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Social work training must encourage students to challenge the political “status quo”

Social workers should resist “becoming de-politicised and part of the status quo” and must not be afraid of reclaiming community work even though it has a reputation as “too radical”, a leading social work academic told BASW’s England conference.

Describing herself as an “activist scholar”, Professor Lena Dominelli, Professor of Applied Social Sciences and Academician in the Academy of the Learned Societies for Social Sciences at Durham University, told the event how she seeks to empower her students to challenge and to press for social justice in their work.

“Community social work is a good model; let’s use it to do what we say we want to do, ensuring social justice and environmental justice is at the heart of the profession.”

She criticised the UK social care model as being driven by economic imperative, and not need, recounting, to applause from social workers at the event, how a group of people in Southampton had rejected the term ‘service users’, claiming that “when we ask for a service we don’t always get it”.

Professor Dominelli reminded social workers that they have to consider the physical context in which someone lives, as well as the social, because the biggest problem that service users face is lack of income.

Speaking at an event timed to coincide with the week in which World Social Work Day took place, Professor Dominelli said the UK’s “we’re all in this together” approach to its budget deficit contrasts sharply with Denmark. Following a recent visit to the Scandinavian country she said its people have not been subject to a budget “attacking the living standards of the poorest in society, like we do here”.

Her stance on encouraging social workers to press for social justice in their work prompted one student social worker at the BASW England conference to suggest that this was very difficult for a lot of students. Tired tutors and unsupportive placements, the student argued, made many of her counterparts to question why they were pursuing a career in social work and whether they had any chance at all of “making a difference”.

BASW chief executive Hilton Dawson responded to the concern by emphasising that the association was lobbying to ensure a College of Social work is set up that has the power to raise standards in higher education. He said an effective college must also be able to challenge course providers about the messages they are giving to students and the level of support that they are given on placements.