Have the flags been furled?

Many people entered social work out of a commitment to social justice but does today’s profession offer them scope for radicalism? Anabel Unity Sale reports

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “radical” as “departing from tradition; innovative or progressive”. For many long-serving social care and social work professionals the definition is an apt one as they have sought to improve the lives of their clients through radical social work practice over the years. Stand up for Social Care 125x125

Social work’s radical roots could be said to stem from philanthropic activities that began during the latter part of the 19th century. In 1843 William Williams, a young solicitor’s clerk shocked by the poverty of children living in the St Giles area of London, formed a society with concerned friends which opened a school for these deprived children. This radical initiative, and the others that followed, were known as ragged schools.

Williams’ society went on to become the charity Shaftesbury Homes and Arethusa and today’s chief executive, Hilton Dawson, regards social work as “inherently radical because it engages with and empowers the most dispossessed in our society”. 

Dawson became a social worker in 1979, just at the dawn of the Thatcher era which was to have such a seismic influence on society and the social work profession.

Some say that Thatcherism ushered in the era of managerialism which saw managers increasingly taking control of social work services away from those who practised it.

And, claims Dawson, this trend has continued under Tony Blair. As Labour MP for Lancaster & Wyre before standing down at the last general election to return to social care, he saw this at first hand.

He says that New Labour has tried to stifle radicalism in social work because, despite progress such as the registration of social workers, the government is not interested in the sector. “New Labour has no real understanding of social work, the nature of social work or its potential.”

The nature of radicalism has changed over the years as society has become more aware of gender and race issues. However, Andy Sumpter, a senior lecturer in social work at the University of Wolverhampton, says the ideas social work promotes can still be seen as radical when looked at in context: “Equality isn’t a radical idea but in a society that is unequal it has radical implications.”

Sumpter says it is important to understand that many of the professionals now entering social care were children during the Thatcher era. They have grown up in a different political context from their older counterparts and now work in departments that follow different procedures from those in the 1960s and 1970s. “Nowadays councils’ service provision requires social workers to do things which are expedient rather than ethical. For a social worker to ‘do the right thing’ will often mean challenging the accepted practice and policies.”

If social work is to hold on to its radical credentials, Sumpter says today’s professionals will have to act radically when looking at their practice and challenge accepted procedures.

The radical social work of the 1960s and 1970s is now a distant memory, but how is the radicalism of workers 40 years ago reflected in today’s professionals? According to Community Care’s latest  research they believe social work should be about promoting change in society and viewing the client as a whole person, in a way other professionals do not.

Bob Holman, who gave up his professorship at Bath University to live on a deprived estate in Glasgow’s Easterhouse more than 20 years ago, started out in social work as a child care officer in Hertfordshire Council in the 1960s and campaigned for the Children and Young Persons Act 1963. He says the radicalism of students during this period had an impact on the social care profession because when social work students graduated and went into the workplace they brought their radical ideology with them.

Now a retired community worker and academic, for Holman the way to remain radical is simple. He praises Scotland’s approach in having a 21st century review of social work and believes England should also look at how to ensure social work is linked with social justice and reducing poverty. He wants to see more done to improve the lives of clients, who should be social workers’ main concern. “The way to do it is make social workers more expert in welfare rights so clients get their full welfare entitlements,” he says.

Also still waving the flag for radical social work is Michael Lavalette, a senior lecturer in social policy and social work at Liverpool University’s school of sociology and social policy. He believes that radicalism in social work has never disappeared, so much so that he is organising a conference in Liverpool this week entitled Social Work; A Profession Worth Fighting For. “Historically, periods of radical social work were expansive and not isolated. Radical social work grows and expands as the wider social protest movements grow.”

But for Jim Wild, Nottingham Trent University senior lecturer in social work, radical social work is now a “duff term”. He says radical social work is about “defining oppression, the misuse of power and still believing that life is more than consuming, being passive and accepting that things cannot change”.

He asks: “Did we not enter social work to change the world? We are not pawns but, that said, these are such hard times for idealists. Capitalism is not a public service in that we never think about how it encroaches on every aspect of our lives.”

Lavalette believes today’s social care workers will still walk the path of their radical forebears as they work to assist their clients. “I feel more optimistic today about the possibility of the rebirth of radical social work than I did 10 years ago.”


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