What is the role of social workers?

Social work is internationally recognised but definining the profession and its role has long been a contested area

Photo: Fotolia/ Monkey Business

Article updated 12 October 2018

Can you define what social work is? Even if you’re a social worker yourself, this is harder to do than it sounds. Describing what you do on a day to day basis is fairly straightforward, but defining the role of social work in society requires more than this.

The global definition of social work, set out by the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) and approved by its general assembly in 2014, is as follows:

“Social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work. Underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and indigenous knowledge, social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing.

In 2009, concerned that existing definitions of social work were difficult for the profession and the public to engage with, the government-appointed Social Work Taskforce issued a public description of social work, which was designed to improve public understanding of the profession:

“Social work helps adults and children to be safe so they can cope and take control of their lives again. Social workers make life better for people in crisis who are struggling to cope, feel alone and cannot sort out their problems unaided. How social workers do this depends on the circumstances. Usually they work in partnership with the people they are supporting – check out what they need, find what will help them, build their confidence, and open doors to other services. Sometimes, in extreme situations such as where people are at risk of harm or in danger of hurting others, social workers have to take stronger action to protect them – and they have the legal powers and duties to do this…”

The IFSW definition pays much more attention to the theory and values behind social work, and its role in relation to society and in promoting social change. The taskforce description is about practical matters and focuses on social work’s role in relation to individuals; keeping people safe and helping them sort out their problems. These differences matter when it comes to some of the complex situations social workers encounter.

As an example, take a family living in poverty, where there are worries about neglect of two young children. Is the social worker’s role to be focused solely on these two children, how to make their lives better and keep them safe from neglect? Should they just consider the individual situation? Or should they also consider the wider causes of the family’s situation – the political and cultural context that has contributed to their poverty, and the many stresses that living in poverty places on parents?

The professional capabilities framework

The government in England and national bodies representing the profession have issued a number of statements on the role of social work in recent years.

Developed by the then Social Work Reform Board and issued in 2012, the PCF set a generic standards framework, across nine domains, for social workers at different stages of their career.

It was revised and refreshed in 2017-18 under the leadership of the British Association of Social Workers (BASW). More information on the PCF is available on the BASW website. BASW says that it is aligned with the IFSW global definition through the association’s own code of ethics, which references the IFSW definition and is itself referenced in the PCF.

What the PCF says

Below, we set out what the PCF says about social work through its nine domains. How well do you think this captures the nature of social work and what should be expected of social workers as professionals? Let us know by tweeting @CommunityCare or emailing communitycare@markallengroup.com

