What future for adult social work?

The future of adult social work is in question due to cuts, the legacy of care management and the focus on child protection. This week, the College of Social Work starts a project to bolster adult social work's standing. How will it achieve this?

Cuts, the legacy of care management and the focus on child protection have left adult social workers feeling unrecognised, says The College of Social Work’s Owen Davies. He sets out how the College aims to champion social work with adults, while Mithran Samuel examines how two councils are seeking to reinvigorate the role

Social work is one profession. Whether you work in child protection, palliative care, dementia care, mental health, fostering and adoption or any of its other specialisms, as a social worker you share a common baseline of skills and knowledge and subscribe to a single code of conduct embodying a shared set of values.

The public has come to associate the term “social worker” with child protection failures. All the skilled and dedicated work in the other fields where social workers make a difference to the lives of people in need or at risk goes unrecognised – as indeed does the good work in child protection.

As a result, recent social work reforms have been seen as focused on social work with children. This feeling has strengthened because of the attention focused on Professor Eileen Munro’s report on child protection. Some of her valuable conclusions, on improving training, leadership and evidence-based practice and cutting bureaucracy, echo what social workers in adult services say about the difficulties they face, but the common thread is not explicit.

There are other challenges. Our members tell us that in some places the number of adult social work posts is being reduced to be replaced with posts for less well-qualified staff. This failure to understand the key role that social work should be playing in supporting service users who want choice and control is perhaps an unfortunate legacy of the days when social work with adults became associated with the “care management” role of rationing and allocating resources. Without excellent social work support, personalisation will not flourish.

The result is that prospective members working in services for adults have told us at The College of Social Work that they feel “left out”. We intend to try to change that.

It is a good time to do so. In its November 2010 vision for adult social care the UK government said “new and continuing professional roles will be developed for frontline social workers”. And the future of adult social care is again up for discussion. Reforms to law and funding proposed by the Law Commission and the Dilnot commission respectively will shape a White Paper due in spring 2012. This will have to include some serious thinking about how finding and developing the future adults’ services workforce and the College intends to make sure the key role of social workers is set out very clearly.

This autumn, the college is running a series of consultation events on the future of social work with adults with members including frontline workers, service users and their carers. The project will culminate in a summit early in 2012. Our aim will be to ensure that the voice of social workers and service users and carers is heard by those preparing the White Paper and that the value social work brings to adults’ services is set out persuasively. That will be in the interest of the profession but, importantly, will help to ensure that our communities and their most vulnerable members receive the services they need and deserve.

Owen Davies is public affairs adviser at The College of Social Work

The College will publish details of how you can contribute to this work in due course

Have your say on the future of adult social work on CareSpace.

Sutton Council: Reintroducing community role


Stefan Polanyk (pictured) qualified as a social worker in 1987 but until June he was a community care assessor for Sutton Council – a role that did not require a social work qualification. The reason, says executive head of adults and safeguarding Shaun O’Leary, was that it enabled Polanyk to work in a more person-centred way than social work roles he could be doing instead.

This ethos encouraged O’Leary to give Polanyk a new challenge that swapped care management for a community social work role more akin to the world both men qualified into in the 1980s.

In a one-year pilot, he will work with 35 individuals currently receiving the equivalent of at least 20 hours of care a year in two relatively deprived wards: St Helier and Sutton North.

Many are socially isolated and Polanyk is tasked with reconnecting them with their communities, identifying what skills they have to offer their communities and what community resources are available to support them.

O’Leary’s expectation is that by the end of the year outcomes will have improved for the 35 and they will be costing the council significantly less.

So far, Polanyk has carried out reviews of four of the 35: “We talked about what they appreciate in life, about their interests and connections with other people.”

Instead of an approach that seeks to define needs and then purchase services to meet them, he is looking to identify their strengths and how they can contribute.

At the same time he has been making himself known in the communities and also mapping what sources of support are available that he can link the individuals to.

“There are a lot of things that are going on that we as social workers wouldn’t know about. It’s about trying to find out all the connections.”

His work has identified a credit union and a community allotment scheme, among other things. “One thing I’ve been thinking about is getting older people who may not be able to use the allotment to give advice to those who do, so they can benefit from the decades of horticultural wisdom currently not being accessed.”

He plans to set up a steering group of local charity and community leaders, which could potentially fund new initiatives with match funding from the council.

“I would recommend going back to community social work and away from care management,” he adds. “I’m very excited.”

Derbyshire Council: Investing in adult social work

“Personalisation is not about getting out of people’s lives but supporting them in their lives. Get rid of the bureaucracy but don’t throw out the professional support.”

This comment from Derbyshire Council’s strategic director of adult care, Bill Robertson, explains why the authority is investing in adult field social work, despite this year making savings of £12.7m in adult care.

As part of a reorganisation implemented six months ago, it hired 30 social workers, and is also putting another 21 experienced care managers through an Open University social work degree.

Client-based teams have been replaced by 30 generic teams covering smaller “patches” of 20,000 to 30,000 people. Robertson’s ambition is for 80% of the teams to be professionals, mostly social workers, in three years.

It’s not just about numbers but how social workers are working. Instead of the care management approach of a social worker “going in and doing a quick assessment and saying ‘here’s your personal budget, see you in a year’s time'”, the council wants to “work with individuals on a personal level and help them work through issues in their lives”.

In practice, this means assessments that involve helping people identify issues in their lives and solutions; mapping support services available in the community; and advocating for people to ensure those services are as accessible and inclusive as possible.

Robertson says of the approach: “Not only will it provide better outcomes but there will be job enrichment. Social workers will feel more liberated and get back into effective practice.”

Related articles

State of personalisation 2011

Report into roles and tasks of adult social workers published

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This article is published in the 29 September 2011 edition of Community Care under the headline “Adult social work matters too”

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