by Chris Jones, Friday, December 04, 2009

“In short, social work has arrived at a watershed moment. This gives us an opportunity to come together to build a safe, confident future, which all of us must seize.” (Moira Gibb, Dec 2009)

These are the concluding comments of Moira Gibb’s foreword to the Final Report of the Social Work Task Force.

That there are to be no new additional resources to be made available to act upon the 15 recommendations of the Task Force immediately indicates the priority accorded by government to social work. It almost certainly means that much of what is recommended is unlikely to come to pass.

The initial reactions from the Directors confirms this. No resource no action is basically what they have said and this is surely what we can expect from that quarter.

Nevertheless, despite the injunction of the Task Force that the recommendations should be treated as a whole package for action and not simply picked at here and there, it is highly probable that the Report will lead to just this kind of activity.

Whilst there is much in the report, especially about agency obligations to their practitioners, and the necessity for agencies to be more serious in providing sufficient quality placements, there is a crippling absence of any historical perspective. Much of what is being recommended has been said before in countless reports stretching back over the decades. What happened to all that? Take for example, the College of Social Work proposal, surely I am not the only who thought that this was once the purpose of the National Institute of Social Work. This was promulgated for in the 1959 Younghusband Report in much the same way as the Task Force argues for a College. NISW was indeed created in the early 1960s and was folded up in 2003. Surely its demise might have important lessons for any College proposal?

It seems that history offers nothing to social work. Each emergent issue or problem is treated as if it is completely new and demands a new approach. So we end up with a relentless regurgitation of the same old issues with no informed resolution.

This Report more than many of its predecessors on the state of social work in England is prepared to note, if not fully confront, the many surface level tensions within social work such as between universities and agencies and between ‘practice’ and the ‘academy’ and so on. What it does not do is engage with the overwhelming problem that state agencies have invariably become places where it is difficult for a meaningful social work profession to survive let alone flourish.

As early as 1978 Parsloe, Hill and Stevenson were commenting in their review of the recently formed local authority social services departments that they were often an inhospitable environment for the social work profession. As the years have passed by this has becoming ever more evident and yet these state agencies have been accorded ever more prominence in determining what is social work, what is a social worker, and how they should be trained. It’s ridiculous. When I taught in Texas my colleagues would have thought me mad if I had proposed that the major state agency employing social workers should be granted any more privilege to influence our curriculum than say a user group or voluntary agency. We worked to a broad understanding of social work that was not so centrally defined by one, state agency as has been the case in Britain since the mid 1970s.

I am convinced that for social work in Britain to move forward that it must break free from this close state sponsorship and control.

The primary state agencies employing social workers have never demonstrated a purposeful commitment to a thriving social work profession. Their historic behaviour with respect to the provision of quality placements is a powerful indicator of this neglect, as is the lack of investment in post qualifying training, supervision and so on. Yet this Report demands a great deal of agencies but has no historical reflection which points out that every time there has been an attempt to boost the standing and pay of social workers, the agencies have responded by looking to other means – social work aides, assistances, NVQs etc etc – to keep costs down and circumvent the creation of a flourishing profession.

Moreover, every time any report which hints that social work courses or social work students are not fit for purpose, which this Report dutifully does, opens the door to agencies to have a go at social work education as though all the woes of social work stem from that source. It does not require that much nous that all the talk of robust students and robust assessment on robust courses in the Task Force’s Report will be sufficient for agencies such as the GSSC to demand further controls over the courses and their intakes. Watch this space!

There is finally an extraordinarily chilling phrase in the Report which is made without comment. It is in 1.25 where they note that strong concern has been expressed about the poor quality of lecturers on social work courses. The paragraph concludes:

“Educators need to share in the real challenges posed in service delivery and avoid any temptation to criticise from the sidelines.”

Well that’s me finished!!!

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