What’s social work?

It is ironic that social care has gained a national body to
reinforce the boundaries of its profession, just as they are
becoming more porous.

The General Social Care Council (GSCC) is expected to help forge a
stronger identity for the sector by overseeing registration of all
its professionals. Having wrestled with its role for more than a
century, social care finally has a means to define and police its

But at the same time the boundaries of social care are becoming
ever more blurred. Social care values and practices are alive and
well. But increasingly they exist outside, as well as within,
mainstream services.

A plethora of initiatives in recent years has spawned new groups of
professionals: those working for Sure Start, Connexions, youth
offending teams, drug action teams and the like.

The philosophy of social care has been transported into these new
programmes and many of them are staffed by professionals who
previously worked for social services departments. But few of those
now working in new settings would describe themselves first and
foremost as social workers; their identity has been defined by
where they are, rather than from where they have come. Just as
social work receives legal protection for its title, the profession
as we now know it may cease to exist in decades to come.

These changes are not reversible because they are a logical
response to the challenges we now face as a society. Too often
professions have been built around structures rather than people.
It is difficult to justify the continued existence of separate
professions working closely with the same service users.

It is inevitable that new professional roles should emerge to meet
the diverse needs of different age groups. A century ago we didn’t
worry about teenagers. Now we expect professionals who work with
adolescents to combine skills previously associated with youth and
community work, social work, adolescent mental health and careers

And as the population of older people grows, there is a greater
demand for rehabilitation professionals who combine elements of
nursing, occupational therapy, social work and home support.

These changes are not only driven by users’ needs. Perpetual
difficulties in achieving greater inter-agency working are
inevitably leading to a more radical approach: a total realignment
of professional boundaries. The problems faced in meeting current
demand are also playing a role; serious staff shortages throughout
social care are forcing some rationalisation.

The government has also taken an interest in this agenda; but in
some ways it is running to catch up with changes in practice,
rather than driving them. The new workforce unit established in the
Department for Education and Skills after the publication of
Every Child Matters comes at a time when new roles are
already emerging. You only have to browse the jobs pages of
Community Care to note that the traditional social worker
post is increasingly facing competition from new, multi-focused,
age-specialist roles.

These changes pose obvious threats to the identity of a profession
that has always struggled with what it is. In future it will be
increasingly difficult to distinguish a social care professional
from other professionals. But whereas health and education
professionals have strong identities to which they revert
regardless of the diversity of their roles, social care
professionals have no equivalent strength of identity.

Social care may hope to end up like nursing – having a strong core
identity with plenty of specialisation within it. But, unlike
nursing, social work has suffered from a history of self-doubt and
uncertainty. We are currently in an in-between state. The old
certainties, such as they were, are being left behind. But the
future direction is still unclear.

On the one hand social care is finally developing a professional
structure. The GSCC’s register will help to improve the integrity
and status of the profession. A graduate social work workforce is
in development. The social work profession has legal protection;
unqualified staff will no longer be tolerated within it.

In many ways the spreading of social care values and practices
across professional boundaries is a sign of success. But such
diffusion also threatens the profession’s identity.

Lisa Harker is chairperson of the Daycare Trust.

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