Social work needs new methods of working

Peter Hall argues that social work partnerships can meet the
challenge of professionalisation.

Social workers are facing unprecedented scrutiny by the
government, which is using the “stick and carrot” approach to
prompt change. The stick is the pending registration of all social
care staff with a General Social Care Council; registration being a
requirement to practise as a social worker. The carrot is the
opportunity for promotion on completion of post-qualifying

The dilemma for social workers is that while their practice is
based on knowledge, skills and values, they are governed by
managers whose focus is on rationing and procedures. And this
tension is becoming more acute with the implementation of the
government’s quality agenda.

The quality strategy document is about how standards can be
raised. Part of this quest is the belief that research is the
lifeblood of a thriving profession. The government has recognised
this limited use of research by the introduction of the Social Care
Institute for Excellence to provide authoritative guidance on good

The move to gain further professional status for social workers
in local authorities presents significant challenges. Professional
independent decision-making sits uncomfortably within bureaucratic
organisations driven by budgetary considerations. For many social
workers, “respecting clients as individuals and safeguarding their
dignity and rights” is not always compatible with acting within a
budgetary-led rather than a needs-led service. This is further
complicated by democratically appointed political masters
extracting financial efficiencies.

The introduction of care trusts with social workers being
seconded from local authorities to work in partnership with health
service workers is further evidence of alternative practices being
adopted by social work agencies. Some argue local authorities would
benefit by looking at alternative types of organisational practice
for social workers.

Social services departments are coming under increasing pressure
to fulfil their statutory duties. The increasing number of social
workers operating as independent practitioners may encourage local
authorities to look afresh at social workers working within new
professional organisational structures such as social work
partnerships. These partnerships could possibly operate on similar
lines to other professional groups. This would resolve the conflict
of interest between departments and social workers by separating
service users’ needs from the managerial focus on rationing and

New ways of employing social workers need serious consideration,
and social work partnerships may be one way to meet the changing
needs of social services departments and the developing
independence of the social work profession.

Peter Hall is chairperson of British Association of Social
Workers’ education and training committee.

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