Social Work History Network

Social Work History Network

Brief Notes of Meeting Held on 13th June 2 – 5pm Room 1.60, Franklin Wilkins Building, King’s College London.

Present: approximately 45 SWHN members and guests.

In the chair: Keith Bilton Notes: Joan Rapaport

KB welcomed guest speakers and members.

Part 1 Presentations

1.1 Professor Olive Stevenson (OS) – ‘Getting Back on Track’

OS said that two recent events had stimulated personal reflections, many tinged with regret, on her 50-year career in social work, social work education and related activities.

1) Audio recordings for the British Library (BL) of 5 long interviews. These will eventually go online at the BL.

2) An email from Sue Long (SL) who has won an Arts Council Scholarship to write a play about the Maria Colwell Inquiry titled ‘A Place of Safety’. OS responded to the email and was consulted about material for the manuscript. The play was reviewed last week. It was an emotional occasion for everyone. The play did not take a blaming stance but focused on understanding the issues from a lay person’s view. The Arts Council representative commented that it was ‘the best rehearsed reading he’d ever heard’. The play will progress to become a formal play.

OS said that it was her view that if social work were to be abolished someone would have to invent it. Social work was an essential service. She cited the example of China where social work education was re-introduced in the late 1980s because the country’s one child policy was causing problems in respect of the care of elderly parents. Since then the social work establishment has continued to grow.

OS indicated her concerns about the current position of social work and the possible reasons for it having ‘got blown off course’. She stated the fundamental ethical commitment of social workers to help people understand their difficulties in relation to their experiences both external and internal to themselves. The type of support required varies from setting to setting.

In seeking possible reasons for the poor social work image OS referred to developments between 1948 – 1970 that undermined the psychodynamic school of social work, on the basis this approach neglected the practical problems people were then facing. She suggested that this critique was probably overstated and ignored the work of people like Clare Britton who was firmly rooted in both the realities of child care practice as well as the importance of ‘relationship work’.

During this period (48 – 70) there was a burgeoning of social work education and the introduction of the 2 years non-graduate course. There was also a general commitment to non-elitist practice. The 2-year non-graduate course produced some very credible social workers and was a positive development for the need at the time. However, at the very tail end some of those social workers were not well enough equipped educationally to tackle the complexities of the social work task. In addition, in social work education some staff had failed to school the heads of their institutions. Whilst they kept in touch with the field, when times became tough, they lacked allies in the higher echelons and thus political muscle to tackle problems.

OS reflected that the introduction of the SSDs in the 1970s, though founded on ethical imperatives had not worked well. She suggested that there was a big piece of academic work to be done to analyse what went wrong. Whilst there were attempts to discredit the welfare state, local government proved to be a hostile place for social work. The Colwell Inquiry in 1973 triggered organisational panic about risk. When organisations become anxious they proceduralise and bureaucratise in an attempt to reduce risk. Social workers have been forced to proceduralise at the expense of their professional judgement. OS further considered that social workers have been disabled by a managerial structure, compounded by continuing proceduralisation and that many social workers were unable to stand up and be counted.

Social work education and related institutions have also been pre-occupied with anti-oppressive practice. Social work credibly considered this aspect before the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. However, it also led to the beginnings of witch-hunts. Academic staff who could not withstand the aggression from social work students who had suffered from oppression, left their posts. OS described a similar experience that had also had a profound effect on her.

In relation to the client interface, OS said that social workers had been criticised for lack of cultural competence. This had led to social worker fears of being thought racist if they made inquiries about cultural backgrounds or, if questions were not asked, decision-making based on ludicrous assumptions. However, social work must address this issue in the context of our multi-cultural society. Social Work needs to decide basic standards, for example in child care, in an attempt to move towards cultural competence.

In respect of New Labour and post 1997 developments there has been no indication until recently that policies of proceduralisation and top down control would modify. Targets have led to perverse incentives and difficulties for social workers. OS indicated deep concern about the potential in the context of current policy trends for the ‘dirty’ work to be left with the local authority and the ‘fun, more imaginative’ work to be assumed by the voluntary sector. There was a danger that more able social workers would successfully compete for jobs in the voluntary sector, whilst those less competent would end up in the local authority. This situation must be avoided.

OS said she was disappointed in the outcomes of the NHS & CC Act 1990. Good publications had been produced. However, policies had not been implemented because of a lack of resources and a drive to push them through. In addition, children’s services were valued more than older people’s services, whilst both require professional expertise. OS said she was also concerned that ‘juvenile delinquency’ had been separated from other aspects of child welfare.

On a positive note, OS suggested that she sensed that there was now a feeling that something important has been dropped from social work and that ‘relationship work’ needs to be picked up again. Marian Bower (Tavistock Clinic) in her book ‘Thinking Under Fire’ has perceived a shift towards psychodynamic thinking. A Centre for Social Work Practice has just been launched at the Tavistock to develop the social work role.


Research into the profession’s history – an academic challenge.

Constellation of expert civil servants in previous years who could advise.

Loss of therapeutic communities in children’s services.

