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121 MARCH 2009
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Reclaiming, rebuilding and rethinking

Mark Smith

Social work in the UK is in trouble, battered in the press over purported failures to protect children. A review of the profession in Scotland conceded that social work has lost sight of some of its core purpose. The situation by many workers on the ground can be laid at the door of the performance management and overly regulated managerial cultures that have grown up in recent decades.

There are signs, albeit nascent, of a fightback among some sections of the profession, primarily it must be said from academics making attempts to engage with practitioners and service users to assert the need for a different sort of social work than the one that has emerged. Thus we have movements to reclaim social work or in the words of the title of a conference I attended yesterday, to rebuild social work. The central point of the Rebuilding Social Work Conference was to engage with the users of social work services and their carers. The drive for social work to engage with users and carers is one I have had some suspicions about; it seems to be based on a premise that this is something new that we have just been waiting for regulators and managers to come along to tell us what a good thing it is, whereas good workers have, of course, always engaged with those they worked with. What has got in the way of this engagement is the proliferation of systems, procedures, computerised programmes, and constipated practice cultures that those selfsame regulators and managers have imposed upon social work and social workers. The other concern I might express about the user carer agenda is that it rarely seems to include the kind of users of services I worked with, kids who were troublesome and troubled, who were generally offenders, or their parents, who were all too easy to blame for being bad parents. In fact managers and the guardians of “professionalism” in social work have, historically, sought to distance workers from these excluded groups in society. We were to maintain appropriate “boundaries”, lest we became too emotionally involved or lest we got too close and started to name and identify with the structural inequalities that are fundamentally implicated in the problems thrown up by these individuals and families.

Yesterday’s conference began to allay some of my concerns by setting out firmly where social work had gone wrong and who was to blame for it. Social work, one of the keynote speakers asserted, was not about techniques and tools but about values; humanistic values of caring, warmth and empathy. The other keynote speaker, who had herself been brought up in care reminded us of the need for a significant person or people in our lives, bringing to mind Uri Bronfenbrenner’s quote about kids needing someone who was crazy about them. The assertion of humanistic values creates a scenario where the interests of those who use social work services and social workers actually coalesce; at a human level almost all social workers want the best for those they work with. It is bureaucracies, which, in the name of modernisation and improvement, remove social work ever further from this initial ethical impulse to care, imposing the kind of social distance, that allows us not to engage respectfully with those we work with. Indeed it can, at times, make it almost impossible to do so in any meaningful way.

Questions of caring, warmth and empathy and of the need for a significant person in your life took on a particular significance for me. I attended this conference, which was held down in London, with two members of the University of Edinburgh user and carer forum. One of these was a man I had cared for briefly about 20 years ago. Like many of those we work with he has had his scrapes with the criminal justice system since leaving care and from what he was telling me over the past few days could well have had a good number more! However, he has come through this and is a now a talented film-maker. He is clear that he wouldn’t have been in the place he is in today had it not been for the consistent, persistent and, at times downright irrational, support from his social worker with whom he has stayed in contact over all these years. But that kind of commitment is now frowned upon, viewed with suspicion and proscribed; in today’s social work codes of conduct are drawn upon to discipline social workers for maintaining contact with those they work with or worked with outwith their working hours. This is actually disrespectful of service users who increasingly say that what they want from their social workers is friendship and, within the bounds of what is reasonable, some sort of equality within the relationship.

One of the interesting coincidences from the conference was that I met Ray Jones, who I had never heard of until a couple of weeks ago. Ray was a director of social work in England and is now a professor of social work, so his views shouldn’t (although that’s not to say they won–t) be ignored. He wrote a letter to the Guardian newspaper on the very issue of the type of relationships we ought to have with those we work with. Here’s the link:

In the spirit of breaking the rules I want to declare that I shared a sleeper compartment in the train with someone whose care I had been responsible for in a care home. I even went so far as to have an alcoholic drink with him before retiring to the cabin. There will already be those who think I overstepped the “boundaries”. But the other side of this was that I was with a thirty year old man and a 31 year old woman as they boarded their first ever airplane flight on the journey back to Edinburgh. This itself highlighted another point for me. It can be easy to forget that there are still those who have not flown and who are in fact prevented from doing so because they don’t have passports and they don’t have bank accounts or credit cards. Maybe these are the realities that we need to get a bit closer to “and to start questioning why, as a society, we still allow this to be the case. Instead we have constructed a social work profession based around ever-more ineffectual systems to police the consequences of these social inequalities.

The current system is supported by asserting some “taken for granted” view of “professionalism”, a view that is, at the very least, contestable. But we have created managerial and practice cultures where even to question such orthodoxies is to leave oneself open to motives being questioned. This kind of foreclosure of possible different ways of thinking about social work and of relationships is profoundly unhealthy. There can be a vision of a social work based around humanistic values, close and meaningful relationships and challenging the structural constraints that deny access to any conception of the good life to those who use social work services. Such a vision is badly in need of reclaiming or rebuilding.

The more observant among those of you reading this column will notice that, as well as Reclaiming and Rebuilding I also have Rethinking in its title. This is a blatant plug for my book, which the publishers have exhorted me to publicise at every opportunity. They even gave me the wording below. The book does actually develop some of the arguments I make above.

Rethinking Residential Child Care: Positive perspectives by Mark Smith
For further details visit

The International Child and Youth Care Network

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