Why Be a Social Worker?

I was at a social work education conference recently to facilitate a workshop. Much talk was on the future of social work, in part due to the impending presentation of Lord Laming’s findings, but also because of the social work task force. As is usual with conferences I agree to participate months prior to the event. Initially, I think through some ideas and begin to read around the subject to ensure that I am up to date and relevant.

On the day in question, I used the two hours of the train journey to develop my ideas and put the presentation into a powerpoint format. Despite my well ordered and fruitful journey, when I arrived at the conference, panic set in. First I discovered that nobody seemed to have signed up to my workshop, and secondly but more importantly found out that the audience I thought I was addressing was not the same as the actual attendees. For some strange reason I thought the audience was going to be made up of practitioners and not social work educators.

Lunch proved to be my saviour, not the excellent cuisine but my dining companions. I cannot remember the detail of the actual conversation that took place; however, we looked at what motivates us and the importance of our values within practice. Within the space of an hour I had refocused the presentation and was able to address the delegates and tell them that my workshop looked at the importance of self in social work and the need for a reconnection with the community. There was a murmur of interest and I had survived the first encounter.

The murmur of interest turned into a workshop that was full of interesting participants. My main premise is that social work has lost its connection from its actual constituency, with staff so often located in offices that are a distance from their communities they serve. In addition I feel that social work has become so obsessed with structures and performance management that it is in danger of losing sight of its purpose.

Why Get into Social Work?

I started the workshop by asking participants to explain why they got into social work, an interesting question given that all the participants were either social work educators or trainers, and not one of us was still in practice. The answers to the question were all slightly different but had at their core a desire to make a difference.

The high turnover of social work staff that had been highlighted by one of the main conference speakers can in my view be traced, in part by social workers feeling undervalued, and also feeling that they have lost sight of the reasons why they went into social work. People go into social work to make a difference; concentrating on targets and performance management changes the whole organisational climate with managers concentrating in part on targets and outputs rather than the actual professional task.

A Managerialist Agenda

Although I do not believe there was ever a golden age of social work, I do feel that the managerialist agenda brought in during the last Conservative Government (and continued under New Labour) combined with a cutting back of the actual task of local authority social work, has resulted in a fire-fighting service that is concentrating on responding to crises. If you have a constant diet of negativity and problems wrapped in a hostile and critical environment it is perhaps not surprising that morale is low.

Although Laming’s comments in response to the baby P tragedy may be beneficial, in particular the setting up of the National Safeguarding Delivery Unit, the guarantee of supervision time and the emphasis on further training – not just for the social workers but council leaders and senior managers – once again demonstrate that the major focus is on structures .

Supervision in social work is vital; it can provide a managerial overview, an element of quality assurance and be involved in professional development. However, poor quality of supervision can be destructive and divisive and, as was shown in the Climbie enquiry, it can be potentially dangerous. How people are supervised and how they are supported by their peers is an important element in the culture of a successful organisation.

Isolation or Teamwork?

In many of the recent enquiries one of the problem areas has been social workers working with difficult and aggressive adults. Working with aggressive people is very difficult and requires skill, support and careful handling. In my view these cases must be handled by two social workers, with regular supervision combined with team support. Evidenced based team approaches that ensure practice is informed by research can in my view help rekindle interest in the task. Too often social work with these difficult cases is being conducted in isolation. This isolation can lead to blame, division and ultimately ‘burn out’.

Rekindling interest in social work and a belief that what is being carried out is making a difference will be the way that turnover will be reduced and morale increased.

Laming review of child protection http://www.communitycare.co.uk/Articles/2009/03/18/110983/laming-review-of-child-protection.html (accessed 24/3/2009)

2 thoughts on “Why Be a Social Worker?”

  1. Hi Chris,
    I’m a mature student just coming to the end of my first ytar on the BSc Social Work. Despite my life and work experience the academic course so far has demoralised and deskilled me to the point of giving up. If it wasn’t for the break I got on my 20 day placement I don’t think I would still be there. The placement, in Family and children, (which I had no prior experience of apart from being a mother of 4 myself) was brilliant and the way I was able to actually observe, join in and learn gave me my confidence back. Friends and family commented on how different I was than when I was in Uni. Am I the only one who feels that the new degree course is somehow prescriptive to the statutory sector? ‘Stepford’ Social Workers just defeat the whole object for me.

  2. I am a mother of four, and I am in the process of getting my associates degree in business. I have always wanted to get into social work but never knew how. If you could send me some information on how I can get started I would be verry pleased. Thank you. I am glad you did not give up.


Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.