Monday 29 June 2020

The Value of Social Work

Lets be clear about this. Many of us, particularly those with a bit of time under our belt, know that being a probation officer is completely incompatible with being a civil servant. We also know that a social work ethos is desirable and almost certainly necessary in order to be effective. Social workers face many of the same issues and a recent essay competition has served to highlight this, such as the following, one of the winning entries from a student at Dundee University:-  

Working better together: How do we build stronger relationships between social workers and people using services?

Social work, though notoriously difficult to define, is a profession centred upon building relationships, fulfilling the innate human desire to help one another (Soydan, 2012). However, given its legally binding powers and duties, social workers are often caught between tensions, trying to uphold service users’ rights, whilst executing the state’s responsibility towards them, all under the scrutiny of the public eye (Horner, 2006). 

Relationship-based practice is an approach utilised by social work practitioners that views relationships as the principal feature of social work and holds service users at its heart, although arguably there is little alternative, given that almost all social work is carried out via relationships. Relationship-based practice is traditionally rooted in psychodynamic theory, which seeks to understand how our previous experiences impact our relationships and thus how we manage our emotions, and is increasingly underpinned by the concepts of emotional intelligence, empathy and the practitioners ‘use of self’ (Ingram and Smith, 2018). 

One would be hard-pushed to find social work literature that did not place relationships at the forefront of good practice, although the contemporary managerial context of practice, coupled with measures of austerity and gross inequality, increasingly inhibits practitioners’ capacity to centre their practice upon relationship building (McColgan and McMullin, 2017). The worker-service user relationship is not straightforward like those naturally occurring with a family member or friend; embedded in this relationship are legislative and organisational constraints and an intangible yet undeniable power imbalance (Hennessey, 2011). 

To build honest and constructive relationships with others, social workers must know themselves; this is known as ‘use of self’. It is this self-awareness which allows social workers to relate to and engage the people with whom they are working, in a way that is true to their personal and professional values, providing fertile ground for the development of beneficial change (Hennessey, 2011), in line with the British Association of Social Workers (BASW, 2012) Code of Ethics which states that social work is “focused on problem solving and change” and holds social justice and human rights among its core values. 

Intrinsically linked to the idea of ‘use of self’ is the idea of understanding one’s own emotions, or emotional intelligence. Emotions guide our reactions, behaviour and decisions and shape who we are. Developing emotional intelligence by understanding oneself allows practitioners to think critically and manage situations that have the potential to trigger highly emotive responses which are common in social work (Ingram, 2015). Greater understanding of one’s own emotions has been shown to allow better understanding of service user’s emotions (Grant, Kinman and Alexander, 2014). 

Empathy is another skill that allows for sound relationship building; it entails an appreciation of how another person is feeling, thus allowing for a greater understanding of their thoughts and behaviour (Howe, 2013). Interviewing is one of the most common activities undertaken by social workers (Kadushin and Kadushin, cited in Trevithick, 2012). However, for service users, an interview with a social worker may be daunting and evoke feelings of anxiety given the authority and power the practitioner’s position holds. Recognising this fact allows workers to practice in a way which does not feel oppressive (Thompson, 2016). 

An unquestionable majority of people who use services hail from less affluent areas (Cree and Smith, 2018). Beckford (2016), notes that those who live in ‘underserved’ areas, challenged by issues such as poverty, are at greater risk of developing mental health problems, and of becoming involved with the Criminal Justice System. Garbarino and Ganzel (cited in Russell, Harris and Gockel, 2008) consider poverty to be the ‘principal villain’ affecting parenting; the effects of poverty can often be seen to minimise parents’ capacity to protect and look after their children, and is a common thread linking families considered more likely to suffer abuse and neglect. Wilkinson and Pickett (2010) cite inequality as the common denominator of a multitude of social problems, including mental health, substance misuse and violence, and their statistically-informed argument is hard to counter. 

The current neoliberal hegemony pervading our media and political climate would encourage us to believe that individuals should be held accountable for their problems which stem from their moral inferiority. Working in this way however, would potentially give rise to a largely punitive and risk-averse rather than welfare-focused way of working, devoid of the values so important to the social work profession, such as social justice and respect for individuals and could put workers at risk of ethical stress, which can occur when one’s practice is incongruent with one’s values (Fenton, 2016).

