Give The Users And Practitioners A Voice

The General Social Care Council’s statement of roles and tasks is the first official report on social work in England for nearly a generation. The 1983 Barclay Report couldn’t reach agreement and was largely ignored.

This new report, Social Work at its Best, launched at the National Children and Adult Services Conference last week, has already received a two cheers response, dismissed in some quarters as “wet” and “woolly”.

Social work tends to be everybody’s target and few powerful people’s friend. Maybe that is one of the problems inhibiting this review. It is based on a positive process of consultation with service users, face-to-face practitioners and many more. But in the course of what’s fashionably called an “iterative” process, as drafting has progressed and perhaps got closer to Whitehall, so some of the stuffing seems to have been knocked from it.

For example, absent is what service users really value from social work and what they find helpful about social worker. This detail was included in earlier drafts giving the document direction and substance. But this is what is special about social work and why it is needed to play a central role in health, social care, anti-poverty, youth, regeneration and other upcoming policies.

Many service users have much to say that is positive but the subtext again seems to be social work on the defensive, demarcating its territory, not necessarily communicating its strengths.

There are only two references to the relationship with the social worker. Yet time and again, adults and children highlight the importance of this rapport as a prerequisite for professional help and providing support as an advocate. Service users have repeatedly stressed the value they attach to qualities of warmth, empathy, openness, anti-discrimination, honesty, equality and reliability. Sadly, these words seem to have found little place in this report, which now seems much more influenced by the modern policy maker’s lexicon of “outcomes”, “functions”, “performance” and “framework”.

The report does pay proper attention to the social model approach that underpins good social work and is especially valued by service users. It recognises and emphasises social work’s contribution in working helpfully with risk. It rightly argues for the ability to help people work things out for themselves with support, rather than through direction.

But it is not just service users’ preferences and priorities that must be in the foreground. Much more needs to be said about how we will get the social work we want, and which the review calls for. Service users stressed that statutory social work’s location in over-bureaucratised and large hierarchical organisations was a barrier to good practice. Social work too often acts as an excluding assessment system. How are we to get the kind of social work we want – primarily concerned with offering valued support- in line with the new government emphasis on personalisation and individual budgets?

Social work is too important to be left to policy makers and politicians. The voices of service users and frontline practitioners need to be put back in the mix if this review is to play its role in reforming and improving social work.

Peter Beresford is professor of social policy at Brunel University. A draft of Social Work at its Best – The Role of Social Work in 21st Century Care Services can be viewed here (pdf)