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Social work is more than just a process

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Social work is more than a system or a process; it is a skill and expertise developed over a long period of time through training and continuing professional development, always being built upon, used and refined.

sally robinson

sally robinson

Sally Robinson

Too often, it seems, social work is regarded as a process to be followed, a single track which, once started, trundles along a predetermined pathway, usually of escalation, if an intervention is unable to achieve vague or global outcomes.

Sadly, despite the highlighted challenge of too much bureaucracy in social work and much talk about its reduction, the response has been to overlay or replace existing bureaucracy with new or different processes, rather than releasing social workers to dedicate their time to building relationships, understanding how a family functions, and working with the family to agree, develop and implement a programme of support that will help them overcome their difficulties.

Social work is not a process. It is an art, a skill, a way of working with people in crisis to help them to see their way through the crisis and strengthen their future. I am concerned that the real purpose and art of social work is becoming lost, and there is a workforce that is struggling with its identity as ‘social workers’ and what this really means. 

As a director of children’s services, I know how hard social workers work, and the demands that are put upon them; they are a dedicated and committed workforce that really want to make a difference for people. The profession has an incredibly strong value base; this is not a career someone accidentally finds themselves in, but one of positive choice based on a desire to help and support people who are, for whatever reason, finding life difficult.

I frequently refer to the public description of social work as defined by the Social Work Task Force in 2009: “Social work helps adults and children to be safe so that they can cope and take control of their lives again. Social workers make life better for people in crisis who are struggling to cope, feel alone and cannot sort out their problems unaided.” 

This chimes as true today as when it was written over eight years ago, and we should be proud of this description of our profession. However, it is my concern that currently, the complexities and demands of the role are leaving social workers feeling overwhelmed, lacking confidence in their skills and expertise, and feeling uncertain about what they can and should do.

Social workers have become care managers; they are no longer the agents of change, but the co-ordinators of care plans. Families face complex and acute problems and, when responding to this, social workers look to external resources to deliver an intervention or package of support; the role of, and direct intervention from, the social worker is often unclear and frequently not articulated within a support plan. Isn’t this our core business, what we were trained to do?

Social workers rarely deliver the intensive package of support that families so often need, and which they are usually the most skilled to provide. Having worked in children’s social work for more than 25 years, I have seen children’s lives become significantly more difficult, complex and traumatised, and the skills required by social work practitioners need to be greater, stronger and deeper. Social work training has not kept pace with the needs of the children we serve. Social work students are graduating with a degree in social work, yet they are not equipped with the extensive skills required to respond to the needs of vulnerable children and how to implement their theoretical learning into practice.

In placements, social workers learn about the process of assessment, planning and review, rather than how to help children and families, how to listen to people and understand their life experiences and how this has affected them. How many students and social workers undertaking the assessed and supported year in employment develop plans where resource workers provide an intervention with their families? Surely this should be the time, when they have protected caseloads, during which they should be searching through their learning to identify a strategy, model or intervention that will help this child and family and implement it, which, in turn, would develop and strengthen their social work skills.

As Eileen Munro’s 2012 review of children’s social work told us, the foundation of social work is relationships. Social workers need to be given the time and skills to develop relationships with children and their families. A social worker’s first contact with a child and family should be the time when they explain their role, what they can do to help, and asking the child and members of his or her family to tell us, in their words, about themselves and what help they need. How often do social workers take the time to simply listen, reflect and let people know that there are things that they can do to help?

Instead, we expect children and families to provide us with private and personal information, often upon first meeting them under the guise of preparing an assessment. We need to rethink how we do this in order to better understand what life for this family looks, feels and sounds like. We need to build relationships with individual members of a family, get to know and understand them, help them to develop trust and know that our aim is to help them deal with the problems they are experiencing. Through doing this we might be able to help them to be safe, feel they can cope and take control of their lives again.

I have been heartened recently, when talking to our frontline students, to learn their course is ensuring those qualifying through this route are receiving training on social work interventions.

Frontline students are being provided with a range of skills and interventions they can use to help and support a child and family, and undertaking this work themselves. They were able to tell me how they were putting their learning into practice, and there is much to be learned from this approach.

It is beholden on those who are leaders in social work to champion the art of our profession; to ensure the workforce has the skills, knowledge, tools, time and encouragement to be social workers and not simply workers who observe, instruct, record and monitor. We must encourage social workers to have confidence in their professional skills, and to use these creatively, imaginatively and to best effect.

I want social workers to be proud of their profession, have an unwavering belief in the value of what they do, and take every opportunity to develop and refine their skills using these to maximum effect spending their time, efforts and expertise with children and their families to make a real difference to their lives.

Sally Robinson, director of child and adult services, Hartlepool BC

This article was sponsored by iMPOWER. The essay was published first in Shining a Light, a collection commissioned by iMPOWER

Olly swann

Olly swann

Partner comment: It’s time to appreciate and support social workers

Having spoken to Sally about her social work frustrations on several occasions, we asked her to pen a piece for iMPOWER’s essay collection, knowing that what we’d get would be a passionate insight into the modern-day challenges of a much-maligned profession. It’s safe to say she did not disappoint. 

Never has there been a more timely call for a profession to be more confident in its own skills, training and experience. The demands and complexities of social work are ever increasing, and excessive caseloads, paperwork, and challenging working environments are consistently highlighted by practitioners as barriers to focusing on ‘the day job’. 

Earlier this year, the Guardian’s Social Lives survey highlighted that while 79% of social workers enjoy their job, a quarter of them plan to leave the sector in the next five years. The natural passion for the profession that many practitioners feel is clearly being tested by a lack of support and recognition at a national level. This throws up some interesting points of consideration for local authorities.

Many of them are striving to develop an experienced and capable workforce equipped to support children and families with more complex needs, at a time when austerity demands that they urgently address an expensive over-reliance on agency workers. Getting this balance right is essential; it’s clear that social workers need, and deserve, the right environment to allow good practice to flourish.

Olly Swann, director, iMPOWER Consulting

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