The rise and fall of social work?

During the late 1960s and into the 1970s social work was the rising star of the of the human service delivery professions. This was an optimistic era when the state, through the government of the day, was seen as being able to ensure the basic needs of all its citizens – health, education, social security, housing and so on – were met. Social workers were part of this welfarist project with any social problems remaining being ‘solved’ or ameliorated by them. Working with individuals, families, groups and communities, and ensuring that the work of various agencies met their client’s needs, they were seen as the key players. These were certainly heady days for social work by today’s standards but, sadly, it was not to last.

Margaret Thatcher’s general election success in 1979 saw the end of the social democratic consensus of the post war years which had entailed the acceptance of the welfare state and the role of government in economic planning and regulation. Monetarism, the forerunner of today’s neo-liberalism was to be the replacement, a return to the free market ideology that had been discarded since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The sea change in the ideological climate occurred because during the 1970s neither the Conservative or Labour governments seemed able to solve the economic problems facing Britain. And as far is social work was concerned, it has since been under attack from both politicians and the media often following child abuse tragedies. One has only to recall Maria Colwell in the 1970s through to Victoria Climbie and Baby Peter of the 2000s.

Although many public service professionals have been assailed over recent decades, social work has surely become the most denigrated. The New Right of the 1970s and 1980s were never happy with a profession which was essentially on the side of the poor and disadvantaged, one which focused on social justice and social change. In any case they saw professions, or aspiring ones like social work, as self-serving groupings which were obstacles to privatisation and marketisation. This necessitated social work, as well as public expenditure, being controlled by the introduction of private sector management systems. Initially, this related to care management being introduced with work with older adults in the 1990s and, under New Labour especially, it spread to other client/user areas notably children and families.

New Labour turned out to be the heirs of the neo-liberal consensus with its belief in free markets (unless it came to bailing out the banks and the capitalist system as a whole) and light touch regulation (unless it came to social work). As Bill Jordan has pointed out, social work fared worse under New Labour than it did under the Conservatives. No longer a political party aimed at social change on more just and equal lines, New Labour did not see social work as a critical ally aimed at achieving precisely this.

Instead, various inspection and regulation regimes were introduced to keep social work in check, as well as continuing with strategies aimed at ‘empowering’ managers to set and control the work that social workers do and how. This has been carried out by introducing various bureaucratic, and increasingly electronic, performance indicator hurdles. In so doing, the needs of such as children and families, and in turn social work, are subordinated to the needs of managers and their organisations. Social work often becomes merely a matter of filling in forms/computer exemplars as quickly as possible so as to meet targets; it amounts to people-processing often regardless of the outcome. Rationing increasingly scarce resources is the overriding goal. Consequently, organisations like local authority adult and children’s services, have adapted to meet their imposed targets rather than the real needs of the adults and children and families they are supposed to be serving. One has only to recall the glowing Ofsted report that the London Borough of Haringey received prior to the Baby Peter tragedy. The inspection was no doubt concerned with the quantitative aspects – how many forms were filled and in what time scale – rather than the qualitative aspects of services for children and families.

Despite a general election in May 2010 leading to the ousting of New Labour, the foregoing developments surely look set to continue. Notwithstanding warm words about a social work college increasing the status of social work, and the need to reduce bureaucracy for practitioners, the situation is unlikely to change under a right-wing Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition government aimed at ‘getting more for less’ and a ‘big society’. Such a society expects individuals, families and communities to rely on themselves as the state cuts public expenditure and withdraws.

Overall, when looking at social work’s development over the last 150 years one can pinpoint the present neo-liberal consensus as being at the root of the profession’s current crisis. Over the last 30 years the introduction of a private sector business ethos has resulted in deprofessionalisation or, put differently, the deformation of a profession. Put simply, currently being ‘professional’ simply amounts to meeting someone else’s (i.e. managers’) targets.

The current domination of managerialism means a progressive, critical practice based on social justice and social change is increasingly difficult, but nevertheless the limited opportunities remaining need be taken up. Although group and community orientated strategies are often no longer in social worker’s toolbox, in Professor Vicky White’s words ‘quiet challenges’ remain possible. This helps ensure that the limited discretion that does remain, in face to face encounters with children and families for example, is used empoweringly rather than as simply means of control. If this is not done the road is left clear for those wanting to preserve the status quo rather than make the world a better place.

Dr Steve Rogowski, author of Social Work: the rise and fall of a profession?

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