A Historical Tragedy

A Bad Start

While I understand the frustration which social workers in England and Wales feel at the ways in which they are portrayed in the media and by politicians (A Tear of Reflection by Claudia Megele, August) I think we need to look beyond the past twenty years to understand how this has happened.

Social work got off to a bad start when the course set up in 1903 by the Metropolitan Relieving Officers Association with the London School of Sociology and Social Economics and the Charity Organisation Society collapsed and the initiative was taken up by the London School of Economics in 1912 (Crowther, 1981). The sociologists at the LSE saw themselves as the scientists of sociology and social workers as their technicians and this status relationship has generally been preserved within academia in England and Wales.

Consequently, the theoretical underpinnings of social work are assumed to depend on other academic disciplines and progression within academia depends on undertaking research into social work from within another discipline, normally sociology or social policy. It isn’t possible, as it is in medicine, to combine high level research with practice and so there is no way in which quality practice can be recognised within academia. This has implications for identifying quality practice outside academia, for the quality of teaching and for the quality of supervision in practice placements.

Legislation – but No Change

In the 1960s social work with children became identified with anti-residential care ideas but, after the 1969 Children and Young Persons Act, the number of children in care ballooned as the social workers in the newly formed Social Services Departments were unable to match rhetoric with reality. When the Department of Health and Security (1981) examined the effect of the 1969 Act, it found that it had made no difference to the percentage of young offenders in residential care.

Much the same thing happened after the 1989 Children Act; though the number of children in care did not balloon as it had in the 1970s, the percentage in residential care remained the same, as secure treatment centres and prison increasingly began to be used instead of local authority residential care. So, though the 1989 Children Act should, like the 1969 Act, have brought about positive changes for children, it did not, as Sir William Utting (1997) and later Alan Johnson (Department for Education and Skills, 2006) were to point out.

Problems – Solving but Not Preventing Them

Among the reactions to the perceived failures of social work in the 1970s was the shift towards short term solutions to social problems such as task-centred casework (Reid and Epstein, 1972). The `problem’ with problem-oriented approaches, as the former civil servant, Sir Geoffrey Vickers, (1981) observed, is that everything has to be reformulated in terms of a problem. So the client is immediately turned into a patient on whom the social worker has to work. This model underpinned the NHS and Community Care Act 1990 with social workers being given the responsibility for assessing user needs, thereby creating an immediate dependency between social worker and client.

Of course, there are many situations where problem-solving approaches can give appropriate and immediate relief, which is why many social workers and their clients do feel positive about the work they do. But preventive work is about preventing the problems arising in the first place, not about assessing and dealing with them when they arise. In the 1980s local authorities largely withdrew from genuine preventive work because they could not see any point in intervening in situations where there was no obvious problem.

Yet we have known for over thirty years that most problems in adolescence arise from situations in the primary school years (Rutter, 1978). Waiting until children become adolescents to deal with these problems is bound to fail; the only way of preventing them is to deal with the conditions which create them in the primary school years.

Where Next?

Getting out of this situation is going to be difficult for social work; it suits academia that it can largely teach the same material, with a few cosmetic changes in terminology, as it has been teaching for the past thirty years and does not have social workers whose quality of practice and research credibility can challenge these ideas. It suits managers to be able to blame social workers; as Berridge (1985) and Cliffe and Berridge (1992) found, much poor practice was a result of management decisions and there was little evidence in Alan Johnson’s assessment (2006) that this had changed. It also suits politicians to have social workers as `problem solvers’ rather than people who address the long term needs of children and young people.

However well social workers do their jobs and however many short term problems they successfully resolve, they are convenient victims for those who don’t want to look too closely into the longer term issues of providing a quality service for children and families.

The way out for social work is to find a patron who is intellectually and morally robust enough to challenge the dominant stereotypes. After an operation, William Morris was sufficiently impressed by the work of the anaesthetists that he offered to endow a professorship at Oxford University. “But they are only technicians; why not endow something with more status?” However, he insisted that he would only endow a Chair in anaesthetics and the rest, as they say, is history.


Berridge, D (1985) Children’s homes Oxford: Blackwell

Cliffe, D and Berridge, D (1992) Closing children’s homes: an end to residential childcare? London: National Children’s Bureau

Crowther, M A (1981) The workhouse system 1834-1929: the history of an English social institution London: Batsford

Department for Education and Skills (2006) Care matters: transforming the lives of children and young people in care Cm 6932 London: The Stationery Office

Department of Health and Social Security (1981) Offending by young people: a survey of recent trends London: Department of Health and Social Security

Reid, W J and Epstein. L (1972) Task-centered casework London: Columbia University Press

Rutter, M (1978) Early sources of security and competence In J S Bruner and A Garton (Eds.) Human Growth and Development Chapter 2, pp. 33-61 Oxford: Clarendon Press Wolfson College Lectures 1976

Utting, Sir W B (1997) People like us: the report of the review of safeguards for children living away from home London: Stationery Office

Vickers, Sir G C (1981) The poverty of problem solving Journal of Applied Systems Analysis 8

Robert Shaw is in the process of completing a history of residential care.


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