‘The government has shown disdain for social work. It’s up to us to fight back’

18 months ago Richard Griffiths swapped a career in sports journalism for social work. Here he gives his take on The College of Social Work's closure, and how the profession should respond

Picture: Quinn Dombrowski (Flickr/Creative Commons)

By Richard Griffiths, social work student

The epiphany that led me into social work occurred little more than 18 months ago.

I was sitting in a café with a friend, discussing, without exaggeration, what to do with the rest of my working life. I had recently walked out on a management role in sports journalism and the thought of re-building a career in that profession had minimal appeal and zero motivation.

At a neighbouring table sat two women: one in her twenties with an eastern European accent, the other older and in a wheelchair, wrapped up in a red beret and shawl. They were working together on one of those magazines full of crosswords and other puzzles. The younger woman explained that she was a care worker, who loved spending time in the community with her more senior acquaintance.

And that was it. The notion of a job that brought tangible benefits to others had me dangling on a hook of enthusiasm. Soon I was volunteering with young people, working as a care or support worker, and, most importantly of all, studying for a social work degree at the University of Sussex.

A different way of thinking

Having now completed my first year, I can compare the experience to being like a car that is stripped of its components before being put back together. Everything now works differently.

You think differently, too. And in a way that I never was as a journalist, I have become motivated by a desire to help ensure that the social work profession has a strong, representative voice. Hence my application last December to take up one of the student seats of the College of Social Work’s Professional Assembly, and my support for the current attempts – by social workers, for social workers, and on behalf of social work itself – to maintain many of the functions of the college.

It was striking, and alarming, to observe, how quickly my fellow first-year students at Sussex became browbeaten, to various degrees, by the frequent mallets that have come down on social work’s reputation with seemingly gleeful force.

Some of my cohort have suggested that that is just the way it is, and to ‘get over it’; that if you don’t have the hide of an elephant you shouldn’t be training to be a social worker. It is almost as if social workers are expected to be like the infamous supporters of Millwall football club. ‘No one likes us but we don’t care’.

‘It is time to create an independent voice’

Well, I do care. While not daring to suggest that social work is a profession without flaws – tell me one that is – I believe strongly that everyone who enters the profession has the right to work with a widespread respect for and an understanding of what they do. But those qualifiers have to be earned.

It is very much social work’s job to ensure this happens – no one else will. This is why I was such a brief but enthusiastic supporter of what TCSW and its Professional Assembly were trying to achieve.

Rather than reflect on why TCSW failed, now is the time to create an independent voice, free from government funding and the risk of undue influence, that can explain effectively with vigour and determination the value of social work both to those in the corridors of power and the wider public. For sure, this is a very tall order, but the consequences of not even trying are unpalatable.

‘This strikes me as disdain for social work’

Already this government has shown what strikes me as disdain for social work. Appointing a consultancy firm such as KPMG , alongside Morning Lane Associates and Leeds University, to develop a new accreditation system for children’s social workers seems flawed and arrogant.

One also shudders at the announcement of a child protection taskforce that comprises 11 MPs and one member of the House of Lords. Not a single representative of social work is listed. Why so?

Admittedly, the government press release announcing the taskforce refers to the appointment of a Chief Social Worker (Isabelle Trowler) and the “championing of reform in the profession, a £400 million investment in social work training, and cuts to bureaucracy to free up social workers to do what they do best”.

Yet the task force includes such humble and open-minded politicians as Iain Duncan-Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Justice and a former Education Secretary. How many school teachers might attest to Gove’s ability to free them up to do what they do best, I wonder?

Politicians appear to be dictating how social work should operate. I am not sure that is a progressive, sustainable route. Frankly, it concerns me hugely.

To me, that is an illustration as to why social work needs a strong and united voice. I don’t care how it happens, I just care that it happens. Before it’s too late.

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