Social work has long been suffering an identity crisis, particularly since the growth of multi-disciplinary working. So it should come as some relief that, at last, the profession is on the verge of receiving its first definitive description of both what it is and what it should be.
Once given the official stamp by ministers, the General Social Care Council’s Statement of Social Work Roles and Tasks, developed with a host of other organisations, promises to deliver a “clear vision” of what social work looks like at its best.
The task was in some respects unenviable as it was always going to provoke arguments within a highly opinionated sector, and conversation with everyone from frontline workers to directors and academics goes to prove the adage that you can’t please all of the people all of the time. But you cannot fault the ambition behind the project. It aims to improve the status of the profession, shape the future of education and training, inform recruitment campaigns and improve public confidence.
A final draft of the statement was delivered to the National Children and Adult Services Conference in Bournemouth, the culmination of a year-long process. But key changes made since the earlier consultation document prompted professor of social policy Peter Beresford to say that the final draft “seemed to have had the stuffing knocked out of it”. Beresford also bemoaned the lack of input from service users and frontline workers, arguing that “social work is too important to be left to policymakers and politicians”.
His is not the only disappointed voice. Duncan Fairweather, an emergency duty service team manger at Kirklees, has been following the emerging statement and thinks the broad approach has failed frontline workers. “There are two sorts of social work,” he says. “One is the legislation and policy made by central government and implemented through local policies and procedures – the top-down approach. The other is the one practised by frontline workers, often out of sight of managers and legislators, direct with service users – the bottom-up approach. The GSCC statement reflects, in my view, a top-down approach to social work despite the consultation that has taken place.”
One key point that has changed between versions of the document, fuelling criticism of it having been watered down, was a specific reference to what social workers shouldn’t have to do – including wasting time on admin – which was in the consultation document but left out of the final draft.
Fairweather sees some paragraphs that have made it into the final draft as in effect meaninglessness: “All of us can find parts we agree with. However, as a whole, this is a mixture of bland statements open to bland interpretation. We deserve more.
“The main point for me is that this statement is uncritical of legislation and practice. It encompasses current legislation and, as such, becomes meaningless in anything other than the present. Those of us who have been in social work a while know that the flavour of the month changes rapidly with legislators.”
So far, so underwhelming. But the statement has also drawn praise from some quarters. Bernard Walker, director of adult services at Wigan and secretary of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services workforce network, hopes the statement will revitalise social work’s confidence and improve the public’s understanding of what social workers do.
“I don’t subscribe to the criticism,” he says. “It’s speaking to a number of audiences and therefore it needs to be a document that addresses the needs of the people who it’s aimed at. It’s not an academic treatise.
“There’s a danger that, as a group, we become too introspective and don’t appreciate the way the outside world views us. We need to get greater self-confidence as a profession.”
Walker dismisses the reaction of some at the Bournemouth conference that the statement is “woolly” and “a bit wet”.
He says: “Social work now is largely practised in settings where the workforce isn’t exclusively from a social work or social care background – in multidisciplinary settings, in adults’ services, children’s services, NHS partnerships etc – so it is a statement of the contribution that social work makes to that.”
The inclusion – after being dropped then picked up again – of a discussion about the range of academic disciplines that contribute to social work and the importance of a growing body of evidence is key for Walker. “For me, that’s a really important thing – using the research and evidence there is about what actually works to inform practice. I’m really pleased it makes reference to that.”
After “20 or 25” iterations of the document, any changes between versions have become a bit of a stick for critics to beat the authors with. But GSCC head of policy development Owen Davies sees the changes made as evidence of the consultation process’s effectiveness.
“It was a very extensive consultation,” says Davies. “We had a whole range of meetings of groups with social workers, managers, service users, academics from universities. The fact that the final document doesn’t look like the consultation document is proof, I think, that we took the consultation very seriously.”
Don Brand, social care consultant at the Social Care Institute for Excellence and another member of the roles and tasks project team, also rejects the notion that the final draft was weakened.
“In our view, this was simply turning statements from negatives – ‘this is what shouldn’t happen’ – to positives – ‘this is what should happen’,” he explains. “That was appropriate in our view to what a statement of roles and tasks should say – it should be saying positively to all of the stakeholders, including people working in services and people using the services, ‘this is what you should expect from social workers’.”
There was time for one final round of changes to be made by the project group before the statement was due to be presented to ministers this November. Brand says the comments from Bournemouth, such as the need to make sure it is made as clear as possible that social work is a job demanding high levels of ability, knowledge and skills have been taken on board.
So how will the success of this ground-breaking statement be judged? “We would hope it would have an impact on future workforce planning decisions we would hope it would have an impact on when organisations look at codes of practice, national occupational standards and training,” says Davies.
“We’ve got ambitions for this statement and for the way it will be used in the sector. But, of course, it’s really a matter for ministers to take the lead on this now. Success may be judged in a couple of years on the impact it has had both in government and within organisations like ours.”
Is the final draft of the statement wishy-washy? E-mail your views to firstname.lastname@example.org