Voyage of re-discovery

Social work has been experiencing a crisis in its role and
function for more than 10 years. A combination of policy changes
from the Department of Health, radical politics in university
social work courses and beleaguered social services departments
chasing stars has sent social work off in different directions. It
has, in the view of many committed professionals, lost its

At Coventry this loss of direction had to be addressed, so a
practitioners’ group within the children and families service
was set up to “re-discover social work”. The work
started with an analysis of the nature and ethos of social work and
included an internal review of practice.

The group highlighted some key themes in relation to the nature of
social work: 

  • It is interactive: it considers individuals and groups and its
    main focus is to work with (usually vulnerable) people to enable
    them to make positive changes to their lives.
  • There is a monitoring role, which can be perceived as one of
    social policing to ensure protection of children and vulnerable
  • It supports people with needs in identifying options for change
    in their lives – and helps them to implement change.
    Assessment and intervention become the two key activities to
    support this process.
  • Any work has to be done with the engagement of the person
    requiring help. Sometimes this can be difficult and there can be
    resistance, especially where the policing role comes to the
  • Social work has to take account of the nature and workings of
    society and its structural inequalities. It must also understand
    the interplay between the individual or group and society.

The definition of social work in the British Association of
Social Workers’ code of ethics sums up the review
group’s perspective: “The social work profession
promotes social change, problem-solving in human relationships and
the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance well-being.
Utilising theories of human behaviour and social systems, social
work intervenes at points where people interact with their
environments. Principles of human rights and social justice are
fundamental to social work.”

The group identified interpersonal skills, such as building
relationships and engaging with service users as a crucial part of
a social worker’s role. But expectations placed more emphasis
on other activities. Paperwork and bureaucracy were major bugbears
and the prescriptive nature of current processes was also
criticised. Workers felt they had less time to build relationships
with service users than in the past. In the climate in which they
worked they saw the main focus of their work as: undertaking
assessments; identifying who could work with the family; referring
on to other agencies; playing a co-ordination role; report writing;
and attending meetings. 

Practice appeared to focus on assessment and workers were less
involved in direct intervention. Staff felt their roles to be less
rewarding, with diminishing job satisfaction. The intervention role
of social work was considered to be the more challenging and
rewarding part of the job.

The development of assessment tools was welcomed but, due to time
constraints, these were degenerating into a tick-box exercise.
Staff felt they were not judged on their interaction and
intervention with families but rather on whether an assessment was
completed, the time taken to do it and whether it was recorded. A
focus on outcomes had developed but without agreement on how these
were to be achieved. Social workers appear to be caught up in a
cycle of assessment-led processes and bureaucratic systems that do
not necessarily produce positive outcomes.

The practitioners’ group identified a key factor in the
public inquiries into child deaths, most recently that of Victoria
Climbié. These have led to the development of practices and
procedures for working with children at risk. So much so that, when
the Children Act 1989 came into operation, many workers interpreted
the emphasis to be on child protection as opposed to family support
(although this was not the intention of the act). However, the
practitioners recognise that this imbalance may be redressed by the
Change for Children agenda.

The Barclay Report introduced the notion of the social
worker as a broker of services(1) – a concept reinforced by
community care legislation. Social workers were tasked with the
management and oversight of packages of support. It was felt that
this approach was never a satisfactory response to working with
children and families and had distanced social workers from service
users. The children-in-need assessment framework had reinforced the
focus on assessment.

Increased scrutiny and inspection lead organisations to focus on
what is being measured, not necessarily on what will effect change
in families. The performance assessment arrangements for social
services can reinforce this behaviour. Good indicators are not
necessarily a reflection of good practice; however, good practice
should produce good performance indicators.

Finally, the shortage of social workers has, by default, affected
workloads and practice, with many teams engaging in reactive

Coventry social services is eager to address the issues raised by
its review and indeed has already started to do so. It recognises
that it cannot “blame” the outside world alone –
it has its own responsibility to initiate change. The organisation
has set itself these tasks in the months ahead:  

  • Being clear about what the social work job is.
  • Creating the environment and giving permission within the
    organisation to do the job.
  • Organisational direction and leadership from managers at
    different levels.
  • Sound training at professional and agency level.
  • Effective supervision.
  • Attention to workload management and to more local performance
    management focused on good practice, not just meeting performance
    indicator targets.
  • A focus on the essential elements of social work, which are
    about interpersonal skills – trying to redress the balance
    when bureaucracy dominates.
  • To continue to explore with staff how they can gain better job
    satisfaction and reawaken the reasons why they entered the
  • Rediscover social work. Intervention has always been part of
    social work – it’s just that we have moved away from

So how can the outside world support the task of re-discovering
social work? National policy documents could again recognise the
importance of interventions and redress the emphasis on assessment.
Universities could pay greater attention to the intervention
function in qualifying courses for social workers. The regulatory
bodies could place a greater emphasis on outcome measures in the
assessment frameworks, with less emphasis on process.

And funding bodies could provide more cash to redress the balance
of the past 15 years while we bring the workforce up to date with
revitalised and new skills that support intervention.

John Bolton qualified as a social worker in 1974.
He joined Coventry social services and housing as director more
than two years ago. Since his arrival social services has come off
“special measures” and within two years was rated as a
two-star authority. Trevor Humphreys is employee
development officer and Debbie Carter is senior
manager, children and families service.

Training and learning
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guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at
and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be
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Social workers no longer appear to be using all their
traditional inter-personal skills and have lost the art of
therapeutic interventions to help people change their lives.
Coventry social services is looking at ways in which social
workers’ skills can be “re-discovered” in order
to better equip them for their roles in multi-disciplinary teams in
the future.

(1) The Barclay Report, “Social workers: their roles
and tasks”, Bedford Square Publishing, 1982

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