Passionate and proud

Social work practitioners and policy makers in England have been keeping a close eye on their neighbours north of the border. In Scotland, the profession has been under scrutiny, courtesy of the 18-month long 21st Century Social Work Review.

Its findings, which have sparked plans for the biggest overhaul of social work in Scotland for 40 years by the Scottish executive, concluded that while there was good practice, the profession and services were “under great pressure” and “lacking in confidence”. There was also too much bureaucracy which was causing social workers to be “under-led and over-managed” and denying them the freedom to exercise their judgement. William Roe, chair of the review, says that this lack of autonomy is one of the main reasons social workers leave the profession.

But despite these findings, Scottish social workers are fiercely proud of their identity, says Ruth Stark, British Association of Social Workers’ professional officer for Scotland. She believes the review enabled social workers to think about what they actually do and what sets them apart from other practitioners.

Carole Wilkinson, chief executive of the Scottish Social Services Council, agrees that social workers in Scotland have a strong identity. When front-line social work practitioners were brought together by the 21st Century Review to discuss their jobs, she says they were passionate about what they did and clear about why their work was unique. “Social workers could say what distinctive things separated them from police, education and            health,” says Wilkinson.

The difference in how social workers in England and Scotland see themselves is something Joan Orme, head of the Glasgow School of Social Work, has noted. Shemoved to Scotland from England nearly six years ago and believes that Scottish social workers have a much stronger identity than their English colleagues.

There are two reasons for this: first, because Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968 gave the profession higher status north of the border and unified social work departments; and second, because the Caleb Ness  and the Borders inquiries have made the country’s small number of social workers band together.

Another factor in making Scottish social workers proud of their profession is their active involvement in the creation of social policy since the establishment of the Scottish parliament in 1998.

Stark says: “We’ve had so much legislation from the Scottish parliament that  we’ve had to influence what policies have been coming through. Under the old system in Westminster we were at the end of the list in terms of new legislation.”

stand up imageSince devolution Scottish social workers can at times seem more outspoken than their colleagues in the south. Colin Mackenzie, president of the Association  of Directors of Social Work, agrees that Scotland’s social workers may appear more radical than those in England but says this has declined over the past 20 or 30 years. “Change has been achieved by putting our heads above the parapet and the political part social workers played in the past was more influential.”

Another major difference between the two countries is that Scottish social work departments are not awarded star ratings for their performance. Duncan MacAulay, chief social work officer and general manager for social care at Edinburgh Council, says: “We don’t have that sword of Damocles hanging over us and the Scottish executive has reassured us they don’t intend to bring in star ratings.”

He believes that some social services departments in England may be competing with each other to obtain star ratings, rather than improving services for their users.

Now that the review and the Scottish executive’s response to it are out in the public domain, what are the implications for social workers’ identity?

Mackenzie says social workers now have “a tremendous opportunity to build upon their strengths and excellent practice”.

Stark says that practitioners will be able to develop their knowledge and expertise further, leading to better services.

But she issues a warning over Scottish first minister Jack McConnell’s call for a new tier of “para-professionals” below social workers (‘Para-professionals may increase errors’
, 2 March). Unless these “para-professionals” were as well trained as social workers they could “cause more calamities”, she argues, when what is needed is more resources such as foster carers to look after children.

One of the key proposals in the review is to give front-line staff greater responsibility by allowing them to make more decisions. Mackenzie argues that the move will boost the profession: “Giving front-line staff more responsibility gives a clear indication that social workers should be recognised as people who can carry out skilled work.”

He adds that social work employers need to recognise that they can give staff more autonomy and that social workers are, and should be supported to be, accountable for their actions.

Orme also backs the proposal to give practitioners more authority, saying it will help bolster the sector: “If you are going to be deemed to be a professional you should be allowed to make decisions as such.”

Scotland’s social workers sweated under the review team’s microscope for long enough. Now is the time for the profession to learn from the experience and to reach new professional heights.


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