How social work’s ’50th birthday’ illustrates importance of practitioners shaping the profession

Social work has had significant changes imposed on it in the past half-century, but the legacy of the unified profession created in 1970 lives on and provides lessons for the future, argues Ray Jones

Horseshoe with message 'happy birthday and good luck 50'
Photo: Wolfilser/Adobe Stock

By Ray Jones

2020 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the creation of a unified profession of social work across the UK and the advent of integrated personal social services in each of the UK nations.

Prior to 1970 there were separate professional organisations for different types of social worker and no one voice for social work and social workers. Fifty years ago, the British Association of Social Workers was formed, shortly to be followed by one generic professional education and qualification for social workers – the Certificate of Qualification in Social Work.

With devolution the nations have increasingly diverged in their social services arrangements. But during the past 50 years there have been several pivotal moments, especially in England, which, with the benefit of hindsight, can now be seen to have considerable significance for social work and the personal social services today.

1970 – the creation of social services departments

The first such moment was the 1970 Local Authority Social Services Act which, following the recommendations in the 1968 Seebohm Report, brought  children’s, welfare and mental health departments together into one social services department within each local authority in England and Wales. Segregated and separate workers in each of the former services were now badged as social workers rather than child care officers, welfare officers, and mental welfare officers.

The intention was that this would provide a community-based service more accessible to individuals and families. One social worker would provide assistance in addressing the range of difficulties which might be experienced. It was a service which was to be led by social workers and where it would be able to argue for increased funding as it would now be a major local government responsibility and have a more powerful profile.

The new social services departments were tasked with implementing the Children and Young Persons Act 1969, with its emphasis on providing help to children and young people within their families and communities, and the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970, which promoted –indeed required – that more assistance and resources should be available to disabled and older people within their own homes and neighbourhoods.

So 1970 was a major pivotal moment for social work, social workers and the personal social services. But within four years there were two events that impacted on the focus, and on the resources, for local authority personal social services.

The mid-1970s: From Maria Colwell to economic crisis

The first was the public inquiry following the killing by her step father of seven-year-old Maria Colwell in East Sussex. The media-generated condemnation of the social worker provoked public threat and vilification. It was followed by political action and legislation which encouraged and enabled the removal of more children from their families.

There was also the introduction of the first iteration of what were to become increasingly broad and bulky child protection procedures. This was the start of the emphasis on child protection, to be followed in the 2000s by adult protection, which now dominates and skews the work of many local authority social workers.

The second event of the mid-1970s was a national and international economic crisis. This started the retrenchment from the commitment to increase funding for public services, a policy shift which was to be pursued with vigour by the Thatcher-led governments of the 1980s. It ratcheted up the focus on rationing, which has also been taken to new levels more recently.

1989-1990: children’s and adults’ services start to diverge

It was towards the end of the 1980s and Margaret Thatcher’s period as prime minister that there was the pivotal moment of starting to unwind the 1970 creation of integrated personal social services and of generic social work and social services teams. This pivotal moment was probably accidental rather than intended or planned, but the separate gestation and development of the Children Act 1989 and the NHS and Community Care Act 1990 set differing requirements for services for children and their families and services for disabled adults and older people.

The 1989 act was based on partnership and co-operative working to assist ‘children in need’ and their families. In contrast, the 1990 act required the separation of assessment and the arranging of assistance from the provision of services for disabled adults and older people. The 1990 act’s purchaser-provider split, with the thrust to promote an increasingly privatised market within adult social care, required quite different cultures, practice and management compared to the partnership working enshrined in the 1989 act.

The consequence, twenty years into the creation of social services departments, was that these departments developed separate divisions, and separate practitioners, for children’s and adults’ services.

2004: the split in social services departments

This change was to be taken to a more dramatic level by the Children Act 2004. It was an act which had the intention and consequence that each local authority should create a children’s services department led by a director of children’s services – most of whom in the early days had an education background – bringing into one department local authority responsibilities for schools and children’s education along with children’s social services.

It has often been assumed that the 2004 Act was the direct and immediate response to the inquiry led by Lord Laming following the death of eight-year-old Victoria Climbie. It was not. The New Labour government was already on a mission to build joined-up local government services for children, as symbolised by the Every Child Matters white paper.

