From the vaults: 18 September 2008

Thirty years ago: Social workers – an unloved breed?

Well, reading the popular press you may think that social workers are about as popular as Gordon Brown among his cabinet colleagues but as Charles Dickens said: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” and that, dear reader, could have been said many times over the past 30 years.

In 1978 the social work strike was rumbling on with photos of “militant demonstrators” social workers being accused of being “money grabbing opportunists” by other “money grabbing opportunists” a public falling out as BASW set up BUSWE, while ALSWAG emerged “Alien like” from the belly of Nalgo. Pretty unpopular all round.

And when the profession needed a Dickens-like “Our Mutual Friend” what happens? That Trojan Horse of capitalist lackeyism, Community Care, demanded yet again for the strikers to return to work because they were now appearing silly. I hope the wounds have healed over the years.

Meanwhile, hats off to one poor soul who took three years, and a High Court ruling, to be selected for a CQSW course. These days it would be off to media studies after a week.

Twenty five years ago: Evidence emerges that service users didn’t much like social workers – believing them to be a cold lot

A conference report from 1983 found one speaker warning about developing “warm relationships with clients” and questioning the usefulness of long-term friendships in family therapy. He quoted research that found service users didn’t even consider social workers to be “warm”.

Social workers needed to leave friendship outside the therapy, he added. Wise advice then and even wiser now with the GSCC rooting out any unprofessional relationships. There was also a warning about burnout caused by “confused ideologies” – that’s code for relationship problems, professional or otherwise. You come into the profession to spread a little warmth and maybe an errant hand on knee and before you know what’s occurred it’s up in front of the conduct committee.

Stick to the cold as fish persona, it will keep you out of mischief and your clients will love you for it.

Fifteen years ago: Social workers off to Lancaster to see a classic

Social workers were off to Lancaster to watch the classic “Make love not war” play Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, in which Athenian women organise a sex strike to stop the men going to war. Its bawdy stuff, jokes about phalluses, women’s genitals, blokes being more interested in killing than having sex with their wives, and so on. Funny in 411BC and funny now. The lead and the translator in the production were social workers and discounts were on offer to practitioners.

Meanwhile, parents in London were brandishing placards with the slogan: “I want my social worker back!” The charity Parents for Children was losing its social workers at an alarming rate, so alarming that families were alarmed about it.

Just as the public were warming to practitioners along came the press.

Terence Dunning, a social worker with 20 years experience, was being hounded by the press for daring to suggest that a couple who wanted to adopt a mixed race child were “racially naive”. So the full bile of the media was deployed with “tinpot dictator” headlines, lies about him being sacked (he was promoted) and being persecuted for being gay.

The then health secretary Virginia Bottomley also attacked the professional guidance on adoption and the Children Act 1989 as “politically correct silliness” – despite it being introduced by her party.

Terence was vindicated but as the journalist maxim says: “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story”.

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