What is social work?

What do we talk about when we talk about ‘social work’? This is a question that has challenged me enormously since before I applied for the course. In my role as a support worker in a group home for adults with learning disabilities, the social workers were the rather smartly dressed (OK, I didn’t realise how unusual that was at the time!) women who popped up every year for a review meeting and the ‘nice china tea set’ came out. It was a well run small home with a stable set of staff. In my mind’s eye, at least, ‘social work’ seemed like a great option with no shift working.

As I trained and carried out my placements I developed new narratives to describe what social workers did. They ‘did’ child protection. They ‘did’ care management. They ‘did’ assessments. But I continued to struggle with what they ‘were’. I knew the tasks I was asked to do on placement and I knew what my friends and colleagues were asked to do but it all seemed so different. I studied theories but it felt we were pushing actions into the neatest fitting ‘theory’ for the purpose of academic demands rather than letting the theory lead to the most appropriate actions.

As I qualified, working in an older adults team, I learnt more tasks. Yes, I related them to theoretical models of change and had an interest in humanity and social justice but I ‘did’ care plans. I ‘did’ care management. These theories were often bolt-ons from other disciplines and I struggled to understand what it was that made me worthy of a professional qualification. I worked alongside some fantastic ‘unqualified social workers’ (these were the days before registration protected the title) and I wasn’t sure what I did was any different – except that I got paid more and had a lot less experience.

The change came after a couple of years of practise. It makes me feel a bit ‘old school’ but we didn’t have NQSW/AYSE programmes when I qualified. I got an agency job immediately after leaving university and was handed a fairly hefty caseload on day one. ‘Hitting the ground running’, is, I believe the fashionable term.

After running and running, it was the old PQ1 that gave me time to stop, think and understand. I was lucky to have a fantastic supervisor taking me through it– a senior social worker in a completely different team. She nudged and coaxed me to stop every now and again and remember to use the theoretical models I had learnt. This was when I really began to understand ‘social work’ and what singles it out. This was when I really began to understand reflective practice and how it was that using and making space for reflection, improved the work I did.

Yes, there are international definitions of social work. It’s about effecting change and promoting social justice. Those definitions can feel very distant, working in a strapped local authority intent on removing services rather than providing them.

I began to ponder what this ‘social justice’ actually is. It sounds good but is it one of these terms everyone throws around. I’m a fairly concrete thinker. What does ‘achieving social justice’ look like in reality? It has to be more than being a fluffy liberal who growls at every mention of Thatcher and mans the odd picket line every few years while signing online petitions and yelling at the government behind an anonymous social media account. More questions, always more questions. Until I realised sometimes the key to understanding is asking the right questions without assuming the answers.

Can we ‘do’ social justice while working within an unjust system? Surely it’s more than campaigning?

What can social work add to the struggle for ‘social justice’? What does social work do differently from other caring professions ? What makes a ‘social worker’?

I don’t have the answers but I have some of my answers. To me, the birth of a social worker doesn’t happen on qualification or registration. It is an ongoing process and an identity borne of an ability and duty to reflect on the impact of structural societal models and environments on the people we work with and who rely on the services we often gatekeep. We may be agents of the state and as such need to acknowledge and understand the power we have and use. We need to use the power to represent, reflect and advocate for those we work with. It may not be possible for each individual but possibly collectively. We need to respect the power we have and the influence we hold – none of this embarrassment about being a social worker or talk of ‘I’m just..’. With every dismissal of our role, there is a dismissal of the groups of people we work with.

The growth as a social work professional comes from collective aims and a desire to work with and not for. Walking alongside and pushing from behind rather than pulling along blindly – hoping others will follow. I hope we don’t become ‘a profession of leaders’ but rather, I think, a profession that encourages and supports others to lead (where others are those who use and need our services). To me, there’s the need to have vision, hope and humility. The learning shouldn’t have to be top down. Some of the most valuable learning I’ve had is from those who I have worked with and alongside.

So can we ‘do’ social justice? While we can push to change the world, we are a part of the structural inequalities and while we might not (yet) have powers to destroy all those inequalities, we can on a micro level by embedding and pushing for coproduction and trying to amplify the voices of those we work with and for. It might be the fight for social justice by watching and encouraging the voices of others or by giving the information to people clearly, involving people in their care and working to a high ethical standard that those mini challenges can be faced.

Maybe that’s what social work is about to me and while no longer working in a local authority social work team I still feel I can do it. I can amplify and encourage the voices of those who use services I provide. I can ‘speak the truth to power’ and push on the lack of equitable systems. I can look for, and nurture the spark of hope in others who are better placed than me to carry torches and raze down institutions built on the fabric of injustices in society.

Social work is about more than the social work functions. It’s about pushing on – in our own way – and being the pin to prick the consciences that lurk within those institutions we work with and around.

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