Career Clinic

Q: Do you think the social work role is being de-professionalised by having to ration scarce and under-resourced services?

A: Unfortunately yes, writes British Association of Social Workers head Ian Johnston. There is absolutely no doubt that the current requirement for social workers employed by local authorities to act as gatekeepers, applying ever tighter criteria designed to deny people assistance rather than meet their expressed needs, contributes to the de-professionalisation of our services.

However, that’s only half the story. We’ve yet to cash in on the benefits of independent regulation and protection of title which should have opened the door to a more creative, less prescribed service. Good social work is about putting your knowledge and skills at the disposal of those requiring a service and helping them to sort out which of the options available best suits them.

When you need a social worker you want them to be someone who is genuinely concerned about your well-being, who knows what they are talking about and believes in what they are doing – someone who will fight for your rights not simply do what they are told. These are the hallmarks of a true professional.

Such autonomy does not sit comfortably with the management expectation, reinforced by our misplaced notion that there is a right and wrong way of doing everything and that social workers will secure particular outcomes.

This is of course only part of a complex equation. Social workers are expected to undertake activities which compromise their professional values and principles and the primary objective of gaining the trust of, and securing the well-being of, those who require their services.

We will never be flavour of the month as we are associated with emotive aspects of human behaviour, such as child sexual abuse and distressing situations in people’s lives. Perhaps this is why the recent launch of the Roles and Tasks statement for England was such a non-event.

Social workers deal with some of the most complex and challenging problems that arise in our society. If they are to deliver the professional service that every citizen deserves they require adequate time for reflection, effective supervision and robust risk management systems that guarantee support both when things go right and when they go wrong.

Ian Johnston is the chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers

Readers’ views:

A: To my mind de-professionalisation is more to do with individuals neglecting their duty to service users and to their local authority, and practising in a negligent manner. Eligibility criteria are much tighter than most social workers would like but this should not be used as an excuse to lower our professional standards.

Name and address withheld


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