Carer focus groups were questioned on the effectiveness of social workers as part of the research into the new social work degree.1 The study sought to report the views of carers about opportunities provided by the reform of social work education and training. A series of focus groups, including one with ethnic minority carers and carer-trainers was held in England in February and May 2002.
Carers recognised the tensions for social workers of the daily balancing of needs and resources. They understood the difficulties of this from their own experiences but they thought social workers did not achieve it. They thought social workers needed to remember that the carer’s role was all the more important because, when cash is short, carers were the service. Core skills such as listening, counselling and problem-solving are even more crucial when resources are limited.
But there was recognition, particularly by carers from ethnic minorities, that many of the problems lay with the social services system itself. In particular:
- Carers felt social workers lacked autonomy.
- Social workers were having to go back to ask their manager for decisions about services. This had a demoralising effect on carers.
- Carers were at a loss to understand why relatively minor decisions could not be made by individuals.
- Many carers felt that managers did not necessarily make good judgements.
Carers said they wanted social workers to be mature, reliable, flexible and show empathy and understanding. They also wanted workers with practical skills, such as legal knowledge, creative problem-solving and resourcefulness. Worryingly, they said cultural awareness was often lacking.
More positively, carers suggested they would like to be involved in training and especially in practical placements to develop social workers’ understanding. They hoped practice learning opportunities could be developed as they were regarded as crucial to competence and confidence among social workers and would instruct students about the lives of those they would be working with.
Carers supported wholeheartedly the idea of greater involvement in practice experience, offering shadowing in their own homes and advocating placements in carers’ organisations. It was agreed that learning experiences should not stop at qualification – carers wanted social workers to have post-qualification education and training to refresh their skills and stay up to date with the law. The consensus was that this training should be compulsory and that social workers should be unable to practise without annual evidence of continuing professional education or training.
Some carers saw the review of the degree as a chance to change the name of the profession – to re-value and de-stigmatise the profession and start again with a clean sheet. Carers recognised that social work gets a bad press which was generally thought unfair.
The outcome from this and the other focus groups (employment agencies, front-line social workers, service users and student social workers) directly influenced the entry, teaching, learning and assessment requirements for the new degree. City & Guilds and Carers UK have this year been commissioned by the Department of Health to follow up this work with carers’ groups and universities to explore potential for involving carers in the new degree course. This is as a direct result of the recommendations from this report showing that the views of carers have been taken into account.
1 Research findings at www.doh.gov.uk/swqualification ; Focus of the Future – Key Messages from Focus Groups about the Future of Social Work Training, Department of Health, 2002; Requirements for Social Work Training, DoH, 2002
Sally Anfilogoff is an independent consultant.