Mistaken identity

Many people seem to have it in for social care. So what can the profession do to give it an image like that enjoyed by police, nurses and teachers? Roisin Woolnough looks for signs of progress

Small wonder that social care suffers from an image problem. Its professionalism is constantly picked over, criticised and derided by sections of the media and some politicians – and then the public joins in with the mood of cynicism.

Other public sector professionals, including police, nurses and teachers, are also accustomed to this kind of publicity, but it seldom has the potency as that directed at social workers. So why us, is the question many social care staff want answering.

“Social workers tend to have to deal with the things that people don’t want to happen to themselves or other people,” says Ian Johnston, director of the British Association of Social Workers.

“They should get praise for dealing with situations that most people would find abhorrent but instead it is convenient to scapegoat them. It is seen that social workers cause those things to happen.”

Perhaps it is the perceived intrusion of social workers into people’s lives that is so damaging. And then there is the profession’s association with sociology degrees and the left-wing politics that were so much part of red-brick university life in the 1960s and 1970s. As a profession that found its feet during that period, the links with radicalism were palpable – and proved anathema to sections of the press.

Doubtless some of the misconceptions are caused by ignorance. The work of the police, teachers and nurses is more tangible, but social care is less well-known. Certainly it is less well-defined to those outside the sector.

Metin Enver, spokesperson for the Police Federation of England and Wales, says: “Policing and law and order have traditionally been seen as government and public priorities which in itself creates a strong identity. Also, police officers perform a unique function which creates camaraderie and enhances a strong identity.”

The remit of social care, however, is not so obvious. Lynn Young, primary health care adviser at the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), says that, for the public to appreciate social care professionals, they need to know exactly what they do. “Where would public health and patient care be without nursing? That is quite clear. But what happens to people when there are no social workers?”

Young thinks that the public needs to hear more about the positive work that social workers do. She points to the NHS heroes and heroines awards that celebrate outstanding work. A few years ago, the RCN looked at a successful image campaign launched by a professional nursing body in the US to gain inspiration for a similar campaign in the UK. “We then ran a campaign on that, trying to raise the status of nursing,” says Young. “We make sure we publicise the good stories. To improve the image of social care, we need to hear about the wonderful work that social workers do. The trouble with social workers is that they get a bad press. They need to be more upfront about their successes.”

But it is far from clear-cut. Due to negative press coverage many social services departments have adopted a siege mentality and prevent staff speaking to the media, even about their successes.

“Employers tend to be very reluctant to let front-line workers talk to the press, which is a pity,” says Johnston. “A much more constructive way to deal with the situation is to encourage social workers to speak out. It would be better if the public heard more about successes. The issue of social workers in the media is very important to us.”

Johnston also thinks there is a problem in that social care professionals are poor at self-promotion. “The kind of people who come into social work are those who want to put other people first,” he says. “They are more likely to be self-effacing and less likely to blow their own trumpet.”

The good news is that there are signs that the profession’s image is improving. Johnston says this is partly due to the work that has been done on professional status and registration. “We have made some very significant steps forward through better training and independent regulation,” he says. “We now have degree-length training and independent regulation, which we have fought long and hard for.”

All of this makes social care appear to other people – be they users, the media or politicians – as a more professional profession. It is also good for social workers to feel they are part of a service with professional status.

As with other professions, social workers need to have a strong professional body to represent them – something that the sector has been accused of lacking. Professional bodies need to campaign on the issues facing their sector, the work their members do and how they should be rewarded. The Police Federation acknowledges the importance of this. Enver says: “Perhaps the best known federation campaign was the ‘bobby lobby’ organised several years ago when thousands of police officers from England and Wales descended on Westminster to voice their opposition to plans to cut pay bonuses, such as overtime. This was a successful day and the campaign resulted in the government changing some of its plans.”

Pay is, of course, an important issue for any professional and particularly those working in the public sector where financial reward has long been a problem. Lobbying the government for more resources and better pay deals for members is staple work for any body representing public sector workers.

Young believes the most important role a professional body has to play is in supporting its members and being their voice. She believes that this is all tied into how you perform as a professional. “If you are supporting nurses, then you are then supporting patient care. What you want is a well-educated, supported workforce,” she says.

The same is true of the social care workforce. Perhaps then the sector could start to grow in confidence – and reputation.

See also, ‘It’s about respect’

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