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Towards a definition of social work

What do social workers actually do?

I’m sure you have been asked that question many times, or you may have asked it of social workers if you are not one yourself. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer as there is no consensus as to what social work actually is. Well, there is and there isn’t.

Let’s start with the international definition of social work which provides a universal frame of reference for understanding what social workers do:

The social work profession promotes social change, problem solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance well-being. Utilising theories of human behaviour and social systems, social work intervenes at the points where people interact with their environments. Principles of human rights and social justice are fundamental to social work.

Although this definition provides a framework for understanding social work, you need to understand the context in which it is practised in order to understand what it actually is.

A social worker in the UK may do quite different things than a social worker in other European countries or across the world. For example, UK mental health law provides mental health social workers with enhanced legal rights and responsibilities as Approved Mental Health Professionals (England and Wales), Mental Health Officers (Scotland) or Approved Social Workers (Northern Ireland). These roles for social workers are not found in any other jurisdiction (but please do let me know if they are – I don’t know the mental health law of every country!).

Differences in social work between countries becomes apparent as you travel around the globe. When I was in India a couple of years ago, for example, I was surprised to see social work students being trained for what we might consider in the UK to be human resources management. Also, community development is an important element of social work in India, though rarely features on UK qualifying programmes.

Social work education in the UK focuses on preparing students to work as a local authority social worker. However, these roles are quite unique and largely pertain to our legal framework for protecting vulnerable people. Local authority social workers working with children and families have considerable powers under legislation to protect vulnerable children. As already mentioned, mental health social workers operate in a unique legal framework with specific roles for social work, and local authority social work with people with a disability or older adults is largely confined to care management which is not commonly found outside the UK. Specific policies such as safeguarding (children or adults) and personalisation are found in various guises outside the UK but practices and procedures vary according to the jurisdiction you’re in.

The UK also has a distinction between social work (a qualified, registered profession with a protected title) and social care (a largely unqualified and unregistered workforce – though there is talk that this may change). Social care includes providing personal care, supporting individuals with tasks of daily living and supporting people to engage with their communities. Some aspects of social care were once considered as core to social work, and still are in other countries. Quite frequently prospective social work students view social care as being social work, but in the UK it is not. However, on qualifying, some social workers prefer to undertake these roles rather than the narrow functions reserved for local authority social workers.

A third way between local authority social work and social care is emerging in the third sector. Social enterprises provide social workers with the opportunity to draw upon their skills, knowledge and experience to work directly with vulnerable people in ways not often possible within local authority social work. Social work practices, for example, allow social workers to undertake roles associated with local authority social work but with the flexibility to innovate and develop their practice without the constraints of a statutory setting.

But it has not always been like this. As Viviene Cree argued recently in her piece on this topic in The Guardian, social work has evolved and looked quite different 50 years ago. Whilst the role of a teacher, doctor or nurse has remained largely similar during this period, the role of a social worker has changed quite considerably.

Changing policy and law is responsible for this. This has taken social work away from its roots in intervening in the lives of individuals and families to promote social change. Whilst on local authority placements, some social work students are surprised at the limited time they have to spend in direct contact with people due to the paperwork (now mostly electronic) which they need to complete. Although reviews like the Munro Report recommend changing this, it appears that little progress towards this goal has been made so far.

Therapeutic social work is now viewed as a privileged aspect of practice, whilst in many countries such as the US it is regarded as core. Using evidence-based approaches such as cognitive behavioural therapy or specific parenting programmes, for example, social workers can make a meaningful – and measurable change – in people’s lives. Opportunities for direct intervention work are being squeezed out in favour of risk management on the hoof.

Social work is largely defined outside the profession. Whilst the British Association of Social Workers and The College of Social Work represent our interests, they are unable to define what a local authority social worker does, as that is largely determined by statute or local policy. Will there ever be a time when social workers can define their role or will we always be perceived as agents of the State?

Should we have the opportunity to define social work for ourselves, I think it could be something like this:

Social workers intervene to protect vulnerable people from abuse, neglect or self-harm; to help ensure they have equality of access to life opportunities; and to enhance their quality of life and well-being. Drawing upon a diverse knowledge base derived from across the social and psychological sciences, social work practice is informed by evidence to effectively promote social change in individuals, families and communities.

On reflection this is remarkably similar to the international definition. So perhaps that is OK after all. What do you think?

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