Why a neutered radicalism in social work may be to blame for the collapse in adult social care

Author and academic Terry Bamford’s Contemporary history of social work: learning from the past publishes today. In his guest post Terry charts the journey in social work influence from a 1970s heyday to the current situation where social workers are seen to be the blame rather than the balm for societies ills.

DSC_0335The impact on the NHS of the collapse of adult social care is now widely recognised. Cuts in local government funding have led to the dismantling of many discretionary services. Children’s services and adult care fulfil statutory responsibilities and little more.

It is a long way from the heady days of the Seebohm reforms and the 1970 Local Authority Social Services Act when social work was seen as the solution to social problems. The 1970s were the zenith of social work’s influence. Now social work itself is seen as the problem by some commentators who resist intrusion into family life by the state.

Social change and improvement

Social work has been preoccupied with social change and improvement since its emergence as a profession. The Charity Organisation Society, despite its moralising, had a deep concern for the poor. The settlement movement pioneered social action through its work in local communities.

Social work’s ethical code asserts the dignity and worth of each individual. It also emphasises a commitment to social justice. It thus combines the personal and the political. Yet the radicalism which energised social workers and led to their leading role in social reform seems to have been neutered. Why?

Local government was not a friendly environment for radicals. The ‘Seebohm factories’of social services departments led to the development of managerialism with its emphasis on procedures, protocols and checklists. The failure of the social workers strike to demonstrate the impact of social work led to a questioning of its relevance in the delivery of social care. A succession of child care tragedies called into doubt the competence of social workers.

“alternately vilified for not intervening to protect children and for acting precipitately without due cause…”

They found themselves alternately vilified for not intervening to protect children and for acting precipitately without due cause. Employers became more influential in shaping social work training around competencies. And these pressures on social work came at a time when neoliberal thinking became dominant.

Neoliberals saw the State and its manifestation in the public sector, as a threat to freedom and a brake on enterprise and entrepreneurialism. Outsourcing services to the private and voluntary sector was seen as the way to reduce the dominance of public sector. When community care funding was transferred from social security to local authorities it came with a requirement to spend 75%, and later 85%, in the independent sector.

The result was a wholesale transfer of residential and domiciliary care services to predominantly private sector providers. Residential children’s services are also increasingly being provided by the private sector. And now, echoing what has happened in probation with services tendered on a payment by results basis, the outsourcing of social work services is under consideration in government.

unequal society

The Narey review into social work education exposed the government’s view of social justice. He complained that social workers tended to over identify with parents seeing them as victims of an unequal society. This was attributed to the disproportionate attention given in training to anti-oppressive practice, empowerment and working in partnership with parents.

Social workers are already viewed with deep suspicion in deprived communities. The elements of social work education criticised by Narey are exactly what workers need if they are to work effectively with families. They see on a daily basis the havoc wrought by the benefits cap and the sanctions regime in social security. They see a disconnect between the language of politicians about welfare and growing inequalities. Social work needs to rediscover its message of social change and reform.

Of course there are risks for social work in speaking out. This government like its predecessors is sensitive to criticism. But social work needs to speak truth to power and spell out the consequences of current policies for the poor and vulnerable. By doing so it can rediscover its historic role of combining the personal and the political.

A contemporary history of social work [FC]Contemporary history of social work: learning from the past publishes today publishes today and copies can be purchased at a 20% discount from the Policy Press website – here.

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blogpost authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

2 Responses to “Why a neutered radicalism in social work may be to blame for the collapse in adult social care”


  1. 1 Steve Rogowski February 25, 2015 at 11:34 am

    Just reading the book and enjoyinging it but dont think that social work practices are the way forward – they surely amount to capitulating to neoliberalism.

  2. 2 Jim Greer March 1, 2015 at 8:51 pm

    It is difficult to see how local authorities could ever be a site for radical practice. After all, local authorities are funded from local and national taxes to fulfill national and local policy priorities. Social work is under very direct political control. In the case of the Rotherham child abuse scandal there is concern raised in the media that local politicians may have helped to cover up abuse or at least been unwilling to enquire into it .
    Social Work Practices offer social workers the opportunity to practice at arms length from politicians, develop new funding streams and also improve relationships with the communities they serve by taking charge of how they communicate publicly about their mission and their work.
    I think that direct employment of social workers by local authorities will be gradually phased out. There are opportunities as well as risks in these changes but only a limited amount of time for social workers to take an active role in shaping these changes.
    Unfortunately, I feel that the strong anti-privatization sentiment which is so pervasive in the sector will mitigate against the profession taking charge of its own destiny.


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