly better support than one living in another; especially when the cost for these varying levels of help, in the most extreme cases of abuse, can mean lives lost.
There are various policies in place that aim to address inconsistencies in children’s services. Struggling councils are being partnered with those who are performing well, and have gone through similar struggles. Independent children’s trusts are being trialled. Accreditation aims to ensure children at risk of harm will be supported by a high-quality workforce, wherever they live.
The jury is out on these policies but they should not be simply dismissed because they go against the grain of what’s come before. We need to learn from what works and what doesn’t to identify best practice.
It’s an exciting time to enter social work. We need to put aside old battles with the press and politicians in order to come together and change the way people think about our profession. If we define what best practice is, what role we want to play in the world and how we can go about doing this, we’ve a chance of defining social work as a career everyone can be proud of.
Social Work Tutor is a child protection social worker in England who writes under a pseudonym.