Can we reclaim adult social work too?

This week has offered signs that the debate about the future of adult social work might be about to get moving. Paul Burstow's comments at the launch of the College of Social Work and the press in advance of the College's own event on the future of social work are really interesting. Might we be on the verge of a shift with a White Paper coming up? Is this now the time and opportunity for social work to be reclaimed? In particular can social work make a positive connection to personalisation (I know many individual social workers are trying hard to do so)?

As a registered social worker who has spent 30 years working in a variety of roles in social care, I have both a passionate commitment to independent living and a strong respect for the profession. Personalisation and prevention are at the centre of policy and are developing in practice in social care, but, although progress has been made since the publication of Putting People First in 2007, significant challenges remain.

For social workers reductions in budgets and staff, alongside the restructuring of departments, are of course a major pressure.  But there are also issues about who does what to maximise people's choice and control over their support.

In times like these there is an understandable risk that people sometimes circle the wagons in defence of their existing roles. I would argue though that, however difficult, now is the time for social workers to assert a positive set of roles in the development and delivery of prevention and personalisation, and for their managers to enable this. What might this mean?

Here I will focus mostly on personal budgets while acknowledging that they are only one element of personalisation. Ali Gardner's recent book Personalisation in Social Work considers the complementary value bases of social work and personalisation, reviewing the range of roles that social workers can usefully play in practical delivery of personal budgets from assessment through to review. She persuasively argues that social workers play valuable, sometimes critical roles at each step of the process.  But she also recognises that there are significant questions, given that social workers are a scarce resource and that the goal is self-directed care, about how social workers can best contribute where people have personal budgets.

A recent think piece published by Think Local, Act Personal, titled Re-thinking Support Planning: Ideas for an alternative approach, puts forward some ideas. The focus should be on supporting people to achieve good outcomes using a variety of practical resources. Many people don't need social workers to achieve good outcomes and unnecessary involvement can even delay and restrict self-direction. For others support is best provided through peer support or other offers from user or carer-led organisations.

Other people, however, including those in complex, isolated and risky situations, will often benefit more from the skilled interventions and focused attention of social workers. Better targeting social work skills, coupled with the provision of self-help tools and alternative forms of support, will both serve the needs of a frequently overstretched profession and of those who require social care. Beyond personal budgets there could be serious opportunities for social workers to play a valuable role in helping some people avoid or delay the need for long term care, supporting them to build and use their personal and social capital.

For strategic managers and elected members, this will mean re-conceptualising social work within new local service frameworks and to enable new forms of practice. For social workers it will require a positive, and sometimes assertive, reclaiming of their profession.

Martin Routledge

Note - a version of this piece appeared in the first edition of the College of Social Work Magazine

Ali Gardner, Personalisation in Social Work, Learning Matters, 2011
Simon Stockon and Helen Sanderson for Think Local Act Personal - Re-thinking Support Planning: Ideas for an alternative approach

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Last Updated : 03 February 2012. Page Author: Laura Bimpson.