Utilising a radical social work approach can promote better relationships; recognising the impact that societal and structural disadvantage has upon individuals, families and communities, rather than holding people responsible for their own circumstances and marginalisation, helps people who use services feel understood (Lavalette, 2011). Ecological systems theory is also useful for understanding the way in which a person is affected by the environment in which they live (Stepney and Ford, 2000). Despite previously unseen levels of material comfort, Great Britain is currently one of the most unequal societies in the world (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2010). Social workers must recognise that life is significantly harder for some through no fault of their own. By providing a voice and a platform for people who use services, social workers can utilise the privilege their position infers to challenge the barriers they face (Krumer-Nevo, 2016), in turn bolstering relationships by showing concern which people who use services notoriously desire (Lishman, 2009). 

To build strong relationships with people who use services, social workers must firstly understand themselves; this enables them to better understand each person they work with, in turn allowing them to tailor their assessment and intervention according to each individual. Social workers must ensure their practice is neither oppressive nor discriminatory, by recognising structural disadvantage and inequality and their effects, and employing a non-judgemental attitude. Drawing upon sound personal and professional values as well as knowledge and theory ensures that positive relationships can be used to inspire positive change where and when it is needed most.

Verity Clarke - University of Dundee

(References not included here.) 


  1. "To build honest and constructive relationships with others, social workers must know themselves"

    To know themselves people must be HONEST with themselves about themselves.

    To be able to be honest with themselves about themselves, most people need a sounding board,a mirror, someone they can trust to help them reflect.

    Once upon a time there was something called supervision. It happened on a regular basis with a senior, experienced person. It allowed for reflection, for discussion, for analysis, for consideration of what had been & what might be a better way to be, for the development of a professional person.

    In the absence of *any* supervision whatsoever for at least a year, I finally persuaded our management team to trial bi-monthly (i.e. every 8 weeks) peer supervision groups. Overwhelming feedback after the first sessions said it helped staff feel less persecuted and more enabled; that it was powerful, empowering & liberating. Management closed it down after the first month.

    1. I should think so to. Po criminal justice degree.

    2. *sigh*
      *thinks to self - "How did we let things get into such a state?"
      *looks in the mirror*
      *feels an overwhelming sense of dismay*

      I once questioned the wisdom of shortening degree-level studies from a three year base, only to be told by a criminal justice student: "If you can't do it in 18 months you shouldn't be wasting everyone's time. Its not that difficult. Get over yourself."

      And so, in the face of reason & facts, the Boris/Cummings fanbase continues to build.

    3. Adding weight to your comment by underscoring it with your qualification only works if you know the difference between to and too.
      PO CQSW

    4. Yes quite, spell check missed but it is my second degree and not a difficult course. Certainly would not want to be engaged on all that self reflection nonsense the current role does not require it. Perhaps cqsw could benefit from some retraining.

    5. Cqsw dipsw dated but good practices at their core. Criminal justice degree holds no value in working with people. Just super admin light on analysis.

  2. I dont think a mirror does necessarily lead to people being honest with themselves. It's only likely to reinforce what they already believe. Peer support is so so important to our work, but peer supervision sounds like a terrible idea. Unaccountable. Inconsistent. And very unlikely to impact on the quality of practice - whether or good or bad. Sounds like common sense prevailed in your office.

    1. Isn't a good look in the mirror often what service users ate asked to do?

      "I dont think a mirror does necessarily lead to people being honest with themselves. It's only likely to reinforce what they already believe."

    2. Silly me, you're so so right. Sorry to have troubled you.

    3. Clarity Required I think - 2nd comment posted at 10:23 is a response to 10:07, not the other 10:23.

    4. Very quick to dismiss my disagreement with Anon 9.53's vision, but how much have you really thought it through? And do you have a viable argument against the criticisms I raised? Do you really think 'peer supervision' would serve any purpose beyond reinforcing a practitioner's existing views (and fuelling low-level anti-management grumbles). Would you trust everyone in your team to offer constructive and critical feedback? I wouldn't. Had the idea of peer supervision been embraced and encouraged in the above example, I suspect its advocates would now be calling it a further blurring of role boundaries which isn't reflected in current pay bands. You can't really have it both ways.

  3. There must be value in a social work ethos because all the other criminal justice agencies seem to be adopting it. Probation on the other hand seem hell bent on ironing it out. I'm puzzled by that and would like to ask a question.

    'With the social Work ethos removed, what exactly does probation do now to rehabilitate people?'


    1. It tells them in a very strong, indignant tones to:

      - just get a grip
      - stay on the straight & narrow
      - pull yer socks up
      - listen to me because I know what's best for you
      - don't miss any appointments or its back to pokey

      Now that's worth £40,000 a year of anyone's taxes.

