by Peter Beresford
A battle is intensifying for social work’s soul. The Conservative government seems determined to clip the wings of a profession that, at its best, can be a force for support, emancipation and social justice.
Take the succession of government criticism of social work education in recent years. At the same time enthusiasm, and financial backing, has greeted new ‘fast-track’ routes of social work training before their effectiveness has been evaluated.
See also ministers’ decision to withdraw funding from The College of Social Work (an organisation set up to give the profession a voice) and six months after its closure announce plans for a new social work body to take on responsibility for regulation and professional standards.
There are moves towards privatisation too, most notably in children’s services where David Cameron has criticised what he called “tolerance of state failure” and promised any services that don’t improve will be taken over.
The wider context
Of course these moves cannot be viewed in isolation. They are part of an ideological drive to shrink the state and decimate public services in the name of ‘austerity’.
I have recently been investigating another area targeted by the government – the welfare state more generally. Drawing on both research evidence and the lived experience and experiential knowledge of people as service users, I wanted to find out how well the welfare state’s routine reality has matched its lofty principles.
My research highlighted the need to subject the old welfare state to a much more critical gaze if we want to secure welfare fit for the future. The same is true of social work if we want to have a sustainable profession worth defending for the next generation.
Partnerships with service users
If we are honest, statutory social work has not truly been developed in partnership with service users and their movements. Instead, it has tended to be hierarchical, bureaucratic and paternalistic.
Yet there are some chinks of light. Social work has pioneered service user participation in professional education and practice. And the evidence has also increasingly highlighted how user-led support makes for better, more cost-effective policy and provision.
Social work must build on this. The profession cannot expect to command popular support if its campaigning is based on a series of don’ts – ‘don’t be nasty to us’, ‘don’t change’, ‘don’t privatise’, ‘don’t question’. Instead, the rallying cry should be this: ‘We want genuinely user-led services, practice, education and support’.
Co-production should be the yardstick
We must demand that reforms are based on, and increase, user and carer involvement. They must put the service user first. Such involvement and real co-production should be the yardstick for introducing and evaluating changes.
That is the way to get the relation-based practice and personalised support that all political parties pay lip service to (so far the record of private sector providers for achieving this type of care is far from convincing). It also undermines politicians’ efforts to argue that social workers critical of government policy are only interested in themselves and their jobs.
The frontline voice
As well as service users and carers, there is another voice too often missing from discussions about social work’s future – that of the practitioner doing the job day-in day-out. To social work’s cost, its self-appointed leaders are often senior managers or academics whose direct involvement with practice is limited or long in the past.
Social work needs to be a profession that itself clearly values practice, rather than professional advancement too often seeming to be out of practice.
There are signs alliances between day-to-day practitioners, service users and carers are being built. The Social Work Action Network has prefigured such an approach and the recent British Association of Social Workers summit involved substantial contributions from all of these groups.
Here lies hope for social work and for the growing numbers who need its help but are increasingly denied it. This has to be a fight for something, not against it. That something has to be the rights, needs and interests of service users.
Peter Beresford OBE is Emeritus Professor of Social Policy at Brunel University and co-chair of Shaping Our Lives. He is also the author of All Our Welfare: Towards participatory social policy.