World Social Work Day 2014: Why Martin Narey is wrong to dismiss social justice

Social Worker Ruth Stark, former SASW manager, BASW member and member of the IFSW Human Rights Commission, gives her response to Martin Narey's review of social work education.

*This is a longer version of a piece originally published by Community Care.

“Care at home in my family was as bad as being in care, but being in public care came with stigma”; here I am quoting a person who lived part of her life being ‘looked after’ by the local authority and has spent her adult life searching for social justice.

Today is World Social Work Day, when from the United Nations (UN) downwards we celebrate the achievements of social workers around the world who are committed to social justice.

Promoting social justice means working to help people find change in their lives so that they can experience that sense of well-being that comes from feeling included and part of something positive.

This resulting self-esteem in turn generates their confidence in contributing to growth and is essential in building the social capital that drives economies. When people feel well, they work well.

In his recent report on social work education, Sir Martin Narey is largely dismissive of the International Definition of Social Work (2002) and its inclusion of social justice as an aspiration, saying “in terms of describing the work of a Children’s Social Worker in England it is, I would argue, thoroughly inadequate”.

The majority of both aspiring and established social workers view a desire for social justice as their motivation to get out of bed every morning. It’s what inspires them to do very hard work helping people feel part of their communities; not in the shadows, not stigmatised.

When you start a legal action as a social worker, whether in children’s or adults services, you are starting on a course that may be leading to someone or several people losing some of their human rights, as specified in the human rights declarations and conventions that our politicians have signed up to on our behalf.

This may be loss of liberty by being detained in secure accommodation, a prison, a mental health facility or losing your birth family, your friends, your locality. These actions will have an effect on the person who is taken through our legal systems. It will inevitably ask themselves who am I, where did I come from, why are people taking this action that affects me?

Following such interventions, their sense of self and ultimately self-confidence living and working with people is affected for the rest of their lives. Who judges this as an effective intervention and what do we know about the stigma people feel or if we have achieved our aim of helping people achieve social justice.

As the key professionals working with troubled and vulnerable people who feel on the outside, who is currently deciding what works and what makes a good social worker?

In the other three jurisdictions of the UK, policy advisers and legislatures have recognised the impact of inequalities on social inclusion and people’s well-being.

Scotland is a country which does use the International definition of Social Work (2002) which Narey dismisses, and where I have spent most of my career. 

Scottish Government guidance for all social workers has clear statements on the role of the Chief Social Work Officer and the role of the Social Worker in statutory duties it defines the tasks “To make changes in their lives, people assess how to meet need, recognise and manage risk to themselves and others and do this in the context of balancing often competing rights and responsibilities.” (Practice Governance Framework, Scottish Government, 2011).

Social Workers not only work with individuals, their families, their neighbours and communities – but also wider social policy agendas. We still have a role in telling others who do not get heard by policy makers in explaining and communicating the impact of unjust social policies on people and the quality of their lives. Advocacy is still part of our role.

At the opening of the 2014 session of the Commission for Social Development at the UN in New York on 12 February, Under Secretary General for Economic and Social Affairs, Wu Hongbo described a worsening worldwide inequality.

Mr. Hongbo said that seven out of 10 people live in countries where income inequality has increased, citing the 2013 Report on the World Social Situation. The UK is one of those countries where the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.

The International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) is working with others through the Global Agenda for Social Work and Social Development to promote an equalities agenda that will work towards reducing stigma and those in our societies who live in the shadows.

This is not a million miles away from the role that many in the UK see social workers contributing to – partly it is about protection from harm of vulnerable adults and children but it is also about promoting participation from everyone in our communities to having good places to live.

As a young social worker in the 1970s, we were expected to do individual work with people but also community work, building up local assets for people to support each other. People like Bob Holman, co-founder of the Easterhouse project in Glasgow, who still goes on the annual camp, are exemplars of how to build local capacity.

Prevention of harm is as important as firefighting in adult and children’s services. As the Fire Services have concentrated on Fire Prevention Services the number of fires has dramatically decreased in the UK over the past fifteen years – what could politicians achieve with some lateral thinking? 

One of the real issues behind the Narey report suggesting reforms in training for children’s social workers based on a simplistic analysis from a very small number of discussions with a few people. 

This myopic view of the profession suggests social work is about social control or social engineering as opposed to social growth and change. It seems to be about rescuing children from neglectful or abusive homes. This is but a small part of the repertoire of children and family interventions. Children grow into adults and the scars of injustice can be very deep.

Nicola Barry, author of Mother’s Ruin, has commented that she did not want to be removed from home, but for the abuse and all the neglect that went with it to stop. Over the past 40 years of practising social work with both adults and children, I have observed this as a constant theme.

I came into social work just at the time when the last child migrants were legally trafficked to new homes in Australia. Barnardo’s was amongst the organisations involved in this practice. The work of Margaret Humphreys, whose book inspired the Jim Loach film Oranges and Sunshine, tells us much about the long term outcomes.

More will be revealed in the work of the Historic Abuse Inquiry in Northern Ireland and any reports that may come from the National Confidential Forum in Scotland to help us understand the longer term effects of what may have seemed at the time the best option.

Narey’s report includes an opening analogy with training for doctors, which just takes us back to the medical model of care.

This model has in itself been criticised by the Chief Medical Officer in Scotland, Dr Harry Burns, who commented that the basic training for doctors now needs to be more generic to meet the needs of people as they get older with complex health needs, in medical circles referred to as co-morbidity, in social work - complex care.

The need to move from hierarchical to lateral thinking in all services has never been more urgent. Getting it Right for Every Child (GIRFEC) is a recent example. But the other key driver is the move to recognise that people whose conditions we are helping to assess and work with, to help them adapt to change in their lives, is that they are the experts in their own lives.

The people we work with are ultimately in the driving seat and they are the ones that choose the direction of travel. It is our task to help navigate a good journey, only when we meet that point of needing to prevent that action that will harm themselves or another do we take that legal action to interfere with their human rights.

This is a much more complex task than rescuing people and displacing them away from their emotional base to alien situations and experiences. It demands a standard of training that is sharp on the analysis of complex intergenerational matrix to know when we have to make that judgement.

We also have to maintain the importance of treating people with dignity and respect, as we will often be required to work with that person or people once the crisis has passed. Narey misses the significance of this relationship in achieving good outcomes for people.

This is at the heart of the skill of the social worker, making connections. This is what is being assessed in the practice placement. Without investment in practitioners supporting student social workers to develop these skills, there will continue to be the criticism of poor social work training. Practitioners complement the role of universities in developing the analytical skills of all social workers wherever they work and how to present that analysis to others who make decisions.

If we joined social work to help people make a difference in their lives, which still is the main motivation for becoming a social worker, and at times this means taking action to protect people, we must do this ethically keeping the dignity and respect of others always at the forefront of our work.

I and many of my colleagues did not join a profession to be an agent of social control engaged in social engineering. We must listen ultimately to the people whose lives we interact with and what works for them. Social justice therefore has to underpin our actions in achieving good quality social work intervention, if people are to be helped to remove the ultimate shackles of stigma.






Published : 18th March 2014

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