    2. Perhaps that's just your delivery? I don't recognise much of that in the work of my immediate colleagues. We are bound by many targets, but we are not yet scripted. Although clearly not a priority for our pay-masters, there remains much scope for Social Work values in how we work with those under our charge, the setting of plans, the focus of one to one work, how we respond to unsatisfactory compliance. Of course we're a criminal justice agency, we have a responsibility to the wider public, and our roles have shifted over time. But we weren't all assimilated into a single automated mindset. Seriously, if you hate it that much, consider your options before it completely consumes you with resentment.

    3. Options considered & decision made when the split first happened & the inevitable disasters to follow were in their infancy. I now earn £100/day preparing & serving 'artisan coffees' to grateful, happy customers with more money than sense. The five-point approach above is the feedback I get from a combination of ex-cases & lawyers I regularly see/speak with when they order their coffees.

  4. Danny Shaw BBC Twitter:-

    Top civil servant at MoJ pulling no punches here. Sir Richard is speaking with the type of candour you normally get from people who are leaving or have left a job. He says the root of the MoJ's financial problems was the 2015 spending settlement. It was "insecure". Resource spending was "vastly under-cooked". Income expectations & legal aid savings "unrealistic". Treasury had to keep bailing MoJ out, he said. (The justice secretaries in 2015 were Chris Grayling, then Michael Gove). Heaton continues: the prisons facilities management contract was "under-resourced" (that was set by Chris Grayling). Targets for probation reform, TR, were "over-ambitious and unrealistic" (that was Mr Grayling also)...

    Heaton says the decision to secure capital funding for 10,000 prison places in 2015/16 - the "crown jewels" - was the "big prize" which meant that other things were sacrificed. He says officials and politicians were to blame - "group-think" he suggests. Everything between 2013 and 2015 was "driven by cost savings and price", says Sir Richard Heaton, as he explains the failure of prison facilities management contracting process. There was a mistaken assumption that you could make 20% savings, he says, from outsourcing...Fix the problem first, he says, before you outsource it. Across govt "lots of bad mistakes" were made with contracts and outsourcing. This is Sir Richard Heaton, by the way, senior civil servant, not an Opposition MP.

    1. Everything between 2013 and 2015 was "driven by cost savings and price", says Sir Richard Heaton...

      Sir Richard Heaton KCB has been Permanent Secretary for MOJ *since August 2015*

  5. Mon 29 June 2020

    Reported test numbers per UK gov figures = 815
    Reported deaths, last 24 hrs, gov figures = 25


  7. Bozo got all social-worky the other day: ""Absolute poverty and relative poverty have both declined under this government... There are 100,000 fewer children in absolute poverty... There are hundreds of thousands - I think 400,000 - fewer families living in poverty now than there were in 2010" - mildly interesting but not very illuminating

    "How is poverty measured?

    Relative poverty: This is calculated by taking the median or middle income in the country - that is the level at which half the people earn less and half more.

    It was £514 a week in 2018-19. You then take 60% of this amount - £308 a week - and anyone whose income is less than this is considered to be living in relative poverty.

    The number of people in relative poverty in the UK has actually increased from 13.6m in 2009-10 (just before the Conservatives came into power in coalition with the Liberal Democrats) to 14.5m in 2018-19."

    So if your net take-home pay (after income tax, NI & pension) is less than £308/week (approx £1330/month), you're officially living in 'relative poverty'.

    Presumably if you have a partner bringing home £5K a month it takes the edge off.

    "Absolute poverty: This uses the same 60% calculation as above, but it applies it to the median income of a fixed year - 2010-11." The article doesn't give a figure for reasons it explains.

    Then there's this:

    "A new way of measuring poverty

    One of the most comprehensive measures of poverty on offer at the moment is produced by the Social Metrics Commission (SMC). The SMC is an independent group of experts who have been working to improve the way we understand and measure poverty in the UK, which has been publishing estimates since 2018.

    They found that in 2017/18:

    An estimated 14.3 million people are in poverty in the UK
    8.3 million are working-age adults, 4.6 million are children, and 1.3 million are of pension age
    Around 22% of people are in poverty, and 34% of children are
    Just under half (49%) of those in poverty are in “persistent poverty” (people who would also have fallen below the poverty line in at least two of the last three years). This is as of 2016/17
    Working-age people in poverty are increasingly likely to be in working families
    Most poverty rates aren’t all that different to what they were at the start of the 2000s. The most marked reduction has been in pensioner poverty, it is almost half as common as it was back in 2000, while rates for working-age adults are now slightly higher
    Poverty rates fell in the years after 2010, as the UK recovered from the financial crisis, but are now showing clear signs of rising again

    And this: