Have we lost sight of community?

The Big Picture: Have we lost sight of community?

The present Social Work Taskforce for England review that is taking place could benefit from considering the important role social workers can play in the communities and neighbourhoods they serve.

One of the major problems for statutory social work is that social workers are often based in council offices that can be some distance from the communities they are asked to serve. When a service user, or potential service user, wants to speak face to face with a social worker they frequently need to travel some distance from their homes to the appropriate council building, meet with the relevant practitioner, and then make the return journey home.

Often this journey is under taken on public transport and may involve the service user bringing young children with them. Perhaps too the service user needs to be accompanied by a friend or relative.

It does not take a genius therefore to see that this physical distance of service user from practitioner, along with the significant time that social workers are spending attending to their computer files on ‘cases’ (some estimates are between 60-70% of practitioners time is spent in this activity) means that there is a real possibility that the relationship between the practitioner and service user is perceived on both sides as functional and culturally insensitive.

Neighbourhoods play important role

Surely a more effective way to deliver social work is to recognise the role that neighbourhoods play in service user lives. It is in neighbourhoods where service users live, their children attend schools, where relations and friends are residing, and where informal support can be tapped into.

If social workers were neighbourhood-based and were regularly seen in the communities they served they would better understand the issues facing service users, and the difficult challenges they face on a day-to-day basis. At the same time the social workers are more likely to be approached from concerned community members of issues or families that maybe in need of social work intervention and support.

To undertake this, local authorities need to be more imaginative and flexible in their thinking such as Derbyshire Council has been in the remodelling social work pilot with the Children’s Workforce Development Council. Buildings in neighbourhoods such as schools, community centres and health centres could be utilised which would avoid the construction of new premises in a time of cash strapped budgets.

Surely the advantages of bringing services closer to people in neighbourhood style interventions outweighs the demand for social workers to be perched in offices a significant distance from their service users?

Keith Popple is professor of social work at London South Bank University

This article is published in the 11 June issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Have we lost sight of community?

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