Stand Up for Social Work – by Dr. Simon Duffy

Stand-up-for-Social-WorkThis blog is a first and hesitant step – an attempt to find a pathway out of the current crisis in social work. It is written to provoke thought and further discussion. The Centre for Welfare Reform will publish a more developed paper in the future. 

Our Stand Up Social Work project emerged out of a conversation with Kelly Hicks, who was Adult Social Worker of the Year in 2011, and whose work has been an inspiration to me and to many others. It led us to invite a diverse group of social workers together at a Centre for Welfare Reform seminar on 1st May 2013 in Doncaster.

Together we reflected on the situation of social work in the UK today and began to think about how things could be different. The seminar was a chance for us to test our perceptions. To see if we shared a sense of common ground, and to begin to explore strategies for change.

In summary we felt:

  • Social work is a powerful and positive profession that can have a powerful impact on society – it is life and death stuff.
  • The systems within which social work exists are damaging its impact to an extreme degree – they must be challenged and redesigned.
  • The forces that are driving change in the profession are often in sharp conflict with the profession’s own vales and purpose.
  • Social workers need to have faith in social work – this means applying social work principles back on itself as a profession – taking back control.

We sensed the possibility of positive change and we committed ourselves to work to make that change happen.

What is good social work?

There was a strong sense that human rights must be at the heart of social work. Social workers are people who help make human rights real in the lives of those individuals, families and groups who face disadvantage, poverty, isolation and exclusion.

The key principles for social work were identified as these:

  1. Not being compromised by the system – sticking up for people
  2. To genuinely advocate on people’s behalf – being on the same side
  3. Developing positive and meaningful relationship with fellow citizens – being human
  4. Supporting active citizenship and independence – believing in people
  5. 5.    Being an integral part of the local community – getting stuck in
  6. Facilitating peer support – hooking people up
  7. Using all our skills, with the whole community – doing it properly

These words and ideas resonated strongly with the whole group.

What is the state of social work in the UK today?

One of the biggest problems was a crisis of identity for social workers and a severe split between 2 groups: those doing social work inside government and those doing social work outside government.

  1. If you work in the system you can feel that your role as a social worker has been taken over by other roles – defined by the system itself: care manager, commissioner, local authority officer etc.
  2. If you work outside the system you can feel that you are no longer a genuine social worker – because genuine social work is defined by local government practice.

This is one of many powerful wounds or divides that seems to have left social work feeling like it has no strong foundations. Both groups can easily feel that they are ‘no longer social workers’. Whereas the truth is we need both groups to see themselves as social workers.

Somehow the profession has been divided against itself and not able to find its own sense of identity – a self-defined identity – suitable to play several roles – in or out of government.

What factors have driven us here?

It is possible to list a whole series of factors that have conspired to weaken the profession.

In no particular order, the seminar identified:

  • The split between government and non-government social work
  • The split between children and adult social work
  • The lack of personal leadership in the social work profession
  • Confused organisational leadership – the lack of an effective trade union
  • The way in which roles and duties are defined by legislation not by the profession
  • Core legislation is out of date and detached from human rights
  • The dilution of front-line practice and growth of non-qualified social work
  • Confused system management within government – managerialism and process control
  • ‘professional boundaries’ bullshit (excuse my English)
  • The confusion about the role and value of qualification
  • The lower pay and conditions outside the system
  • The healthcare and social care divide
  • The divide between social care and social work
  • The mutually reinforcing stigma associated with local government and social work

These problems will not go away easily. There are further structural problems which lurk behind these problems. When government aims to reduce social care spending by 33% it needs a weak profession. When policy makers have a low opinion of the capacities of ordinary citizens then we can also expect them to have a low opinion of those who work with them.

The meritocratic thinking at the heart of the modern welfare state is toxic for everyone who is not ‘at the top’ – arguably it’s even toxic for ‘people at the top’ too, as they are unable to actually lead.

How might we begin to find our way again?

At times like this a grand plan is unlikely to be the answer. We must find our path together. We must build alliances, heal wounds and try to identify the bigger vision. This vision must be shared with social workers and – in particular – with those social workers aim to serve.

We must act with integrity, we must act from a commitment to empower – and in this context that empowerment must include ourselves.

The profession belongs to the profession – it must restore itself by taking back control of its own definition and its role as an ally of citizens, the state and society in achieving social justice.

Amongst the ideas we discussed were the following:

  • Proudly identify non-statutory social work leaders and innovations
  • Focus on forms of practice with integrity – like Family Conferencing
  • Restore integrity to the assessment process
  • Link human rights back into the core legislation
  • Focus on social work as a hub for defining and sharing social innovations
  • Reveal the wastefulness and damage done by current practices
  • Promote and facilitate independent peer support

There were many other ideas too. This is just a sample.


Good social work practice focuses on empowering change to tackle disadvantage. But, as a researcher from Finland, who attended the seminar observed: “social workers too seem like a disadvantaged group.”

But this crisis is an opportunity – if social workers behave like social workers – to themselves – they can restore themselves to themselves.

Dr. Simon J. Duffy (@simonjduffy) is the Director of The Centre for Welfare Reform.

Join us @SWSCmedia on Tuesday (4 June 2013) 8:00 PM BST / 3:00 PM EDT for a twitter debate and to explore these and other relevant issues.

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