(pictured: College chairs Maurice Bates and Corinne May Chahal)
Professions require clearly defined roles. There is general agreement on the kinds of tasks to be allocated to doctors and lawyers, for example, so surely it is the same for social workers. Well, not quite.
The truth is that the roles and tasks of social workers are disputed. The Barclay report attempted to define social work as far back as 1982, but with scant support from Margaret Thatcher’s government it was left to gather dust on academic bookshelves.
When the General Social Care Council published another statement of social work’s roles and tasks 25 years later, hardly any of them, other than statutory child protection duties, were unique to social workers.
Consequently, employers are often vague about the duties which ought to be done by social workers rather than unqualified staff. Personalisation has sometimes been used as cover for replacing social workers with a fancy array of job titles united by a common characteristic: they are cheaper to employ. As the financial cuts bite, employers will be tempted to extend the practice.
But that would be a mistake. For no other profession channels so many hard-won skills into promoting social change and maximising potential in the life of a service user seen as a whole. When the international definition describes social work as the “empowerment and liberation of people to enhance well-being,” these are more than fine words. They speak of a creative response to human predicaments which becomes gradually more effective as a social worker’s experience and expertise grow.
Managerialism and the de-skilling of social work has tended to stifle professional judgement. As Munro’s second report says, there has been too much emphasis on “formulaic responses” instead of acknowledging that the most important activity takes place when social workers meet people and “try to communicate with them, work with them, and help them to change”.
So no wonder social work is hard to define as a set of roles and tasks. Exactly what functions should be the exclusive domain of social workers? Despite the difficulties, this is a question the College will tackle in the coming months in consultation with our prospective members.
Doctors aim at cures and lawyers at legal interpretation, but social workers take human beings in all their complexity and offer them hope, even when the dice are loaded against them.
This is the message behind the Professional Capabilities Framework, which we inherit from the Social Work Reform Board this year. Expertise builds up over an entire career and good social workers never stop learning. That is the mark of a profession.
Maurice Bates and Corinne May-Chahal are the interim co-chairs of the College of Social Work
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