Five key questions from the JSWEC debate on social work’s future

An impassioned discussion at the Joint Social Work Education Conference raised plenty of questions for the profession

The panel assembles to debate A Question of Social Work

On Wednesday night social work practitioners and academics got together at the Joint Social Work Education Conference to debate key issues facing the sector. Here are five questions we picked out from the impassioned discussion.

1. Where is the user voice?

Hugh McLaughlin, professor of social work at Manchester Metropolitan University, said that the social work sector needed to stand up more against policies impacting service users. McLaughlin used the bedroom tax as a reference point saying it affected service users across the board and asked: ‘Where was the outcry?’.

Speaking to Community Care after the debate, McLaughlin added that service users’ were embedded in the social work education process but their voices seemed to “have been silenced” in debates over the future of social work training sparked by the Narey and Croisdale-Appleby reviews. Here’s what he had to say:

2. Has social work education lost its way?

During a debate about social work education panellist Kish Bhatti-Sinclair, from the Anti-Racist Social Work Education Group, said: ’We have lost our way, even I don’t know where I’m going”. Frontline, the controversial government-backed fast-track programme for children’s social work, was said to embody the confusion in social work training. Bhatti-Sinclair argued that social work education in Britain was heading in the opposite direction to the rest of the world at a time when “we need to align ourselves” with international systems.

More on the debate

‘Tribes, camps and collectivism’ – George Julian blogs on why collective responses, not tribalism, is what’s really needed to drive change.

Head to head: panelists debate dilemmas facing social work. Community Care journalist Rachel Schraer’s live blog from the debate.

3. How can you close the ‘disconnect’ between academics and practice?

Panellist Liane McGovern, a newly qualified social worker, said that there seemed to be a disconnect between academics and practising social workers. Alan Baird, the chief social work adviser to the Scottish government, picked up on the point and argued that academics should be required to return to practice regularly. Regular experience on the frontline would help academics keep in touch and boost their “street cred” with practitioners.

4. Are government reforms about innovation or smoke and mirrors?

Isabelle Trowler, the chief social worker for children, argued that the government’s innovation scheme was an opportunity “to completely redesign” how we do social work. Yet Trowler had to defend allegations that the programme was actually a method to cover up falling social services budgets.

5. Austerity: excusing the inexcusable?

Throughout the debate, audience participation was encouraged. One participant argued services had become fragmented and struggled to cooperate since the introduction of a ‘business model’ approach to social services by ex-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The problems had, it was argued, been made worse by austerity. Hugh McLaughlin described austerity as an excuse to do things to people that would never be done in any other situation.

Other points raised:

  • Is the sector rife with ‘managerialism’ in contrast with good  management?
  • What should be the approach to dealing with ‘dead’ social workers? Is the phrase ‘dead social  workers’ too abrasive  and negative?
  • Where can the sector find its identity when it comes to education?
  • Does language and conversations used by people in the sector need to be more supportive and polite, rather than abrasive and damning?
  • Does the system need to allow social workers to be more personal with service users?
  • Does there need to be a greater effort to include service users in these  debates and issues?
  • Should the sector adopt a more collective responsibility to issues, rather than a separation approach only identifying within each individuals sector or interest?

The full panel:

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