Despite the Care Standards Act 2000 having made ‘social worker’ a protected title, social work a graduate profession, and required the registration of social workers, there was a New Labour government where leading politicians had little affinity or confidence in social work. They saw  it, largely incorrectly, to be based on a deficit model rather than what has become badged as strengths-based models.

The outcome of the 2004 act changes are that social workers are now separated between two local authority departments, whose leadership is often not by qualified and experienced social workers, and where social work services may not be their primary concern or focus.

This has all been taken further more recently by the Conservative-led governments since 2010, promoting and disproportionately funding separate foreshortened qualifying training for children’s social workers, as well as taking statutory children’s social services outside of local authorities and the public sector.

Legacy and impact

So the pivotal moments of the mid-1970s, late 1980s and the mid-2000s have unwound much of what was planned and intended in 1970. But the 1970 changes have left social work stronger. It still largely continues as a unified profession with a more coherent voice.

And despite politically-chosen austerity and the push to privatisation, the most successful local authorities are finding ways to build bridges to bring specialist children’s and adults’ workers – such as mental health, drug and alcohol, and domestic violence workers – together within local teams.

These local authorities are also often bucking the trend towards centralisation by locating social workers and their teams within the communities they serve and which they need to know and understand, as recognised and recommended in the Seebohm Report.

The 1970 changes were created and canvassed for by social workers. That has rarely been what has happened during many of the pivotal moments during the past 50 years. Knowing about what was created, and how and why, in 1970 is not only a part of acknowledging the relatively recent history of social work and the personal social services. It also flags up the importance of social workers collectively being active in shaping the future.

Ray Jones is emeritus professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London. His new book, ‘A History of the Personal Social Services in England’, is published by Palgrave Macmillan.

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6 Responses to How social work’s ’50th birthday’ illustrates importance of practitioners shaping the profession

  1. steve Marsh September 2, 2020 at 10:54 am #

    Good report by Ray Jones. However, no acknowledgement of the role social workers had in developing community mental health services in the 1990’s to enable the large psychiatric hospitals to close. Social work led the way in encouraging focus on family, friends and community rather than the hitherto narrow focus on patients. Sadly due to the austerity mentioned in Ray’s report many of these initiatives have fallen by the wayside.

  2. Chris Sterry September 2, 2020 at 12:20 pm #

    Yes, it was great to have combined services for Social Work in 1970, but within the article there is a major omission and that is funding, for Social Care has never been sufficiently funded.

    Social Care is in dire need, not only of sufficient funding, but for the fun ding to be so comprised that it is for social care and not for any other purposes. As with the 10 years of austerity and now COVID-19 some local Authorities could well raid the money allocated for social care.

    When it comes to social care funding there should be a directed criteria so that social care can always be sufficiently funded, no matter what the local authority finances are.

    Is also beggars the question, ‘Are the Local Authorities the correct responsible body to be responsible for Social Care funding?’, for should it not be more connected with other aspects of care.

    Currently there is local authority social care and also for NHS equivalent to social care.

    If a persons wishes to administer the funding for social care there is Direct Payments through the Local Authorities and Personal Health Budgets through Continuing Health Care, also 100% funded Local Authority care package, 100% Health funded care packages, Joint funded packages and self-funding packages.

    This is a mismatch of funding, where one authority would make sense and also save money as it would cut out duplicity of processes.

    This is also the same for aids and adaptations and many more.

    This is an extremely complicated process, even for the professionals involved, let alone persons in need of care and their families, mainly at a time of crisis.

    But Social Care is in crisis and as been for a considerable number of years, may be because funding was never completely sorted in 1970, but then that is a fact when Governments become involved. They appear to be good at putting ideas forward, but are a complete liability when funding is required.

    There are many issues in addition to the above and some are included in my petition, Solve the crisis in Social Care,

    Some additional information at

    Social Care can and is complicated in many care packages, especially where the person in need is not elderly, but no matter what the care package is or the need is, it is definitely important, which is not being taken on board by this Government.

    It is as important as Health care, if not more so, as lack of social care will have a direct affect on health care, causing more funding needs, where as dealing with social care would, long-term be cost saving.

    Governments and others have to seriously consider the long-term for to only concentrate on the short-term is not good for anyone.

  3. David Oppernshaw September 3, 2020 at 4:42 pm #

    It would have been helpful to include the influence of charities like the NSPCC who campaigned, often in my opinion maliciously, to undermine local authority social workers and publicly funded services. The battle to establish credibility is not always with governments and public opinion. Often charity fundraising is pitched against the supposed failure of statutory services against the quality services of the charity/third sector.

