What’s the story, social work?

Social work seems to be in two minds at the moment. Is it a strong profession, recognised and valued? Or is it a struggling profession, overrun by work and affected by cuts?

I think it is a bit of both and that a tale about social work needs to tell both stories: a strengthening profession in increasingly difficult times. Social work has always worked at two levels: with individuals and with society. The way in which social workers support people is affected by the context.

First, I think that social work is improving. We have better evidence, more consistency of practice, and stronger direction from people about what they want and need. Social work is now a graduate, registered profession. Social workers have more clarity about professional standards and capabilities. We have a professional College. We have chief social workers. Our role is recognised in policy, and is highlighted nationally by ministers and judges. When I do workshops with social workers and managers, they are enthusiastic and motivated about using evidence, practicing critical reflection and strengthening their professional judgement.

Secondly, social work is getting increasingly difficult. More people need social work and spending on social care is reducing. Social workers and managers say that they are tired and overwhelmed by the amount there is to do and the limited resources they have to do it.

We need to be able to tell a story of how social work is continuously striving to improve, how we are using the best information possible, learning well and prioritising thoughtfully. We also need to tell the story of how the context is affecting our work, giving us less time to spend with each person and family, giving people less options for how we can help them to change their lives.

Social workers don’t get to decide how society will be. But we do get to influence it. And we have the privilege of knowing a lot about people’s lives and how the context impacts on them. If we speak out more about what people need and about the context we are working in, then we can help make the choices clearer. If we want thriving children in thriving families in thriving communities, then it costs. It is right to do the best we can with what we have. It is also right to ask for enough to do social work well, giving evidence of the gaps and what more resources would allow us to do.

For my part, I need to make my work more social. I deliver resources and training to help social workers improve their practice. If I don’t do something about the context they work in, there is only a limited amount of difference this can make. I am trying to figure out how I can best help – to continue to build skills and professionalism, and also to start to change the context. Your views about what would make the most difference would be very welcome.