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Do We Still Need Social Workers?


I'm a social worker, and have recently joined the new College of Social Work. The creation of the College has been highly controversial within the profession, which has always struggled to find its own identity amidst a sea of government and regulatory requirements. What finally convinced me was the publication of a report from the Centre of For Workforce Intelligence that shows many Councils are replacing qualified social workers with cheaper 'unqualified' staff, for example support brokers (something I also do). This seemed like to good time to reflect on whether there's still a need for social workers at all. 


When it first found its way into policy in the middle of the last decade, much of the 'personalisation agenda' seemed predicated on the assumption that social work as a profession was paternalistic, poorly aligned with the needs of service users, and unable to paricipate in the 'paradigm shift' required to support independent living. Some even suggested that personalisation would be the saviour of social work.


"Personalisation of public services, to better match the needs and aspirations of the people who use them, underpins much of current and developing public service policy . . . it is clear that the principle of personalisation needs increasingly to be the philosophy on which social services are founded."
Scottish Executive, 2006, p. 6, cited by Ferguson, 2007


Putting People First argued that personalisation would free social workers from the burden of bureacratic assessments to refocus on advocacy, support and brokerage. Five years later and most social workers would struggle to recognise this picture. Last week BASW's State of Social Work survey revealed a profession on the edge of being overwhelmed by bureacracy.


“The survey tells us three notable things: social workers are facing an administrative overload and

are, as a result, spending less and less time with vulnerable children and adults; caseloads are quite simply unmanageable, posing imminent and serious risks to the people who need services; and the stresses on service providers, from the very top to the bottom, are creating an endemic culture of bullying, driving morale levels through the floor.”


The reality, of course, is that the recession intervened in the middle of the planned transformation of social care, with dire consequences all around. Local Councils hit by major cuts to their budgets have been forced to make savings. For example in October last year, the Guardian reported that budgets for over 65s had fallen by more than £1.3 billion (around 20%) in just over a year. So how have these cuts manifested? Some have been passed on to service users by tweaking the Resource Allocation Systems that calculate Individual Budgets. But the State of Social Work survey now confirms that employers are also cutting social worker posts or leaving them vacant. This chimes well with the Centre for Workforce Intelligence's conclusion that "Demand for adult social workers will decline, while increasing the numbers of people that are required for social care worker roles such as care workers and personal assistants."


So, why do Councils think they can get away with fewer qualified social workers, and are they right to? Putting People First assumed that encouraging people to assess their own needs would reduce the need for professional assessments. Lower-paid support brokers would then help people to organise their care, where they needed help at all. In my experience, though, the assessments required for self-Directed Support are often longer and more complicated. This is for three main reasons:

  1. Personalised assessments such as the widely used FACE assessment are 'holistic' in that they look at every area of a person's wellbeing and functioning rather than focusing on a single 'impairment' or 'disability'. Although this is arguably an improvement, it certainly takes more time.
  2. Because systems like FACE use the assessment as the basis for calculating the Individual Budget, Local Authorities have been reluctant to allow people to self-assess; in practice the assessment will always be 'signed off' (i.e.checked and approved) even where people have done the work themselves.
  3. Most people will need support to self-assess, which when done in an empowering way takes a great deal of time. Again, this is an improvement on the old practitioner-led assessments, but again it takes longer.

So the reality has been that the dwindling numbers of professionally qualified social workers spend larger proportions of their time on assessments, and less time actually helping people - the exact oppostie of the aspiration of Putting People First; pretty demoralising for all concerned.


In the arguments around personalisation, both the social work profession and the government have sought to expropriate the views of 'disabled' people and others who are entitled to  social care. In 2007 - at the same time as Putting People First and Transforming Social Care were being drafted -  Peter Beresford authored The changing roles and tasks of social work from service users' perspectives: a literature informed discussion paper" on behalf of the disability activists network Shaping Our Lives. Perhaps for the first time, this gave a clear and independent picture of what service users actually thought of social workers. Writing specifically in response to the white paper Our Health, Our Care, Health Our Say, Beresford noted:


"It points to a model of social worker as organizer, manager and referral point (like care management before it). However, these are not the aspects of social work practice which service users have highlighted that they value. They place an emphasis on the benefits of the relationship and the range of support activities offered by good practitioners. The role of the social worker as assessor and referrer are in fact the aspects of social work practice which adult service users seem to find most problematic. For many of them, these are also the only professional social work roles they actually experience." My bold.


Instead, users of adult social care services valued the social approach, a long-term relationship and the personal qualities of 'good' social workers. In relation to the first of these, Beresford stated:


"While some service users make clear that social work is not always strongly consistent with the social approach that defines it as social work, nonetheless the recognize it as having an underpinning philosophy which aims to see the person in their broader context and respond accordingly. They see this as helpful. This distinguishes it from other health related professions which tend to be based more on medicalised individual models which focus narrowly on the individual, rather than their circumstances and the issues and barriers they face (Beresford and others, 2005; Branfield and others 2005)."


It seems that there are qualities that professionally qualified social workers embody that service users  find valuable. However in the current context, many social workers are being denied the opportunity to exhibit them.

To answer my original question, I don't think we 'need' social workers. Of course there are many other groups of people who can do a good job of supporting people with health and social care needs. But it does seem like the profession still has something valuable to offer, and that that something is being strangled by cuts and the bureacracy exploding around personalised services. I've joined the College of Social Work because I think it's important for social work to stand up for itself with an authoritative independent voice at a national level. Maybe it'll turn out to be another red herring, but in the meanwhile I'm prepared to give it a try.


Picture of Jon
  Jon Hyslop, 19/05/2012


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