Social work = values + evidence + action
Of course, the complexity of social work cannot be reduced to a simple formula. Social work is much more than values, evidence and action, but these three words encapsulate the essence of social work and its role in contemporary society. It also conveys a clear message for us to communicate on World Social Work Day. I will use the work of the person who has inspired me the most in social work, Bob Holman, to illustrate what I mean.
Bob Holman has argued for at least the last forty years that family poverty needs to be addressed to reduce the need for children to be placed in foster care. He has demonstrated his commitment to this by living in poor communities and setting up projects which local people run. He first left an academic position in social administration at the University of Bath in 1974 to set up a project in a deprived area of Bath. Later he moved to Easterhouse, where he has been described as the ‘good man of Glasgow‘.
His book Faith in the Poor, imbued with his Christian Socialism, presents extraordinary accounts of the daily lives of seven residents of Easterhouse. Reading their stories whilst I was training to be a social worker in the late 1990s made me aware that I too was passionate about social justice. A desire to eradicate family poverty underpinned Bob’s work and, I believe, should be core to the mission of social work.
Bob’s work was driven by evidence of the impact of poverty on people’s lives. Research continues to find that the alleviation of poverty should be an important goal for policy and practice. Two random examples come to mind.
Firstly, in the largest trial of assertive outreach in UK mental health services, the UK700 study, there were no differences in quality of life outcomes between the intervention and control groups1. However, a significant change in overall quality of life was found in one site where workers had conducted welfare benefit checks to ensure that all users of the service received the correct income. A net increase in income possibly improved quality of life more than an expensive service redesign.
Secondly, a cohort study of mothers admitted to a mother and baby unit found that 72% of mothers with schizophrenia who received an intervention from social services at discharge were either semi-skilled, unskilled or had never been employed2. Over half of the social services interventions were attributable solely to the low social class of these mothers, even after taking into account other factors such as the support they received and the quality of the relationship they had with their partner. Although these two disparate studies don’t relate to Bob Holman’s work, they suggest that while politicians are keen to attribute failings to individual behaviour rather than structural deficits in the UK economy and society, social workers have a role to play in alleviating poverty and pressing for social change.
Finally, Bob Holman exemplifies the ‘action’ aspect of my equation by living and working in marginalised communities and helping give people affected by poverty a voice. Social enterprises are perhaps the contemporary equivalent of the neighbourhood projects which he established. They are able to provide innovative solutions to local social problems which statutory or established voluntary organisations are unable to address. Although it is not possible for all social workers to form their own social enterprise, we can try to influence the policy and practice of the agencies we work for to ensure that social justice is on the agenda.
I had the fortune of meeting Bob whilst I was at university training to become a social worker. Our head of social work asked us to nominate someone to lead a lunchtime seminar. She agreed to my suggestion to invite Bob to make the trip down from Glasgow to London. I found his genuine humility and insightful analysis of social work policy and practice truly inspiring. I took away from that seminar a clear vision for social work of the need to challenge poverty and social injustice in all its forms.
I believe that Bob’s work carries an inspirational message for World Social Work Day: intervene where it is needed most, in a way which is consistent with social work values and on the basis of what works.
1 Huxley, P., et al. (2001) Quality of life outcome in a randomized controlled trial of case management. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 36: 249-255.
2 Abel, K.M., et al. (2005) Prevalence and predictors of parenting outcomes in a cohort of mothers with schizophrenia admitted for joint mother and baby psychiatric care in England. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 66: 781-789.