Skip to main content

Keep focus on social justice: interview with BASW's new chair Gerry Nosowska

BASW Chair Gerry Nosowska
Gerry Nosowska at BASW's 2018 conference and AGM

It was while in Russia working for a homeless charity during her third year at university that the idea of a career in social work came to Gerry.

“It struck me that there wasn’t a welfare state. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, those who were homeless and didn’t have papers weren’t citizens. They didn’t get any medical support, they could be sent back to whatever was deemed to be their hometown.”

That experience of seeing how “people get written off when there is no support in context” ended up in her applying to study social work at Sheffield University.

“As soon as I got on the course and met the other students and started hearing about the ethics of social work I was sure it was the right thing for me.”

After nearly two decades in adult social work, both in practice and as a team and service manager, Gerry was appointed chair of BASW in June.

She is clear that a key part of her role is to ensure BASW promotes and campaigns for social justice. This, she believes, is as important as supporting individual workers – though in reality she doesn’t see the two as separate.

“We have to influence to improve the context we are working in so we can offer better help to people.

“It is crucial our campaigning makes a strong connection between the changes we want to see and the experience and outcomes for children, adults and families. It is important everyone understands the reason we campaign to support social workers is because social workers want to be helpful to others. They need the right support and conditions to do that.”

The current backdrop of austerity-driven cuts to services and reduced resources is one she finds deeply troubling.

“This is a wealthy country and the money is not going in the right place to support people. We have a rhetoric that is all about individuals. If you are doing well, it is down to you, if you are not doing well it is down to you. That is just not borne out by the evidence. People with greater opportunities and a better start in life do better. People who are struggling find it difficult to make really good decisions and improve their situations. They tend to have less social capital and contacts who can help them out.”

This individualistic attitude impacts on social workers too, says Gerry: “If you are struggling to do a good job in terms of a narrow definition of meeting targets or getting through caseloads, then that’s down to you: if you were more excellent you would be able to do it.

“But I know from talking to practitioners and managers that some things they’re asked to do are not physically possible. For example, you can’t review every single case in someone’s supervision in any meaningful reflective way.”

Gerry wants a relationship of “respect” with politicians across the UK. She sees BASW’s role as helping government see “the bigger picture” and not “experiment” with unevaluated, ideologically-driven policies.

“We need to remind government that when they are experimenting they are experimenting with people’s lives and that is a big responsibility and they need to be doing that really carefully with evidence, with involvement, with evaluation of what is happening.”

This, she suggests, is at times lacking in the Westminter government reforms of social work, which she also finds troubling.

“There is evidence in England of the government trying to control social work. I think the reason behind that is because government wants to avoid any harm, particularly to children, and any scandals that arise from that.

“There is an ideological belief if you check up on people enough and control what they are doing there won’t be any bad outcomes. But that is not the case as we are working with uncertainty.”

Such responses ultimately create bigger risks, says Gerry, because they result in “more layers of complexity” and process at the expense of direct, helpful work with people.

“The better response is to recognise that it is uncertain, to support social workers to know those they are working with and then support them to have really good capabilities to draw on and really good reflective peer support and oversight. I would love that to be the government approach. Certainly it is what BASW should be pushing for.”

Gerry believes BASW has a vital role to play in educating the public and the political establishment about what good social work looks like. As a UK-wide organisation, being able to draw on experience in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland is a strength, as is BASW’s membership of the International Federation of Social Workers.

“It is really crucial because that’s a strong reminder that we are not at the whim of the current profession in a particular country or the political ideology in a given moment. We are global and have been around a long time and have a much stronger identity.”

Currently, there is a sense that identity is being tested, particularly in England where the backing of new fast-track routes into social work at the expense of its traditional academic base has raised concern.

Gerry is quick to stress that anyone making a commitment to become a social worker “deserves the support of their profession”. But she questions the unequal use of finite resources to fund courses like Frontline, which is likely to receive a further £50 million contract to train up to 900 more social workers.

She also questions how the specialist focus of fast-track courses like Frontline (children and families) and Think Ahead (mental health) supports the idea of a generic profession. There are further questions about the diversity of applicants and erosion of links to university research.

“What we absolutely can’t do is make this an ideological debate, it has to be an evidence informed debate. And we need to have a care to the people caught up in it, which is the students.”

A priority of her two-year term is to grow BASW so it can have greater influence on policy. She wants to understand why only a fifth of social workers in the UK join the association and suggests possible reasons could be lack of visibility and understanding of what BASW does. She believes an important part of the association’s work is to help keep people in social work and support them from qualifying to retiring.

“It’s that whole journey of someone’s career – making sure we encourage people into the profession, we support them when they are new and make sure they have good professional development and can stay in the profession because it’s sustainable work. And then when they retire ensuring they can stay involved.”

Campaigns such as BASW and SWU’s spotlight on professional working conditions and BASW England’s 80-20 call for more time to be spent with service users are vital to this end, says Gerry.

“For the love of the job people put up with a lot but they shouldn’t have to. It is not right for the people they work with. We need to be offering the best working conditions we can to social workers so they can be helpful.”

Despite its many challenges, Gerry is optimistic for the future of social work. She sees greater integration between health and social care as an opportunity for the profession.

“I think social work ought to be influencing health and other agencies to be more like social work – not to try and do the same thing, but to use our theory and evidence to think differently about people’s lives and think about them holistically and in context. That is a real strength.”

Ultimately, says Gerry, social work as a profession must be in charge of its own destiny if it is to realise its full potential. “Where I would like to see social work is us setting out what our standards should be, drawing on our expertise and relationships with people and the research, rather than being told what good looks like.”

This article appeared in the July/August issue of Professional Social Work. Subscribers and BASW members can access the full magazine including our investigation revealing a slump in demand for MA social work courses at English universities, dispatches from social workers based in very different parts in the UK, a practitioner’s top tips for surviving in social work, and a US social worker’s take on life in Trump’s America.