There should be more, not less, emotion in social work

Guy Shennan, BASW’s chair, outlines the association’s vision of social work that celebrates service user achievements

Last week I launched the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) ‘2020 Vision’ at our England conference at Sheffield Hallam University.

It is the vision of an association committed to humane social work practice, rooted in social justice and human rights, in which social workers are alongside their service users offering care and support, and protection where it is needed.

Task-centred social work

Sheffield could not have been a more appropriate place for me to launch our vision as it kick started my own career as a social worker.

I found my training at Sheffield University inspiring. I learned how to use social work models that enabled me to enter service users’ worlds and work with them towards desired changes. This experience has informed my thinking about what sort of association I want to help members create.

Task-centred social work was one of the models I learned, and I share Ray Jones’s surprise about how little now seems known about the powerful research base which underpinned this approach in the 1970s and 1980s.

Client studies

I also soaked up the research tradition of ‘client studies’ developed at Sheffield University, in particular by Eric Sainsbury, who was coming towards the end of his illustrious career when I started my studies.

Before the launch, I met up with Mark Doel, now Emeritus Professor of Social Work at Sheffield Hallam, and one of my tutors at Sheffield University.

We reminisced about my days as a student social worker in the late 1980s and Mark’s experiences as a social worker before that. We also shared our frustrations about the increasing proceduralisation of social work that began in the late 1980s and really gathered pace in 1990s.

Disconnect between training and practice

This change became apparent to me after I qualified and left Sheffield to embark on my social work career.

I was soon struck by the all too frequent lack of connection between what I had learned in university and what I was now expected to do in practice.

My managers made it clear the most important thing I had to do was to follow procedures – the implication being that if I did so then I, and the department, would be protected.

Given the awful treatment meted out to social workers who had had the misfortune to have children on their caseloads killed by their parents or carers, I could see where the motivation for this shift was coming from.

Setting social workers against parents

But while I understood it, I was never comfortable with the impact, particularly in how the proceduralisation now set social workers and parents against each other. This made it very difficult for social workers to offer the support for families that I thought should be at the heart of the social work role, and that so many families desperately needed.

But many social workers have managed to retain their own individual visions of more progressive practice, where relationships are developed with service users through which change can be achieved.

I have been a member of BASW for 23 years, and I always felt encouraged when I read comments from members and employees as they always seemed to be advocating social work of support, undertaken by professionals who were trusted and respected.

Collective vision

I am proud to now be the chair of BASW and able to launch our collective vision. For together the social work profession is so much stronger and so much more able to practise in those ways that were dreamt of by social work students, and encouraged by those social work academics, all those years ago.

I have also been inspired by another Emeritus Professor at Sheffield, Roy Bailey, who is not only the co-editor of two classic books on radical social work but also a great folk singer.

At the BASW conference, I showed a clip of him performing the song I Thought I Had No Voice. The song’s writer, Scott Murray, had written it for a group of homeless men to sing. As Roy said when introducing the song, his voice quivering with emotion, Murray gave them a voice.

No emotion

There tends to be no room for emotion in proceduralised and prescriptive social work, and this is another sign that something is awry.

Emotion should have a place in social work. Why should we, as social workers, not be moved, not only by the plight of many of our service users, but also by their achievements?

Contained in BASW’s vision, to be the strong independent voice for social work and social workers, is our aim to also promote and support the voices of our service users. Many of them might think they have no voice but they have, as Roy sang, many songs waiting for them.

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