What makes a professional?

The Social Work Reform Board has set out what is expected of social workers at every stage of their career. Daniel Lombard looks at the first of nine core standards: professionalism

The journey towards defining social work as a profession has been a long and arduous one.

The creation of the General Social Care Council in 2001, and the protection of the social worker title were vital steps.

Ten years on, and the Social Work Reform Board’s professional capabilities framework is another milestone.

The first of the nine core values making up the framework is the overarching theme of professionalism, which defines what is expected of a professional social worker.

Sherry Malik is a senior director at the GSCC, which will continue regulating social workers in England until 2012. She backs the inclusion of professionalism at the top of the nine framework components.

“Professionalism means behaving in a way that does not bring your profession into disrepute, managing personal and professional boundaries and keeping your professional development up to date,” she says.

For Hilary Burgess, senior academic adviser at SWAP (the Higher Education Academy Subject Centre for Social Policy and Social Work), the journey towards professionalism for social workers begins the day they enrol on their degree.

“Through supervision on practice placement and through class discussion, students need to learn how to reflect on practice, the way in which accountability works, how to consider their needs for future learning, how to look after themselves, and not to be overwhelmed by the nature of the work – which for some students is quite a shock,” she says.

Burgess adds that students soon learn the importance of professional boundaries on placements, when they realise they should not initiate or get drawn into inappropriate contacts with users or carers, or share too much of their own life story.

Malik adds: “We know through our conduct committees that the issue of maintaining professional boundaries, for example having an inappropriate relationship with a service user, continues to be a problem.”

The GSCC commissioned a study of professional boundaries from Sheffield Hallam University by Professor Mark Doel, Pete Nelson et al (British Journal of Social Work, 2009) after finding that 40% of conduct cases involved allegations of inappropriate relationships.

Social workers were asked how their employers would respond to 12 hypothetical scenarios, such as a practitioner working as a lap dancer in their spare time, or if one become engaged to a former service user.

The study found that social workers were unlikely to report breaches of professional boundaries by colleagues and concluded that existing guidance on the subject failed to reflect the reality of everyday practice.

The GSCC is committed to producing more detailed guidance on professional boundaries later this year.

Alongside managing boundaries, social workers can develop their own professionalism through other approaches such as emotional resilience, as the framework states.

Claudia Megele, associate lecturer in social work at the Open University and service director of a psychotherapy and counselling practice in London, says that because of the traumatic nature of the work, social workers should set aside 30 minutes each week for personal healing, using the same time and setting.

However, many believe that employers should share the responsibility of supporting professionalism. “We believe that employers have a huge role to play in embedding professionalism, both in terms of supporting social workers and acting as role models,” says Malik.

“Many employers do an excellent job, but we know that some do not. We have heard examples of social workers, at the very start of their careers, working for many weeks without supervision.”

Her concerns are shared by Rachana Patni, lecturer in social work at Brunel University in London, who warns against using professionalisation as a counterpart to managerialism – that is, too much emphasis on procedure and not enough on values.

“Allowing staff the time and space to reflect on their practice should be seen as an implicit requirement for enabling professionalism. Further, completion of professional development should be linked to salary increments as well as professional status,” she says.

Sherry Malik points to the Social Work Reform Board’s voluntary standards for employers as a possible solution. Jo Cleary, director of adults’ and community services at Lambeth Council in London, says the health check of her social work teams, recommended by the reform board, helped to highlight the professional needs of her staff.

“I’ve always found bringing social workers together is a good way of improving professionalism,” says Cleary, interim board member of the College of Social Work.

She is striving to “focus on the core values of the profession” by bringing together social workers from children’s and adults’ services at Lambeth. “We are doing this partly by merging our workforce commissioning units to cover both directorates.”

At neighbouring Lewisham Council, team manager Tania Young, who works in children’s social care, says that a senior social worker has been appointed without any caseload to assist in professional development of team members, regardless of their experience. This has helped to reduce staff turnover, she says.

Young’s experience of recruiting staff has left her questioning the dedication of certain practitioners, however.

“What bugs me more than anything is the amount of social workers that come for interviews with little passion for the profession and cannot demonstrate basic principles of social work practice,” she says. “I don’t know any other profession that takes it for granted that once you have a degree you need to make little effort to get a job.”

Take our professionalism quiz

A benchmark for standards

The proposed professional capabilities framework, published by the Social Work Reform Board, is intended to provide a benchmark for the standards social workers should follow in their practice.

The framework is spread over nine core standards or capabilities. The first, professionalism, explains that social workers should identify and behave as a professional social worker, committed to professional development

Professionalism should cover the following key areas:

1 Professional demeanour (behaviour, appearance and communication).

2 Managing personal/professional boundaries in working with children, adults and families.

3 Use of supervision.

4 Planning own continuing education and training.

5 Use of self/emotional resilience.

6 Being an effective social worker while also promoting and protecting personal well-being.

7 Promoting and safeguarding the reputation of the profession.

Find out more information on professionalism 

Test your awareness of professional boundaries with a specially-designed quiz

Learn more about developing emotional resilience

Read the Social Work Reform Board’s professional capabilities framework in full

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