Defining social work’s unique contribution

The College of Social Work is attempting to define the profession's unique contribution to public services. As Kirsty McGregor found, the 'reserved functions' of social work are open to debate

(ill: Alex Williamson/Debut art)

The College of Social Work is attempting to define the profession’s unique contribution to public services. As Kirsty McGregor found, the ‘reserved functions’ of social work are open to debate

Could the decision to remove a child from its family home or commit someone to a mental health facility be taken by an unqualified care worker? Could this be done by a nurse or police officer?

Social workers play a unique role, but it is often misunderstood by the public and other professionals – and in today’s climate of cuts, outsourcing and personalisation, that role is changing, leading to more confusion.

“Employers are often vague about the duties which ought to be done by social workers rather than unqualified staff,” wrote Maurice Bates, interim co-chairs of the College of Social Work, in Community Care in April. Bates was particularly concerned that employers were using the personalisation agenda as an excuse to get rid of qualified social-worker posts in adult services.

The College has now set up an expert group to identify specific tasks that should only be done by qualified social workers, and explore whether or not these “reserved tasks” should be enshrined in legislation.

But there are risks involved in this process. “Many social workers think that we need to do more to explain to the general public what we do,” explains Owen Davies, the College’s public affairs adviser. “We therefore need a definition that does justice to what social workers do in words that are easily understood.

“But some people fear that, if we define the reserved tasks, other activities social workers are very skilled at doing would be allocated to less well-trained staff.”

Nushra Mansuri, professional officer for the alternative college of social work set up by the British Association of Social Workers, expresses this very concern: “We would not want this to lead to social workers’ roles being restricted to those functions.”

But she ultimately supports setting out a list of reserved tasks: “We certainly think there are some benefits in defining which functions should be reserved for qualified social workers. This tells people that such work requires specific professional qualifications and skills. It enhances the role of social workers and protects those who should not be cast in the role.”

Davies says numerous people have suggested that certain functions relating to court work should be reserved.

“If a judge is going to make a decision based partly on professional advice, they need to know the advice comes from a qualified social worker,” he explains.

“Others have mentioned brokering and advice activity, but some service users would object to the idea that this should be done only by social workers.”

The responses from other professional groups have so far been mixed.

“What you want is the person who is appropriate in each situation,” says Jo Webber, deputy policy director for the NHS Confederation. “Social workers will often take the lead, but at other times a health professional might do that. People should be working together.”

Previous attempts to clarify the social work role have included the General Social Care Council’s statement on the roles and tasks of social workers, Social Work at its Best, published in March 2008. Meanwhile the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services published a statement last year setting out functions that should be performed by registered social workers.

In other professions, statements on roles and tasks have been produced. For example, in 2007, the Department for Health carried out a review of the role of health visitors following concerns that the profession had “lost its focus”. Nurses and teachers do not have reserved functions.

Community Care asked various professionals for their views on whether the following activities could be included on a list of reserved tasks only qualified social workers should do. The responses indicate how difficult it would be to isolate one profession’s role in supporting the most vulnerable.

Making enquiries about the welfare of a child or vulnerable adult where abuse or neglect is suspected

Dick Henson, detective superintendent, Metropolitan Police Child Abuse Investigation Command:

“If a child becomes a victim of crime, police have a duty to investigate, particularly if there is criminal abuse or neglect involved. We would launch an investigation with social services and agree an action plan with local authority decision makers.

“Only the police have the emergency power to remove children, and I think that should remain the case. But when a child might be in a potentially dangerous situation that is not time-critical, social workers have the training and experience to carry out enquiries.”

Jo Webber, deputy policy director for the NHS Confederation:

“People aren’t necessarily going to end up being investigated by police officers or social workers only. A health professional might go in, have concerns and make enquiries alongside other colleagues.”

Assessing the needs of children and adults and recommending solutions, support and therapeutic interventions

Emma Westcott, senior policy adviser for the General Teaching Council:

“Teachers and other professionals within schools are in a good position to spot need. They are often involved in recommending support and therapeutic services for children, in conjunction with speech therapists, social workers and other colleagues.”

Nick Johnson, chief executive of the Social Care Association:

“Before the NHS and Community Care Act 1990 the vast majority of people admitted to residential care were seen by social work assistants. I’m not sure the quality of service has improved since then.

“It’s very difficult to say what only the social worker should do, but there is an argument for defining what should be supervised by a social worker.”

Nushra Mansuri, professional officer for BASW – The College of Social Work:

“I would want to go further than this and argue that social workers occupy the role of ‘therapists’ as it is about having specialist social workers i.e. palliative care and child sexual abuse counselling.”

Deciding whether to remove a child from its family home

Nushra Mansuri, professional officer for BASW – the College of Social Work:

“Child protection is a multi-agency responsibility. However, we should have legislation that enshrines the role of a qualified and experienced social worker to undertake child protection enquiries.

“Ultimately the social worker is the embodiment of the local authority applying to court for an order to protect a child.”

Acting as broker to obtain the support people want through creative use of resources

Jo Webber, deputy policy director for the NHS Confederation:

“Personal health budgets are being trialled, so eventually you may end up with people having a joint health and social care budget.

“Health professionals will have to get involved, and people are going to have work more closely together.

“Social workers have particular expertise in this area, and the health service will have to get to grips with that over the next few years.”

Nushra Mansuri, professional officer for BASW – the College of Social Work:

“In terms of older people and adults with disabilities or mental health problems, the uniqueness we bring is the lack of a vested interest and as far as possible trying to secure the best outcome for the individual concerned in spite of pressure from other places.”

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