From the Vaults

Thirty years ago
When Alistair Darling allegedly made his recent comment about “you’ve never had it so bad”, I am sure the grey hairs among you gathered the young braves of the social care tribe around the fire and started telling them about 1978. We had the social work strike with photos of “slogan chanting social workers”; talk of militants taking over the union; accusations of “money grabbing opportunists”, and verbal threats between the various caring professions. The great “social workers should have their own union” debate was at its height with BASW setting up BUSWE while ALSWAG emerged “Alien like” from the belly of Nalgo. Class permeated everything, even Bob Holman was having a spat with an academic about class bias in adoption. At an international level, the social work boycott of Burundi was floundering (no, I am being serious) and the Soviets turned up at the National Aids for the Disabled conference in Brighton, plotting no doubt.

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

25 years ago
Inappropriate behaviour, professional conduct, and relatonships with clients are topics that have worried practitioners down the ages. One conference heard how burnout can be blamed on “confused ideologies”. Not you may think an incoherent melding of philisophical dogmas but a melange of “personal beliefs, professional standards and employers expectations”, which were not overlapping and sometimes clashing. It’s familiar already, you can almost hear someone from Scie flexing their typing fingers to pump out some unreadable paper on the topic.

One speaker even warned about developing “warm, supportive relationships with clients” and questioned whether long-term friendships were even useful to clients. Even more upsetting, he quoted research saying that service users didn’t see the social worker as particularly “warm” and that friendship should be kept at arm’s length.

Forward 25 years and social workers are as ever concerned about their relationships, whether they can be friends with service users or where the professional boundaries lie. You come into the profession to spread a little warmth and before you know it a proffered hand or an arm on a shoulder and its up in front of the conduct committee. What’s worse the clients don’t even like you anyway.

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

15 years ago
The contrasts with earlier periods were startling.

Social workers accepted a 1.5% pay offer, with even the union officals saying they were disappointed at the ballot result. Where were the militants of 1978? Maybe they had gone to Lancaster where a version of Aristophanes classic play Lysistrata was being put on. It is about the women of ancient Athens organising a sex strike to stop the men going to war. Its bawdy stuff, jokes about phalluses and subsitutes, women’s genitals, blokes being more interested in “stabbing each other” than having sex with their wives (this is beginning to sound like Viz magazine), and so on. One of the leads in the production was a social worker, the translation was by another one, and the theatre was offering discounts to practitioners. Now, if only the local government unions tried something similar…

And there were even reports of clients loving – in a platonic and non touchy feely way – social workers.

Parents in London were brandishing placards with the sogan “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 up in arms about the delay to services. The charity said that they would fill the empty posts by Christmas.

However, just as the public were warming to practitioners along came the press.

Terence Dunning, a social worker with 20 years experience, was being hounded night and day by the press for daring to suggest that a couple who wanted to adopt a mixed race boy were “racially niave”. So the full choler of the press was deployed with “tinpot dictator”, lies about him being sacked (he was actually promoted) and the “mad lefties” line. Terence was persecuted further for being gay, had to flee the waiting news hounds and was given time off work for stress. Never one to fail to jump on a press band wagon, the then health secretary Virginina Bottomley also attacked the professional guidance on adoption and the Children Act 1989 as “political correct silliness” – despite it being introduced by her party. Of course 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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