‘Lots of social work happens outside children’s services. Why’s it being ignored?’

With social work reforms almost entirely led by the Department for Education, it’s as if practitioners outside children’s services don’t matter

Picture: littleny/fotolia

by Ermintrude (@ermintrude2)

It’s been a week of change for social work. Actually, it’s been a month, year, decade of change of social work.

In the local authority I worked in, we had a joke, which I’m sure has been recycled many times, that if you stayed long enough you ended up going through enough reconfigurations to get back to where you started. There’s something of this in the current debate around social work reforms and the legislation in the Children and Social Work Bill that underpins the changes.

I haven’t felt as invested as I usually am in the cut and thrust of social work policy. I’ve been struggling to understand why.

I’m no less committed to my profession and where it is going. Perhaps it’s because the agenda has been wholly led and driven by the Department for Education and their chief social worker. It’s as if the department and the government as a whole has forgotten that there’s a whole lot of social work that happens outside children’s services.

‘Abandonment of social work with older people’

Having worked in adult social care for over 20 years, this isn’t a surprising place to be in. There is no doubt that there is less interest in work with older people than in child protection.

While there are fancy fast-track schemes in mental health social work and child protection social work, the abandonment of core social work with older people seems stark. That’s the nature of the beast and it isn’t anyone’s fault. It was something that was embedded from my initial training about 18 years ago when even our tutors and lecturers seemed to regard social work with adults as ‘the other’.

But back to the changes. I’ve been thinking about where they leave us. ‘The rest’ of the social work profession who is often subject to the whims of those who seem to have no idea we even exist within the profession, let alone interest in what we actually do.

I’ll start with the changes to regulation of the profession. Apparently the HCPC is going to be replaced by government-led regulation. If there’s anything amid the rash of reforms that is inherently worrying it is this.

HCPC has its critics as did the GSCC but it is independent of government. The nonsensical position of scrapping a specialist social work regulator, only to reinstate it with another one with less independence a few years down the line seems partly comical but with an underlying slightly sinister agenda.

The value of independence

The strength of social work in adult services has been its independence, particularly in the interplay with health services which can dominate and appear incredibly hierarchical.

Take, for example, the approved mental health professional (AMHP) role which, while no longer exclusive to social workers, is, no doubt, led by the social work profession. The independence of the role is the key to its success. Different regulation will not make individuals less independent but it may affect the parameters of the role which we undertake in time.

The criticism laid at the HCPC is that it is a generic regulator but surely that is a strength rather than a weakness? The decision to remove social work from its remit is a touchstone for the direction the government wishes to take the profession, kicking and screaming, if necessary, in the direction of its own vision of what social work is.

Other changes within the profession seem focused in the children and family agenda and details I have been less interested in because they don’t speak to me. There has been little interest in engaging the profession and I fear that the imposition of ‘chief social workers’ has replaced any intention to engage with the profession rather than extend influence of social work in government policy making circles.

So what have the changes meant to me? At the moment, it has just compounded the divisions within the profession and have continued to marginalise social work with adults and families.

The sadness is that the people we work with, are defined by more than their age. While legally a child becomes an adult at 18, families and the social contexts which create environments that people need support work go on regardless and this odd ignorance of a significant part of the sector just highlights the lack of understanding of the profession as a whole.

Social work with adults is no less significant, vital and useful to society. It is not a ‘second choice’ because the roles we have to promote and extend the rights of people is fundamental.

By willful ignorance the social work reform agenda has been allowed to be driven solely by the Department for Education and the needs or rather, the perceived needs of child protection social work. To allow this to continue without ensuring that social workers across the board have a voice would be a gross disservice to those who rely on our support.

Read more on the government’s social work reforms on our dedicated page.

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7 Responses to ‘Lots of social work happens outside children’s services. Why’s it being ignored?’

  1. Tom J May 31, 2016 at 4:54 pm #

    But the Government attention is not in anyway helpful or supportive to children social workers!

    Trust me when I say that you don’t want the stress of these additional accreditation tests too!

    Be grateful that they are not hitting you over the head with these tests and threats of five year prison sentences!

    • Helen Jocelyn May 31, 2016 at 7:13 pm #


  2. K8 June 1, 2016 at 6:11 am #

    It’s not about being grateful the government is ‘not hitting on us’. That response shows precisely how we can let ourselves become divided as a profession. As adult social workers we still work with families, disabled parents with children etc.

    If anything I think this bill is discriminatory to older people. It’s as though their vulnerability doesn’t matter as much as that of children.

    You can’t have half a profession being accredited and the other half not. I’m not saying I want adults social work to be accredited but by treating social workers in this way the Government are trying to carve up the profession and create something different.

    Another few years and we probably won’t have ‘Social Work’ anymore, we will be re-branded!

    • Yvonne Bonifas June 1, 2016 at 1:15 pm #

      I suspect there will be no adult care social workers in a few years. When health and social care “integrate” the managers are usually health qualified and bring NHS management styles. There may be a few specialist safeguarding roles, that will be all.

  3. Nigel Reigate June 1, 2016 at 7:33 am #

    Tom, you miss the point of the article. Nobody with any sense disputes that the approach of the goverrnment towards Children’s Services professionals is oppressive. The point is that work wirh adults has for too long been seen as inferior and less skilled. This attitude existed long before this awful government took office and is unfounded and unfair to service users and workers.

  4. Helen Scholar June 1, 2016 at 3:50 pm #

    The divide is not just between social work with adults and children – there are qualified and registered social workers practising outside the ‘statutory sector’, and not always in roles that say ‘social work’ on the tin, so to speak (although in order to register they must be drawing upon their ‘professional knowledge and skills in the course of their work).

    There are in the region of 88,000 registered social workers in England, around 46,000 of whom are employed in Local Authority childrens and adult settings, the Health Service and in Cafcass. That leaves a significant number who are somewhere else – admittedly we don’t have good quality information about where – and I think Ermintrude is right to raise this issue. Changes to the regulatory body and the introduction of accreditation has potentially worrying implications for such workers’ professional legitimacy and authenticity; and poses a challenge to the collective identity of social work in England.

  5. Dave June 2, 2016 at 10:33 am #

    In the 90’s I seem to recall spending a lot of time telling people they were ‘social workers who did care management’ not ‘care managers’. The truth is that the NHS and Community Care Act took adult social work up a real blind alley. Implemented properly the Care Act provides an opportunity for adult social work to re-establish itself and it’s role in working with people, not systems and processes. I agree that generally the Government is not helpful, either in terms of policy or resources (in fact it is hostile) but adult social workers do have a chance to show their worth.