Go back for the future

Social work has changed tremendously over the last four decades,
says Bob Holman, and not necessarily for the better as
enthusiasm and zeal for change has been replaced by

Forty years ago, social work occupational associations were
influential bodies.

In 1962, when I started with a local authority children’s
department, I joined the Association of Child Care Officers (ACCO).
It was a vibrant body with local branches and an annual gathering
that attracted 1,000 officers – a third of its membership.

As I approach 65, I know it is easy to see the past through a
haze of nostalgia. Some child care officers did fold up under the
stress. Some children’s officers were even less inspirational than
New Labour. Nonetheless, the associations did draw the enthusiastic
involvement of many members and they were influential.

ACCO had a political impact. The Children Act 1948 did not give
local authorities powers to prevent children having to enter public
care. ACCO mounted a campaign that put pressure on government,
enlisted public figures like psychiatrist John Bowlby, and drew up
wording for new legislation. It thus contributed to the passing of
the Children & Young Persons Act 1963, which included a green
light for prevention.

The top officials had their own group, the Association of
Children’s Officers (ACO). One of its presidents, Barbara Kahan,
persuaded ACO to oppose the practice of locking up youngsters in
approved schools. It drew the attention of Alice Bacon, a minister
at the Home Office, who accepted the case that children’s
departments could cope with young offenders within the community.
Meanwhile, ACCO won the ear of Labour politicians Barbara Castle
and David Ennals. Between them the associations helped shape the
legislation of 1969 that introduced a more welfare-orientated and
less punitive approach towards juvenile delinquents.

Why were ACCO and ACO so influential? First, they were
specialists. Children’s departments concentrated on just one client
grouping – deprived children. ACCO and ACO were the acknowledged
child care experts and politicians listened.

Second, the associations spoke as practitioners rather than
managers. They could speak authoritatively because members had
daily contact with children. Even children’s officers – some of
whom carried small caseloads – did not regard themselves as
managers, although many were good administrators. Rather they were
child care leaders who campaigned for children.

Third, the members of ACCO and ACO possessed an enormous
commitment. Margery Urquhart, who joined the service after being a
police inspector, said: “There was a sense of mission. I left the
police but I could not leave child care.”1 This
commitment impressed outsiders.

Fourth, the associations possessed some outstanding leaders.
ACCO had the charismatic Janie Thomas and Tom White. ACO had Lucy
Faithfull, Kenneth Brill and Ian Brown – the latter wanted a better
deal for children than his own childhood under the Poor Law.

Today, the leaders of the British Association of Social Workers
and the Association of Directors of Social Services do not seem to
have a significant impact on government. It is difficult to explain
why, but I believe a contributory factor was the abolition of
specialist services in the early 1970s and the closure of
specialist associations. Today’s social services departments, along
with BASW and ADSS, represent such a multitude of interests that
they cannot easily concentrate on one campaign, cannot have a
mission for just one user group.

Further, the huge size of today’s social services has created
directors and managers who are distant from users and from the
values that should inform practice. Consequently, it is difficult
to number social work leaders who are closely identified with, say,
deprived children.

Not least, the huge bureaucracies have led to a welfare world of
paper, meetings and assessments. Recently, Rod Ballard commented
that, on returning to Britain, he was aghast to find social
services departments “where the administration of cases seemed more
important than the relationship between worker and client”. Desk
work will not enthuse social workers into campaigns with and for

Can social work associations be significant again? I don’t
pretend to have all the answers, but I reckon the following are

– No return to children’s departments, but the creation of
smaller units like family departments. Jean Packman, after calling
for crusading zeal, said: “It may be that small and brand new
organisations…can more readily foster such attitudes than a
large and complex structure born of a massive

– An emphasis on values not mechanisms, on dynamics not league

– A social work in which personal relationships are central, in
which practitioners are able to give priority to being alongside
those in greatest need.

Of course, all this goes against the present tide of ever-larger
organisational empires. But I believe these changes would free
social workers to enthuse with the same commitment which pushed
their predecessors into the old social work associations and which
won them a hearing from politicians.

1 B Holman, Child Care Revisited, Institute of Child
Care, 1998, p98

2 Jean Packman, The Child’s Generation, Blackwell,
1975, p127

Bob Holman is the author of the pamphlet, George Lansbury.
Labour’s neglected leader, Christian Socialist Movement, 2001.



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