Social workers deal with messy, complex and ambiguous situations where off-the-peg solutions are often irrelevant. Take a mother who wants to feed a hungry baby, but her fridge is empty because she can’t afford milk. How do you help her?
Understanding the structural lack of opportunity that some people have and the context of the society in which we live is crucial to recognising how to best help. This kind of work requires very special people to do it.
The profession is at a crossroads. New measures for training have been unveiled, following two recent reviews into improving social work education. One was by Martin Narey, commissioned by government, and the other was an independent review by David Croisedale-Appleby. Both are worth paying attention to.
Croisdale-Appleby recommended a degree-based entry qualification that would promote a forward-looking profession underpinned by social science research. Social work, he said, should come with a proper career structure and a strong advocacy body that drives professional developments.
Qualifying as a social worker
Currently, qualifying programmes at bachelor and masters levels are confusing and they cannot cover all the subjects a social worker requires: psychiatry, psychology, sociology, policy, economics, political theory, research methods, statistics, and natural sciences.
Instead, we should have a model where a generic qualifying degree is obtained at bachelor level, leading to more specialism at masters and PhD level, much in the same way as doctors do. This would allow skill levels to be clearly defined and give time for social workers to practice in several fields before specialising through further degrees. This way, pay for higher qualifications and more complicated work would become both an incentive and a reward.
Doctoral study should also be compulsory for those who want to teach social work or manage agencies. Qualifications need to be clearly linked to career structures that nurture professionals throughout their careers, provide logical progression and tie education to occupational position, status and pay. We need to attract dedicated, well-qualified professionals to address daunting social problems that damage people, which also requires a regulatory body led by academics, practitioners and service users alongside a profession-led advocacy body.
So far, social work in England has failed on these counts because successive governments favour party-political agendas, professional and service-user voices are weak, regulatory regimes are inadequate and education is under-resourced.
Skills to read context and nuance
Poverty is so often an integral part of the lives of those who come into contact with social services but it doesn’t determine behaviour. People retain agency in their lives. But poverty denies them opportunities to do things differently and exacerbates conditions such as mental ill health. Poverty affects lone mothers, older women, and black and minority ethnic women more than anyone else.
Understanding this structural non-opportunity is crucial to recognising what people can do easily, and what they cannot achieve. Poverty is one relevant context. Domestic violence, sexism, racism are others. These do not excuse doing nothing. But exploring their impact on the behaviour of individuals and social problems is part of practising social work that is anti-oppressive. For example, understanding that a young black man is refusing to go to school in response to racial harassment and abuse there.
Poverty, violence, sexism, racism – all of these and others compound the messy and complex realities that social workers address in situations that are also very ambiguous. Addressing complexity is impossible in a techno-bureaucratic practice. It takes pragmatism, judgement and an understanding of how all these contexts and nuances fit together in people’s lives.
While being supportive and not excusing unacceptable behaviour, social workers also need to assume nothing, probe deeply, ask difficult questions; treat people as unique citizens with dignity, agency, rights and responsibilities, change behaviour, and hold governments accountable for failing to maintain the rights of marginalised groups. The fine balance between care and control is central to preventing child abuse, domestic violence and criminal acts.
Education must produce professionals capable of making fine judgements, using knowledge, experience and research effectively. The profession’s values, commitment to human rights and social justice promote professional excellence in specific situations that are adapted to unique individuals and social settings.
Care and control
Definitions of social work are contested. Mine has social workers interacting with people to enhance well-being, creating supportive environments to produce behavioural change. Practitioners operate in a political climate, constantly renegotiating power while remaining responsible for people’s right to take decisions, fulfil their potential and contribute to society.
But as it currently stands, social workers aren’t valued, are too easily blamed and not used or paid enough. This would be unheard of in other professions that are seen as skilled. Injecting a clearer sense of value into this profession, including in the very training we give, would positively impact society and those within it who are less fortunate, often through no choice of their own.