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‘This sort of thing used to be called social work’

allan norman 60.jpgby Allan Norman, Principal Social Worker & Solicitor at Celtic Knot (, an independent law firm and social work practice.

The first on-line response to the Guardian article about a new form of intervention being adopted in Swindon said it all for me:

“What a great project. But I’m sure this sort of thing used to be called Social Work.”

The new approach described getting to grips with the reality of the harsh lives of excluded people, instead of judging them as distant professionals.  Most radically, and riskily, it included living alongside these families.  But that remark was spot on.  This is what social work used to be.

In 2008, the University of Birmingham celebrated 100 years of social work education.  To mark this, it produced a booklet which set out how social work education had changed over the decades.  And there was a clear reminder of social work’s origins in the Settlement movement, 100 years earlier.  The central tenet of the Settlement movement was precisely this:  the need to come aside people, to share their life experience in order to understand them and to help them.

And it was not only at the beginnings of social work.  Bob Holman – a contributor to these blogs – was a contributor to the University’s celebrations also.  And he reminded us how the community work with which social work was linked decades later, and with which he himself is still associated, has the same characteristic: coming alongside people where they are, not imposing upon them from a professional distance.

Social work has definitely moved from that position. The risk to any social worker who now expresses a view that they should share the life experiences of service users is that they will face professional misconduct charges. And consider the sad irony of Peter Beresford et al’s research article, ‘We Don’t See Her as a Social Worker’: A Service User Case Study of the Importance of the Social Worker’s Relationship and Humanity – these days, it seems, service users still value relationship and common humanity in a social worker.  But they no longer see it as social work.

So there, in the article and in the response to it, was a lifeline of hope for me.  For I am now researching – at the same University of Birmingham – what “professional distance” has done to the social work profession I joined because I wanted to come alongside people.

And the experiment in Swindon may not be so new, but it offers hope that it is not too late to reverse the damage that has been done as we have learned to keep our distance.

About Simeon Brody

Community Care managing web editor

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