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50 years in BASW – a professional journey

Honorary member Chris Perry was present at the birth of BASW. As the association celebrates its 50th year, he reflects on how it and the profession has changed – and what being a member has meant to him

Professional Social Work magazine - December, 2020

My social work training taught me what I didn’t know. But it was membership of The Association of Social Workers, The Association of Family Caseworkers and The British Association of Social Workers that helped develop my therapeutic skills as a social worker.

Brought up in the days of Florence Hollis who described social work as a “psycho- social process”, I have always considered social work to be about the use of relationship, and various therapeutic techniques, to bring about change. It involves taking a social history, a form of catharsis, and identifying the underlying problems before providing help. For me, social workers support people in:

  • Decision-taking and problem solving
  • dealing with ambivalence, denial or depression
  • lowering or increasing anxiety to improve functioning
  • improving motivation
  • understanding and bringing about change in behaviour
  • budgeting and negotiation with creditors
  • improving inter-personal relationships
  • Involving friends and relatives in care
  • changing external factors in the environment

Mike Bishop, a former colleague who went on to be director of social services in Cleveland and then Manchester, described social workers as the poor person’s psychiatrist and lawyer. Arranging services was a small but integral part of their role.

A key date in social work’s history in the UK is 1962. That year saw eight social work organisations - The Association of Social Workers, The Association of Child Care Officers, The Association of Family Case Workers, The Association of Psychiatric Social Workers, The Institute of Medical Social Workers, The Moral Welfare Workers Association, the Society of Mental Welfare Officers, The National Association of Probation Officers - establish the Standing Conference of Organisations of Social Workers (SCOW).

The Institute of Social Welfare, of which I was also a member, declined membership. NAPO subsequently withdrew but the other seven went on to form the British Association of Social Workers in 1970.

There was an air of excitement and optimism in the late 1960s with the appointment of The Committee on Local Authority and Allied Personal Social Services chaired by Lord Frederic Seebohm. I was privileged to be the convenor of the Sheffield SCOSW Group, subsequently recognised as the first BASW branch. Our monthly meetings were attended by over 100 social workers from all departments.

Residential courses and conferences by the parent organisations were usually over-subscribed as were the early BASW ones as social workers revelled in unprecedent change and recognition.

Pre-Seebohm, although we regarded ourselves as social workers, we were defined as child care officers, welfare officers, mental welfare officers and the like. In 1969 Seebohm’s use of the designation “social worker” was seen as official recognition of the value of our professional identity.

The Seebohm Report informed the 1970 Social Services Act and the establishment of social services departments. This landmark step brought together:

  • children's departments
  • welfare departments
  • the home help service
  • mental health
  • social work services
  • social care functions provided by other organisations

Social workers were right at the heart of the new departments with a strong emphasis on care in the community and the financial benefits of preventative care and early intervention.

Initially, the word “generic” as used by Seebohm was confused with “generalist” and social workers compared with GPs. But what Seebohm had intended to emphasise was that there is “common content” in the “generic therapeutic technics of social work”.

Social workers needed their “generic” professional skills along with specialist knowledge of their area of work and to be employed in work that interested and motivated them. However, Seebohm did not provide the “one door to knock on” he promised because quite often more than one profession is required to deliver a service to people.

It was not until the late 1970s and the establishment of Community Mental Handicap Teams (an unacceptable title today) that these issues were addressed with creation of the first multi-disciplinary, inter-agency teams focused on people with learning difficulties.

Looking back over the past half century, I believe the early 70s were the glory years for social work with year-on-year growth of the new social services departments. Under the leadership of Kenneth Brill, BASW operated out of prestigious offices in Bedford Square, London.

As an area officer I helped set up one of the first social service departments where the director, Bob Bessell, was a former lecturer in social work, whose comfort zone was teaching social work practice.

In 1973, for my Masters’ degree, I constructed a computer-based simulation model of a social services department to determine appropriate staffing levels. BASW greatly assisted in this, allowing me to contact its members to ask them to keep a two week diary of the time they spent with clients (as they were called t hen), how long they would have liked to have spent, the method they were using and what change they were trying to bring about, when they were able to see their client next and when they would have liked to be able to see them next. 

When I was deputy director of social services in Bolton we undertook an interesting project where one of our social workers, Moira Gibb (who became an influential figure in social work), went on an exchange with a lecturer at Preston Polytechnic, Roger Adams. It was invigorating to see Roger and a group of social workers pouring over a video of a “systems approach to family therapy” late into the evening.   

The 1974 local government re-organisation, however, put an end to growth and was the start of year-on-year cuts to budgets. The additional money transferred to social services departments by the 1990 National Health Service and Community Care Act was a “cash limited allocation” of what had previously been an “open-ended entitlement”.

I see this as when social workers turned into “rationers of services” rather than “agents of change”. Those working in child protection had less time to understand why situations had arisen and bring about change while also safeguarding the child.

BASW moved to Kent Street in Birmingham in the mid-70s and the “open membership” debate began. Many unqualified people were employed as social workers without any formal training and only allowed Associate Membership. The secretariate described this as elitist.

Maurice Hawker, then director of social services in Essex and myself as deputy director in Bolton collected proxy votes and spoke against granting “unqualified social workers” full membership at the 1979 AGM.

We did not consider it elitist but protecting our clients who were amongst the most vulnerable and least powerful members of society. Someone could not call themselves a brain surgeon and operate without adequate training and qualification or drive a car without a driving test. The same principle applies to social work.

The all-embracing policy was inconsistent with BASW’s long standing campaign for social workers to be “accredited” or “registered” – something finally realised with the creation of the General Social Work Council in 2001.

I worked as deputy director of social services in Bolton where we only appointed qualified social workers to social work posts, as I did when director of social services in South Glamorgan.

In the mid 90s Phillip Measures, an active BASW Member, became so disenchanted with the membership criteria that he formed the Association of Professional Social Workers and I was invited to be its first president. But I was always a BASW member at heart I am delighted that the association has now reverted to its original membership requirement.

I found myself at odds with the BASW secretariate on two further occasions, firstly in support of Nathan Goldberg in respect of the editorial independence of BASW’s weekly magazine Social Work Today, which I considered to be a magazine owned by BASW and not about BASW, and subsequently in respect of the sale of Social Work Today - the advertising revenue of which had funded BASW - to McMillan in 1987.

During my time at BASW I served on its Children and Families Committee, Council, as vice-chair of the Professional Practice Divisional Committee and chair of three BASW branches. Serving on BASW working groups always enabled me to learn a great deal from the other members. I was awarded Honorary Membership in 2012.

Throughout my 20 years as a deputy or director of social services I implemented BASW policy whenever I could. BASW policies and practice guidelines were drawn up by those doing the job: the social workers themselves.

I long for the day that Professional Social Work becomes weekly again attracting recruitment advertising and when social work is recognised for the valuable resource it is and social workers given the time to practice their skills in an organisational, physical and emotional environment which supports them in that work.

Congratulation on your first 50 years BASW: and every success in the future.