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Scary pics but nice words…

In March I was interviewed by Natalie Valios for The College of Social Work’s online magazine, Social Work Matters. She wrote a nice piece about my work and captured the essence of my argument. Essentially, I argued that it is up to us – social workers – to define our identity rather than leave it to policymakers or other professional groups to do it for us. Anyway, you can read it for yourself in the PDF version (or below) and let me know what you think. However, before you take a look at that, I would like to quickly reflect on a different aspect of the feature. The pictures.

I had a professional photographer take some pictures of me after the interview. He needed several shots, so it took a couple of hours. At the end he said, “You were looking rather serious. Does that reflect the tone of your interview?” I replied that it probably did, but I didn’t want to appear miserable. Fortunately, he didn’t catch that side of me as it was early evening and not first thing in the morning!

However, with his super hi-res images he has caught just about every feature on my face, which is rather scary. When my partner saw the pictures she said “Wow, even I don’t get that close to you!”. Anyway, I’m not complaining as they are not unflattering – just a bit scary. If you want a real eyeful, then take a look at the online version on the Membership Dashboard (if you are a signed and paid up member of The College). The online magazine is fantastically interactive with lots of lovely features. On pages 10-11 you’ll find multiple pictures that play out on a loop like one of those digital picture frames. It really is something else. For £5 a month, in my opinion The College membership fee is definitely worthwhile – even if all you want to do is to play with the online magazine!

Natalie wrote:

It seems that every few years a social care organisation is tasked with re-defining social work. In 2008, the General Social Care Council, Skills for Care, the Children’s Workforce Development Council and the Social Care Institute for Excellence produced their social work ‘roles and tasks’ statement, only to be superseded a year later by a new definition from the Social Work Task Force.

And, yet, ask a member of the public what a social worker does and you are likely to be met by either a blank face or the words ‘they remove children’. This lack of understanding has dogged social workers in a way unknown to doctors, teachers and the police.

But the need for a definition may not be the most important factor, says Martin Webber, lecturer in social work at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London. In his view, it would be more valuable for social workers to be able to clearly communicate what they do and their realm of expertise.

A good example of this, he says, is the recent BBC2 programme, Protecting Our Children, which follows Bristol City Council’s child protection team. ‘It helps that part of the profession says “this is what we do”. It is a positive portrayal,’ he says.

Martin himself laughed at the idea of becoming a social worker when a friend suggested it at university. ‘I didn’t see myself in that role, partly because I didn’t know what a social worker was and, like anybody who doesn’t know, you are imbued with prejudice because of what you think it is,’ he recalls.

After investigation, he changed his mind: ‘I was interested in where we have come from as a society, and the clues that history give us as to the future and how we can progress as a society. Within that, I was interested in people’s lives and how they are affected by politics and power. For me, inequality has always been the most pressing concern. Social work seemed to be a profession that had something to say about it.’

Throughout his training Martin realised there was an identity crisis in social work, and to this day says it is still an enduring question and for me it is unresolved.

One reason for this became clear when he took up his first social work role in a mental health team at the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames. Here, he saw that the power in multi-disciplinary teams resided predominantly with psychiatry and psychology because of their scientific evidence base. ‘They can articulate with confidence what they do and the outcomes; that is the crucial difference to social work,’ he says.

‘Social workers were respected for their knowledge of the law, but the frustration for me was that social workers were not recognised for their ability to address and to intervene in the social context of people’s lives. That is predominantly the work of the community mental health team.

‘Although there is the medical and psychological component, underpinning all this is a strong sense that we are working with a cross-section of society that is incredibly disadvantaged. Social justice is about recognising that, confronting it and doing something about it. I saw social work practitioners doing good work, but it wasn’t evidenced or communicated in the same way as psychiatry or psychology.’

The uniqueness that social workers brought to the team was missed, he says. ‘Social workers typically have a good knowledge of what is going on in their community, and they can plug people into the right resources that they need at different points in their engagement with services. It is what social workers do with that knowledge that is the unique aspect.

‘I found that health staff might have that knowledge but social workers make more of an investment in getting people engaged with their own lives. It’s saying you’re not just a person with a diagnosis, you have a life and interests and strengths.’

This understanding of the importance of social capital – building stronger social networks to improve service users’ lives – is key to the social work role. Martin’s concern today is that social workers are being appointed on their ability to carry out interventions rather than solving such social problems.

Numerous mental health practitioners have told him that interviews focus on the evidence-based interventions they can deliver, such as cognitive behavioural therapy. ‘My question is: “what is social work’s role in developing that evidence base and whose evidence base is it?”’

The longstanding problem for social work is that it has drawn on theories and evidence across a range of disciplines for many years. Although Martin sees this as one of its strengths, ‘it leaves us a bit impoverished in the sense of what can be claimed to be owned by the profession’.

The NHS and Community Care Act 1990 brought further complications by introducing the purchaser-provider split, commissioning and the care manager role to adults’ services. As a hybrid social work role, the latter can be done by any member of the multi-disciplinary team and has added to confusion, he says.

This has all had a profound impact on Martin’s career, as he felt forced to leave life as a practitioner if he were to bring about change. “I loved being a practitioner but I decided that an academic career would help make a difference to the profession, which will consequently make a difference to people,” he says.

As yet there are no academic-practice roles in social work as there are in health, where psychologists and psychiatrists can become clinical academics working part-time as both practitioner and academic under one contract.

‘I would welcome the opportunity to blend the two roles in social work,’ he says. ‘Research is grounded in practice and it would help to square the circle. It would give academics more credibility with practitioners because they could see that what we do is relevant to practice.’

Martin is passionate about articulating what social work does and evidencing it, and how this will help solve the profession’s identity crisis: ‘Social workers are scared of scientific methodology being applied to social work practice; it seems distant from the lived reality of people.

‘I understand that, but you need to look at the value it can bring in terms of reliable evidence about what will happen if you do A rather than B. Embedded within scientific methodology should be a process of understanding how it works, not just whether it works and the outcomes.’

In his mind, social capital provides a useful theoretical framework for understanding social work practice. To this end, Martin is leading a pilot, The Connecting People Study funded by the National Institute for Health Research, which will explore social capital interventions for young people recovering from psychosis. Social workers and service users will co-produce individual action plans. ‘It is not a case of care planning, it is goal setting; it is reframing practice,’ he says.

His hope is that the agencies piloting the intervention find that the method resonates with them and makes sense: ‘The pilot has some of the elements of the old core values of social work, what I was doing when I was a social worker. That changed under care management but is coming back with personalisation. At its core is building social capital and this is about articulating how it might happen in reality.’

So what chance does Martin think the profession has of solving its identity crisis? ‘With an independent college [The College of Social Work] to speak for us, the best chance it has ever had. But I don’t think we should rely on The College; we as a profession should take ownership of ourselves. We need to be guided by the strength of our own collective wisdom.’

Valios, N. (2012) Social work’s identity crisis, Social Work Matters, March, pp. 8-11


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