More than improved salaries, social workers
need a better press and a return to the type of practice that
allows them to develop relationships and skills rather than police
clients, writes Bob Holman.
“Degree threat as social work crisis deepens”.
So runs the headline in The Sunday Herald as it reveals
that the number of Scottish social work graduates has fallen by a
third since 1996. The drop is occurring throughout the UK and the
knock-on effect is that some social work departments and social
services departments are finding it difficult to recruit staff.
Kingsley Thomas, executive
chairperson of social work at Edinburgh Council, believes that
social work salaries of £22,000 are not high enough to attract
future workers. I do not think that the full explanation for the
crisis rests in salary levels.
important is the unpopular image of social workers. Child abuse
inquiries inevitably lead to press witch-hunts which blame social
workers rather than other professionals. In Easterhouse, Glasgow, I
know of numbers of residents who have social workers. They may join
in the media condemnation while praising their own social worker as
helpful. The trouble is that it is the former that deters potential
Further, some social workers are
disillusioned by social work, particularly by the dominance of
child abuse and by its huge bureaucracies. Professor Chris Jones,
delivering the 18th Duncan Memorial Lecture at Liverpool University
last year, drew out the implications. First, social workers are
pushed into monitoring roles and can’t develop the kind of
relationships exercising their particular skill. Second, they feel
they function within an oppressive work environment. Some give
can be done? I recommend the creation of family departments, which
are smaller than social services and social work departments and
which are sufficiently resourced to allow social workers to make
supportive and frequent relationships with families. In short, let
social workers do social work.
work needs a better press. Tony Blair should praise social workers
as much as he does police, doctors, nurses and teachers. Recently,
former social worker and now government minister, Tessa Jowell,
gave a long interview in The Guardian (April, 15).
Disappointingly, she said much in the favour of the royal family
but nothing about social workers. The BBC should allow some social
workers to air their views alongside the establishment look-a-likes
on the panels of Question Time and Any
short-term, recruitment for training could change. In the 1960s,
council children’s departments faced a recruitment crisis. In
stepped one of my child care champions. Clare Winnicott had been a
youth worker, evacuation social worker, and lecturer before she
organised emergency child care courses for older candidates who
lacked the qualifications or universities. Within six years the
number of students rose from 174 to 805.
became an assistant tutor at the two-year course at Stevenage
College of Further Education. The students, all older than me, had
opted for a change in career. Nearly 40 years on, I am still in
touch with some of them. Did it matter that they lacked academic
bits of paper? Not according to their achievements. I can think of
students who became a director of a social services department, a
social services inspector, senior social work staff, deputy
director of a large voluntary society and so on. Just as
importantly, they endured. They made a serious commitment and
stayed in social work until they retired. Today, if social work
courses cannot recruit young people to do degrees, why not bring
back the emergency courses?
student introduced herself as “I’m Bron Soan, I’m a socialist and
an atheist”. A highly qualified nurse, she considered that social
work enabled her to be even more useful. Years later, by then a
Christian socialist, she spent six months of each year as a social
worker and six months as a nurse in El Salvador – often working
under heavy fire. As a pensioner, she still does it.
like many of those students, was driven by deeply held convictions
which are now less in evidence. The crisis in social work is a
reflection of the crisis in society. If the values and practices of
equality, mutuality and public service are revived then more people
will want to be social workers and society will be more
appreciative of them.
Bob Holman is a community worker and
the author of Champions for Children. The Lives of Modern Child
Care Pioneers, Policy Press, 2001.