Why we must capitalise on our professional expertise

Bill Stone argues that it is time to monitor the profession
rigorously and restrict access to it.

My experience of social workers – and I have been a practising
social worker for more than 20 years – has led to me to believe
that we have a deeply ambivalent attitude towards professionalism.
We often look with envy at other professions, such as health or
law, and bemoan our lack of status and prestige. Yet social work
today is, at least partly, what we have made it and reflects
unresolved tensions within the “social work mindset”.

I remember sniggering with my fellow social work students back
in the 1970s about the pretentiousness of those who talked about
“going into practice” as though they were budding doctors or
lawyers. For us, social work was about being radical which meant
being anti-professional and standing up for those at the receiving
end of services. “Street cred” was what we wanted, not

We were deeply critical of the bureaucracy of the welfare state
which seemed to be more geared to meeting the needs of the
professionals providing the services than those receiving them.
There was also an ingrained anti-elitism which asserted that what
mattered was solidarity with our clients not claims to professional

Unfortunately for us, I suspect that this arguably misplaced
idealism has proved convenient for successive governments which
have been eager to keep public spending down. It is convenient to
have a workforce divided into different special interest groups,
split among many different agencies and without a recognised voice.
It is convenient to have a workforce which doesn’t have an
acknowledged expertise particular to that occupation; and to have a
workforce which is largely docile and where competence to do the
job has become largely a matter of compliance with ever more
prescriptive policies and procedures.

This means that social care providers can get away with
employing poorly trained staff and paying them next to nothing.
It’s not surprising that in this context even the professional
qualification, the Diploma in Social Work, has become devalued.
When you look at the entry requirements for starting a DipSW course
they are among the lowest for any course of study available.

Social workers can’t have it both ways. We can’t have an “open
access” policy whereby anyone can become a social worker provided
they are well intentioned, have some work experience and a few NVQs
and then expect contracting agencies to take our professional
aspirations seriously.

No wonder people have been calling for more “streetwise
grannies” and less professionally trained social workers. We can’t
expect our voices to carry much weight in court and in other public
arenas unless we restrict entry to the profession and monitor the
profession rigorously.

I wonder whether we are prepared for the implications of
registration or whether we would rather carry on moaning about poor
pay and conditions, stress, and the contempt in which we are held
by professions that are less ambivalent about their qualifications
and professional expertise.

Bill Stone is an independent social worker.

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