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Why social work activism isn’t dead

To some the idea of social work activism is nearly as taboo as swearing in church. But Wayne Reid argues it is as relevant today as ever

Social work, activism
BASW England professional officer, Wayne Reid

My reasons for leaving frontline social work practice to join BASW 18 months ago were plentiful. But mainly it was to influence social work policy, improve working conditions for practitioners, raise the profile of the profession and to empower social workers to achieve better outcomes for people who use services.

In a range of social care roles including supporting children and young people, families, adults and offenders, I’ve worked with numerous veteran practitioners who consistently emphasised how previous generations of social workers were ‘activists’. They often bemoaned a lack of professional unity within the profession today.

They spoke of times from the 60s to the 80s when unions had much more influence and strike action would often be instigated swiftly if workers’ rights were felt to be infringed. A retired BASW member told me: “We were probably too quick to strike back then, but that’s just how it was.  Now the pendulum has swung the other way due to weaker unions, ‘managerialism’, specialisation of services, high profile scandals, austerity, excessive paperwork, greater individual accountability…”

Another said: “My first involvement with BASW was as a member of a special interest group on adult family placements. As a collaborative group we met with civil servants and many of our proposals on standards later became regulations.”

Another member added: “At the beginning of my career in the late 60s and early 70s it was accepted that being politically active on behalf of your client group and your community was a part of your role and purpose. It wasn’t written into our job descriptions but, changing and improving community provision and stopping policy changes and closures that we would consider harmful to our client groups, it was just part of what we did. We went on strike and we demonstrated…  I am sad that social workers today do not show more robustly their displeasure at the conditions under which they are working, the caseloads, the impositions of inspections, the closure of facilities, rationing of services and so on.”

Other veteran social workers I spoke to reminisced about social work having a greater sense of community and professional identity back in the day. One told me this was “because most senior managers were social work trained and they encouraged activism”. They went on to say: “The rise of managerialism over the last 25 years and the recruitment of managers from other professions has pushed social work activism down the pecking order. Also, the gulf between children and adults services and multi-disciplinary teams have diluted the profession and again suppressed social work activism and unity.”

Unfortunately, the challenges of being a social worker in today’s world (high caseloads, blame culture and basic survival!) understandably mean that activism, unity and promoting professional identity are not always priorities and can be suppressed in some debilitating workplace cultures. How can a social worker feel empowered to actively champion their profession when they feel overworked, overly-scrutinised, under-resourced and undervalued?

The good news is BASW’s history demonstrates that social work activism and professional unity can make a difference in social work practice, policy and education. Recent examples include: influencing changes to legislation and proposed reforms; campaigning for better working conditions; working with partners to improve support for frontline workers wellbeing and playing a role in the development of Social Work England. 

Many veteran practitioners (members and non-members) I have spoken with are proud of the impact BASW has had on policy, practice and education over the years and they are looking to the future generations of social workers to take the baton, show their passion through activism and move the profession forward at all levels.

Social workers from a variety of backgrounds and stages of their career have enabled BASW to be the voice for social workers and social work. We believe social work activism and professional unity begins at the student stage and is lifelong. Importantly, social work activism is needed now more than ever.

A good way to get started is to join one of BASW England’s Policy, Practice & Education groups (PPEG). PPEGs are national groups that focus on: children and families, criminal justice, mental health, adults social work and students and newly qualified social workers.

The groups mainly consist of social workers, service users and academics with relevant knowledge and experience who come together to talk, share ideas, debate specific social work policy, practice and education issues and provide BASW with members’ perspectives to influence and inform future work (see here for more information).

Alternatively, the BASW England 80/20 campaign is a much-needed attempt to reverse the current predicament of social workers spending up to 80 per cent of their time working on computers and/or completing paperwork and only 20 per cent of their time is spent in direct contact, building relationships with people who use services (see here for more information).

Another opportunity to be active is to become a BASW England Ambassador. The role involves championing the profession, advocating on behalf of BASW members, assisting at BASW events (including conferences and university visits), representing the profession in the media and supporting BASW campaigns.

The future of social work and its direction of travel depends enormously on ALL students, practitioners, managers, academics, retired members and service users.  We need to make a stand NOW to shape our professional identity and ultimately protect the future of social work. For more information about BASW England’s PPEGs, the 80/20 campaign or becoming a BASW England Ambassador please contact us at

To tell us how BASW England’s PPEG for students and NQSWs can support you click here

Wayne Reid works as a professional officer for BASW England

See November’s PSW for Colin Turbett analysis of whether managerial cultures have turned social workers into ‘agents of the state’ gatekeeping ever-diminishing resources…