  1. Professionalism – identify and behave as a professional social worker, committed to professional development. Social workers are members of an internationally recognised profession. Our title is protected in UK law. We demonstrate professional commitment by taking responsibility for our conduct, practice, self-care and development. We seek and use supervision and other professional support. We promote excellent practice, and challenge circumstances that compromise this. As representatives of the profession, we safeguard its reputation. We are accountable to people using services, the public, employers and the regulator. We take ethical decisions in the context of multiple accountabilities.
  2. Values and ethics – apply social work ethical principles and values to guide professional practices. Social workers have an obligation to conduct themselves and make decisions in accordance with our code of ethics. This includes working in partnership with people who use our services. We promote human rights and social justice. We develop and maintain our understanding of the value base of our profession throughout our career, its ethical standards and relevant law.
  3. Diversity and equality – recognise diversity and apply anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive principles in practice. Social workers understand that diversity characterises and shapes human experience and is critical to the formation of identity. Diversity is multi-dimensional and includes race, disability, class, economic status, age, sexuality, gender (including transgender), faith and belief, and the intersection of these and other characteristics. We understand that because of difference, and perception of difference, a person’s life experience may include oppression, marginalisation and alienation as well as privilege, power and acclaim. We identify this and promote equality.
  4. Rights, justice and economic wellbeing – advance human rights and promote social justice and economic wellbeing. Social workers recognise and promote the fundamental principles of human rights, social justice and economic wellbeing enshrined in national and international laws, conventions and policies. These principles underpin our practice and we use statutory and case law effectively in our work. We understand and address the effects of oppression, discrimination and poverty. Wherever possible, we work in partnership with people using services, their carers and families, to challenge inequality and injustice, and promote strengths, agency, hope and self-determination.
  5. Knowledge – develop and apply relevant knowledge from social work practice and research, social sciences, law, other professional and relevant fields, and from the experience of people who use services. We develop our professional knowledge throughout our careers and sustain our curiosity. As a unified profession, we develop core knowledge that relates to our purpose, values and ethics. We also develop specific knowledge needed for fields of practice and roles. Our knowledge comes from social work practice, theory, law, research, expertise by experience, and from other relevant fields and disciplines. All social workers contribute to creating as well as using professional knowledge. We understand our distinctive knowledge complements that of other disciplines to provide effective services.
  6. Critical reflection and analysis – apply critical reflection and analysis to inform and provide a rationale for professional decision-making. Social workers critically reflect on their practice, use analysis, apply professional judgement and reasoned discernment. We identify, evaluate and integrate multiple sources of knowledge and evidence. We continuously evaluate our impact and benefit to service users. We use supervision and other support to reflect on our work and sustain our practice and wellbeing. We apply our critical reflective skills to the context and conditions under which we practise. Our reflection enables us to challenge ourselves and others, and maintain our professional curiosity, creativity and self-awareness.
  7. Intervention and skills use judgement, knowledge and authority to intervene with individuals, families and communities to promote independence, provide support, prevent harm and enable progress. Social workers engage with individuals, families, and communities, working alongside people to determine their needs and wishes, and what action may be helpful. We build productive working relationships and communicate effectively. Using our professional judgement, we employ appropriate interventions, promoting self-determination, support, protection and positive change. We develop and maintain skills relevant to our roles. We understand and take account of power differentials and use our authority appropriately. We evaluate our own practice and its impact, and how we improve outcomes for those we work with.
  8. Contexts and organisations – engage with, inform, and adapt to changing organisational contexts, and the social and policy environments that shape practice. Operate effectively within and contribute to the development of organisations and services, including multi-agency and inter-professional settings. Social workers are informed about and pro-actively respond to the challenges and opportunities that come from changing social, policy and work contexts. We fulfil this responsibility in accordance with our professional values and ethics, as individual and collective professionals and as members of the
    organisations in which we work. We collaborate, inform and are informed by our work with other social workers, other professions, individuals and communities.
  9. Professional leadership – promote the profession and good social work practice. Take responsibility for the professional learning and development of others. Develop personal influence and be part of the collective leadership and impact of the profession. We develop and show our leadership, individually and collectively, through promoting social work’s purpose, practices and impact. We achieve this through diverse activities which may include: advancing practice; supervising; educating others; research; evaluation; using innovation and creativity; writing; using social media positively; being active in professional networks and bodies; contributing to policy; taking formal leadership/ management roles. We promote organisational contexts conducive to good practice and learning. We work in partnership with people who use services and stakeholders in developing our leadership and aims for the profession.

The government’s view on social work: the knowledge and skills statements 

While the PCF is typically described as a profession-owned statement, the UK government has set out its expectations of social workers in England through a number of knowledge and skills statements (KSS). These are:

  1. The KSS for child and family practitioners
  2. The KSS for child and family practice supervisors
  3. The KSS for practice leaders in children’s social work
  4. The KSS for social workers in adult services

Compared with the PCF, these are less focused on social work’s role within society and more on their role with individuals and in carrying out particular tasks and functions, including through relevant legislation.

The KSS for child and family practitioners and for practice supervisors will be used as the bases of the National Assessment and Accreditation System that the government is developing to assess the standard of social work practice with children in England. This is currently being rolled out in five ‘phase one’ local authorities, with 15 ‘phase two’ authorities to follow in 2019.

The KSS for social workers in adult services forms the basis of the assessment of newly qualified social workers going through the assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE) in adults’ services.


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