Critical success factors for improving social work

The Social Work Reform Board's recommendations provide a window of opportunity for social work to reassert its role and enhance its professional image. But what are the critical factors necessary for their successful implementation?

The Social Work Reform Board’s recommendations provide a window of opportunity for social work to reassert its role and enhance its professional image, says Claudia Megele. But what are the critical factors necessary for their successful implementation?

1. Reclaiming social work’s values and role

Social work’s image has been overshadowed by its statutory functions as an agent of government. We must reclaim the profession’s fundamental value of social justice and reassert its role as agent of positive social change. This requires a greater recognition of the different aspects of social work practice, including the non-statutory, and a greater engagement of social workers. The appointment of a chief social worker in England is a welcome development, but it is important to establish appropriate mechanisms that ensure effective two-way traffic of ideas between those who represent social work and frontline practitioners.

2. Establishing a knowledge culture

Social work operates in a knowledge economy but lacks the cultural orientation and fundamental awareness and expertise in knowledge transfer and management. Therefore it is important to develop a culture that facilitates the recognition and transmission of professional knowledge. We can begin by recognising the everyday practice wisdom of practitioners through action research. Local authorities and third sector organisations can, with appropriate cooperation and guidance, translate this wisdom into more structured evidence-based knowledge. Such a body of knowledge will provide a wealth of in-house know-how for organisations’ internal development while strengthening the profession on a larger scale.

3. Using new technology and social media

It is essential that social work at all levels develops its understanding and use of social media and technologies for e-learning and e-governance. These will transform the current systems of participation, problem resolution, knowledge generation and learning while reducing costs and increasing quality standards. This requires greater training and familiarisation for social workers and a new approach to social services engagement, delivery and management.

4. Non-academic professional progression

The reform board’s continuing professional development (CPD) and post-qualifying guidelines are meant to simplify the progression pathway for social workers after their initial qualification. It’s an excellent development that encourages the creation of mechanisms that recognise and accredit practitioners’ experience and practical knowledge. The guidelines imply that specific skills developed on the job, such as court presentation skills, could be assessed by the practitioner’s manager or employer and accredited by a higher education institution. This recognises the value of practitioners’ knowledge and enhances their morale, but it is important that standards are in place to uphold social work’s theoretical and professional foundations and its evidenced base.

5. Transparent and participatory governance

When speaking to student social workers one cannot help but be impressed by their passion and idealism. If social work is to be a dynamic and vibrant profession then it must strengthen that sense of mission, passion and commitment in its practitioners and practice. This requires transparency on the part of institutions and the genuine, open engagement of all practitioners. Given the hierarchical culture of social work, establishing a participatory model of governance and operation and moving from the current systems of control to systems of support, development and learning may be challenging and delicate is an indispensable critical success factor for the reform board’s recommendations.

6. Co-operation between employers and academia

Many of the reform board’s recommendations depend on closer cooperation between employers and academia. But these stakeholders must ensure their own financial survival in an adverse climate of budgetary cuts combined with increasing demands, leaving little room for investment on their part. The new supply and demand model for social work aims to produce closer cooperation between employers and academia and a gradual realignment of their objectives. This will improve the quality of social work training and employment by ensuring better placement opportunities and greater employability for social work students while better responding to the needs of employers. However, this will also generate fewer graduates which, in turn, increases competition between universities and will eventually reduce the number of successful programmes offering qualifying social work courses. Given increased tuition fees and reduced funding, these programmes may need to turn into de facto sponsorships.

About the author: Claudia Megele is a psychotherapist and service director at A Sense of Self. She is also a trainer and an associate lecturer in applied social work practice at the Open University.

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