Posts Tagged 'Social Work'

Seeing social work through narrative

Clive Baldwin

Clive Baldwin

by Clive Baldwin, author of Narrative social work: Theory and application

Narrative is becoming increasingly a focus of interest across disciplines and professions – philosophy, sociology, psychology, medicine, nursing, psychotherapy, theology, women’s studies, law and so on have all taken up narrative in some form or other.  Social work, too, has taken up narrative, albeit to a lesser extent – social work interest in narrative seems to cluster within three main areas: narrative as an intervention (usually a version of narrative therapy), narrative in social work education and personal narratives of practising social work.  While these three areas are interesting and important, to my mind they do not engage deeply with narrative as an approach to social work per se and as such miss some important insights and opportunities for developing a truly narrative-based social work.

The difference, I think, lies in what I distinguish as the stronger and weaker programs of narrative.  The weaker programs see narrative as something that casts light on a reality that is out there, whether that be the reality of service users’ lives, the reality of practising social work, or the reality of wider social and political movements.  Narrative, in this program, is but a window onto the world of social work.  Alternatively narrative is seen as a tool, an intervention – as in narrative therapy – to be brought to bear when the occasion is apposite.

The stronger program, on the other hand, uses narrative as the lens through which we see all of social work.  In this stronger program narrative is taken as a way of knowing about the Self, others and the world; a way of communicating; a way of acting – narrative does not simply reflect the world, but constantly makes and remakes the world.  In this program, social work, as an activity that seeks to understand individuals in context and work with them toward individual and societal betterment is, through and through, a narrative activity.  Supporting this view is a wide literature on how the Self is constructed in and through narrative; another on understanding policy-making as a narrative process; yet another on how social movements rely on and play out certain stories; and still another on how narrative acts as a means to ethical reasoning and decision-making.  The stories we hear and the stories we tell make up the world of social work. To understand narrative is to understand social work.

Narrative social work is available with 20% discount from

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?

Community Care Live 2010

Just back from a busy Community Care Live 2010 – it was great to meet lots of social workers and students and to network with delegates and other exhibitors. I attended a very interesting keynote from Dr Maggie Atkinson – the Children’s Commissioner for England only two months in post – on Wednesday morning. She seems genuinely committed to being a “champion for children” and was an engaging speaker to a sadly limited number of delegates (10am too early perhaps?!).

She outlined her current priorities, which included working with ‘resistant’ families and gaining children’s perspectives on safeguarding. She also said that she accepted the need of the children’s workforce (including social work) for training and development to be able to provide more effective services for children.

Dr Atkinson was able to report that on Tuesday she had met officially for the first time with the new Secretary of State for Education, Rt Hon Michael Gove MP. Several delegates at CC Live had grumbled concern that the change of department title from Children, Schools and Families back to Education signalled the new government’s intention to deprioritise the wider range work with children and families, including social work. Dr Atkinson said that she felt the Secretary of State was equally committed to children and families, that there was no apparent change to the remit of the department and that there was no intention to rescind Every Child Matters (so get to grips with it if you need to by reading Making sense of Every Child Matters!). She also said that she was impressed with the new government’s early commitment to ending detention for refugee and asylum seeking children.

In line with what other experienced practitioners were saying at the conference, when asked what one priority she would encourage Michael Gove to take on board it was (appropriately) to “not to throw the baby out with the bathwater”. Perhaps we should send him a package of Policy Press books so he can swot up on some evidence of good and not so good policy and practice!

Karen Bowler, Senior Commissioning Editor, The Policy Press

Should recording in social work be given a higher priority?

With the impending cuts in the public sector that the new government will be implementing this year, people working in social care services will be understandably apprehensive about what those cuts will mean for them. One area that may be a welcome focus for attention in social care is the concern over the proliferation of paperwork and the time this takes away from the direct delivery of care. Cutting down on paperwork is an issue that most people, whether working in the social sector or not, would support. It is a means to make services more efficient. Efficiency will be even more of a priority with the pressure on budgets.

However, while the reduction in paperwork might receive considerable support, we also need to remember that concerns over poor record keeping have featured in many inquiries into tragedies involving social services for many years. While more paperwork is not necessarily the answer, more effective record keeping should be a priority. Understanding what might be involved in making records more effective is explored in Recording in social work: Not just an administrative task. In her six year study Liz O’Rourke studied the experience of social workers in over half the social services departments in England and Wales and found that recording is a highly complex task. It is also a strangely neglected issue when considering training needs. Most social workers reported that they learned to record by looking at other people’s files, and then were left confused and uncertain as to what was expected when they found inconsistency in those files. If we do not afford a higher priority to recording then we will continue to see social work records feature in each successive inquiry following yet another tragedy. We ignore recording at our peril.

What do you think? Should recording in social work be given a higher priority, or will this just increase the paperwork practitioners are expected to complete? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Liz O’Rourke, author of Recording in social work: Not just an administrative task

‘Help give them a voice’ campaign

Back from the US now – what a fantastic trip! Lots to do to follow up from the meeting, but back to earth this week and inspired to blog, not by international jet-setting, but by an email alert re the new ‘Help give them a voice’ campaign to promote social work. This should be a good thing shouldn’t it? But I’m just not so sure.

In my job I’m only working alongside people in the social work discipline of course, but I’m all too aware of the growing discontent in the ranks of academics and practitioners. Sue White’s plenary at JSWEC a couple of months ago didn’t pull any punches about the frustrations of social work today, and there has been heated debate on the listservs in the past few weeks about the new definition of social work in the Social Work Taskforce’s interim report. The books I’m working on also reflect this concern about the role of social work and some present a ‘call to arms’ to return to what’s important. Our recently published Radical social work in practice, aims to promote a more constructive social justice approach to a student audience; Ken McLaughlin’s Social work, politics and society (published last year) has received praise for the author’s willingness to challenge current pessimism and paternalism in social work practice. (We’ve also got some exciting and provocative new books in the pipeline – watch this space!)

So, doesn’t parading pretty celebrities, such as Sadie Frost and Samantha Morton (who I’m sure have given their time for free and have hearts in the right place etc etc), to promote the positive aspects of social work seem insensitive and just a little tawdry? I guess it might make the job appear more glamorous to potential new recruits and be less vilified by the Sun-reading public (how could they be angry at Sadie-Frost-social-worker?). I do understand that the short films are planned as adverts but the first at least seems to reduce a complex role into a simplistic soundbite, which won’t help to explain the daily challenges of social work practice to a wider audience.

I look forward to seeing the next celebrity social worker on our screens soon…

Karen Bowler
Senior Commissioning Editor

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