  4. Ray Jones September 4, 2020 at 6:29 pm #

    Many thanks Steve, Chris and David. I very much appreciate your comments which are pertinent and important. I hope you might get to read the (400 pages – great value!) book which reflects on each of the issues you have raised but which have not. been covered in the short piece above which is focussed on key turning points in the organisation of the personal social services in the past 50 years. But one thought from me, Chris, on your comment – be careful what you wish for! Merging adult social services into the NHS would leave it even more exposed to the acute hospital sectors dominance of the NHS and any available funding. And taking children’s and adults’ social services outside of local government is just what the government has been doing – but with the intended destination of marketisation and commercialisation dominated by a profit-driven private sector owned and shaped by distant venture capitalists and hedge funds with no commitment to care or local communities.

  5. Martin Fletcher September 4, 2020 at 6:34 pm #

    I have worked in social work since 1975. I qualified as a Social Worker in 1989. I have been registered since it’s inception. I worked in residential child care as a worker and manager until 1988, and then again briefly in 1998\99.
    I have worked as a children’s residential worker / children’s social worker / adult social worker / mental health social worker / learning disability social worker / adult safeguarding officer / family placement services / youth justice / sex work diversion / in social services (7 departments) / third sector (3 charities) / other employers: Ministry of Defence / self-employed trainer and practitioner / agency worker. I have seen a wide range of change, practice, management and policy over 45 years.

    My view of social work since 1970:

    – From 1976 Constant underfunding and lack of resources…even when money was being spent elsewhere in the NHS / Education etc. Social Work and Social Care have become even poorer relations.
    – Deskilling: Social workers were made more specialised year on year….this reduced rather than increased skills. Specialist teams guarded their skills while ‘worker bees’ i.e. lower level workers did more and more investigation and assessment donkey work without having the chance to develop (80’s and 90’s particularly).
    – Processes replaced practice skills…some were necessary, but oppressive management oversight increasingly focused on outputs rather than outcomes in a shrinking or struggling service. Social worker autonomy was always a myth but became even less likely as the job became more stressful and the blame game always managed to focus on the worker rather than the manager. Out and out bullying and oppression was rife for my entire career…I could be awkward in return and yet was never disciplined, complained about by service users or investigated in any way…I think that says something.
    – In residential care real jobs were undermined, privatised and increasingly unsupported, dangerous and poorly paid…..particularly from 2000 on. When I began work in residential child care in 1975 my starting salary was more than that earned by a teacher (I qualified as one in ‘75)….how does that comparison look now?
    – Field Social Work: a sense of achievement replaced by fear and loathing. All my good and satisfying social work jobs have been outside the Local Authority torture chamber. Working with the military was eye-opening in a good way!
    – Outsourcing to third sector organisations has not been successful. I agree entirely with the comments about NSPCC…and there were others…the regular Monday a.m. shock children’s charity report on Radio 4’s ‘Today’ was a favourite of mine as there was another pitch for cash. The MOJ also got in on the act in the early 2000{S with funding that would have been better spent through Social Services in LA’s as general prevention and support rather than solely on Youth Justice preventive measures focused on children under 10!
    I could be this critical and cynical for a long time.

    I’m now almost retired…I’m not sorry! although my sense of vocation actually increased towards the end of my career, my disillusionment with the ability and willingness of government, local authorities and other organisations to genuinely try to solve societal problems and work together was only amplified.
    The Covid pandemic has highlighted the disgrace our country and services have become. Children starve, older adults and those with disabilities are left to struggle and ignored. Mental Ill health Is rife and ignored. Homelessness, poor housing, rent exploitation, loss of secure work and employment rights and a inadequate pay (LA’s and third sector organisations should be ashamed at their contribution to the growth of zero hours working and their contribution to the destruction of family life!).

    Good luck for the next 50 years.

  6. Phil Sanderson September 9, 2020 at 8:46 pm #

    I started work in 1991 just before the break up of generic teams covering adults and children. At that time my County Council directly employed 6000 home helps and ran a network of homes and day centres in every community. Staff were directly employed and properly trained and supported contrast to today in our covid ravaged world with zero hours contracts and the appalling levels of deaths in care homes. Lets make sure that is ringing in the ears of every Tory voter at the next election.