Identity crisis looms.

    Every school has its cliques, and most of us can remember the ones
    we came across. Some of us were in the cool crowd, others in the
    geeky group, and nobody wanted to be the one left out of them all.

    Belonging to the right gang may have been an essential part of
    school life but, as adults, the groups to which we belong are often
    a key part of who we are. What we do for a living can be a crucial
    element of this, so it would be disconcerting to find our
    professional identity under threat.

    This has been worrying social workers for some time. Government
    proposals to push social work closer to health and education have
    resulted in increasing anxiety over the profession’s role and
    identity. Despite protection of title legislation, it is feared
    that the ingredients that make social work unique could be lost
    amid the blurring of professional boundaries.

    But perhaps this is something social workers themselves need to
    tackle rather than passively hoping for the best.

    Arthur Keefe, chair of training organisation Topss England, says:
    “Social workers have to try to ensure that their identity is not
    predicated on any organisational structure so that, as the
    organisations change, the social work identity is not
    jeopardised.

    “Increasingly, social workers are working in other organisations,
    such as children’s trusts, Sure Start and Connexions. The onus is
    on social workers themselves and their professional bodies to
    establish their identity independent of their organisation.”

    This is something that nurses managed to achieve as their role can
    always be identified even if they are working outside conventional
    health environments such as hospitals. This may be because the
    public is more informed about the role of nurses – an awareness
    that a large, efficient professional body could help to achieve for
    social workers. The sector already has the British Association of
    Social Workers but, even though the number of members is about
    10,000, this still represents a small proportion of the total.

    As a result, BASW struggles as an authoritative body. Keefe says:
    “If social workers want their professional identity protected they
    have to create a body which can do this. Either many more social
    workers must choose to join BASW or an alternative organisation
    needs to be created.”

    But social workers should not look to the General Social Care
    Council as protector. Keefe says: “The GSCC is neither owned nor
    controlled by social workers. It should not be seen as the
    professional body of social work. It is the regulator.”

    Besides, the future of the GSCC is far from certain. It is one of
    42 public bodies the Department of Health is reviewing as it tries
    to save £500m by halving the number funded. However, the GSCC
    has denied that it is at risk.

    Profession’s champion.

    Chief executive of the council Lynne Berry distinguishes
    between the profession and its workers. She says: “Our job is to
    champion social work and social care. But that’s not the same as
    championing individual workers. I don’t think we can replace the
    need for professional and other voices to speak for social workers
    themselves.”

    But the GSCC does have an important role to play in preserving the
    professional identity of social workers and to an extent has
    started to achieve this by introducing registration, codes of
    practice and the new degree. Berry is sure that social work is
    “alive and well”, and suggests that rather than being at risk of
    losing its identity it may in fact be resurrecting it.

    She says: “In order to be effective in multi-disciplinary work,
    people are becoming clearer about their own roles and areas of
    expertise. It appears that everyone is becoming more conscious
    about the need to say what they bring, and social workers are
    feeling more confident.”

    Yet the debate as to what it is that social workers do is still
    raging in some arenas, to the frustration of Ian Johnston, director
    of the British Association of Social Workers.

    “I don’t understand why key people seem unable to give a
    straightforward message about the value of social work,” he
    says.

    Although some in the sector may not be able to explain it, Johnston
    believes the public has a good understanding and is convinced that
    social workers have a key place in society. He says: “There is an
    essential task that social workers do for groups in society and the
    requirement for services shows no sign of abating. There is always
    going to be a clear role and the values, principles and training
    that social workers bring to bear on a situation are unique.”

    If social workers are unique, why do they not have their own
    dedicated trade union? Last month, at BASW’s annual meeting, a
    proposal was debated for the Scottish committee of BASW to sever
    links with public sector union Unison and set up a new social work
    union. It didn’t get anywhere, but the idea materialised out of
    frustration over pay and conditions.

    Not everyone agrees that BASW should become a trade union, Johnston
    says. “We don’t have the negotiating rights and are too small to do
    that effectively. Unison has the political clout that we don’t have
    and you need that if you’re going to effectively represent staff on
    pay and conditions.”

    He also sees trade unions and professional associations as having
    different functions. “Being in a professional association is about
    giving yourself professional strength and being with other people
    who believe in the same values and principles,” he says.

    However, some would argue that just because someone is a social
    worker, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have much in common with
    other social workers. Trying to encompass the different interests
    within a single association or union would be tricky, and there is
    still a convincing argument that those who work in local government
    should remain part of a union that represents local government in
    its entirety. Yet at the same time there is concern that, within an
    organisation the size of Unison, social care is not given enough
    priority.

    That is not the case though, according to Owen Davies, national
    officer for social services at Unison. More than 35,000 of its 1.3
    million members are social workers, and consequently social care is
    always “at or near the top” of Unison’s agenda, he says, adding
    that there are practical reasons for social workers to remain in
    Unison.

    Partnership.

    Davies says: “Most qualified social workers are employed
    in local authorities where Unison has negotiating rights. If social
    workers joined another union they would be condemning themselves to
    no voice in negotiations about their terms and conditions.”

    He says a partnership approach between a professional association
    and a trade union is the best way to make those who matter listen,
    which is important given the government’s grandiose reform
    plans.

    “The professional identity of social workers must be protected and
    preserved and that will be done by making sure the new forms of
    agencies that deliver social care give the workers the place they
    deserve. We are well placed to make sure that happens,” he says.

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