Evidence Based Practice (‘EBP’); importance of qualitative data and longitudinal studies.

Local government successfully employed other professionals – lawyers etc – possible paradox in the light of OS’s observations on the social work situation.

Focus on communication skills in New Degree and links to the concept of ‘emotional intelligence’.

1.2 Don Brand (DB) – The Shaping of Social Care

Please see attached diagram and notes prepared by DB.

DB described a long career in social work. He is now working with SCIE and also the DH and other government departments. Networking within and across agencies is an essential part of his work to ensure appropriate policy links are made. DB stressed the importance of inspiration in social work. What we believe in makes a difference to our practice

DB outlined the policy, legal, structural and political layers shaping social care, likening his mapping diagram to the River Severn. He highlighted the intergenerational issues faced by society and registered concerns that child and adult services had been separated. In his view the one-stop shop advocated by Seebohm had been correct. He indicated that the Treasury had suggested that some work might be needed to bring children’s and adult services back together. A major ongoing issue for social work:

∑ Do we have integrated working across the whole age range – or

∑ Do we have separate departments for children and adults, and if so, what should the links be?

In addition the question as to whether social work is a profession has continued to preoccupy social workers. The government has set up the GSCC for regulation and to develop the knowledge base. Other professions state that these components are essential professional characteristics and the government has indicated that it is now up to social work ‘to make it work’.

Why did SSDs go wrong? DB suggested that a largely male dominated management may have had a negative influence. Women have a different style and the workforce is largely female. The transfer of social security monies also led to SSDs becoming rationing machines for a growing number of clients. Proceduralisation and targeting also created problems and affected the social work role. The SSI had developed subtler ways of engaging with local authorities and practice through the regions creating the potential for government to have 2-way communication to understand the nature of social care. Inspection also targeted priority policy areas. However, in the early 1990s, the government viewed the inspectorate to be in hoc with the professionals. This resulted in the introduction of Ofsted for Education and the Joint Review/Audit Commission Reviews and an emphasis on procedures and bureaucracy that arguably do not do justice to the subtleties of the social work role.

DB praised the role of NISW (superseded by Skills for Care, SCIE and the Social Care Workforce Research Unit (KCL)) for its role in shaping social work and social care and its contribution to important welfare reforms such as the Seebohm Report 1968. He registered disappointment that in respect of current policies supporting user movements professionals appear to be competing with service users. Helping people to make decisions is highly skilled work: users stress that listening is an important part of the professional role. DB concluded with the comment that in his view there is a deep degree of ageism in our society.


NISWs educational role and the existence of advisory committees.

Need to consider health and also role of professional associations.

Civil Servants work within a narrow focus but also with other disciplines.

Domination of user groups by carers.

Challenge to meet user needs. Some clients’ needs are not met by user groups.

Social Service Depts recommended by Seebohm – liberating; Social Services Depts that were introduced focused on provision of services and procedures.

Service users can be coerced into following a mental health career – ie representing the user position in some way.

Social works identifies the range of social work in a variety of settings.

How far have we diluted social work in current trends?

Social work knowledge base seems to appear, disappear and reappear (but this happens elsewhere to).

1.3 Sheena Rolph – ‘The Last Refuge’ Revisited: exploring the past and present through photography (with J. Johnson, S. Rolph & Randolph Smith).

SR explained that this was a 2-year project funded by the ESRC to revisit Professor Peter Townsend’s study of the late 1950s published in 1962. Peter Townsend supports the project. The study is ongoing.

Social reform was an important objective of the original study which found great contrasts in the quality of care. The current study seeks to discover what has happened to the homes Peter visited and the replicate his methods as far as possible. The research team have involved volunteers from key organisations including BASW, SWHN and SWRiR (Social Workers Researching in Retirement, based at KCL) in searches in their local areas. Some of the homes have survived and are now registered care homes. However, many have been demolished, converted into hotels, museums, schools and hospitals. Searches have involved exploration of electoral roles, local archives and maps etc.

The photos are an important part of the evidence regarding the state of the care homes and provide a complementary story to bring the text alive. Carefully organised they can provide powerful arguments. Peter Townsend’s photos were black and white. He took this decision because the quality of black and white photos was superior to that of colour at the time of his research. SR explained that the research team had considered the pros and cons of black and white photographs and their different impacts on reality. Black and white has artistic uses. However, it also has the potential to enhance bleakness whereas colour can give a false impression of freshness. The research team is taking both black and white and colour pictures.

Whilst social reform is not an objective of the second study, the research team is examining care policies and wants to highlight good practice and continuity of care. Ethics and confidentiality requirements are more complicated than in the 1950s. To take photos of people it is now necessary to obtain their consent. This brings into question their capacity to consent and willingness to participate. Staff are sometimes reluctant to allow photos to be taken. Because of the new procedures photos of groups and individuals are also inevitably posed whereas Peter was able to take pictures of people going about their daily lives, often still enduring workhouse conditions. In the original study residents were helping to run the homes, for example gardening or doing the laundry. The second study has captured organised group activities for residents that were not in evidence in the late 1950s.