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Five key questions from the JSWEC debate on social work’s future

Five key questions from the JSWEC debate on social work’s future. An impassioned discussion at the Joint Social Work Education Conference raised plenty of questions for the profession.

1. Where is the user voice?

Hugh McLaughlin, professor of social work at Manchester Metropolitan University, said that the social work sector needed to stand up more against policies impacting service users. McLaughlin used the bedroom tax as a reference point saying it affected service users across the board and asked: ‘Where was the outcry?’.

Speaking to Community Care after the debate, McLaughlin added that service users’ were embedded in the social work education process but their voices seemed to “have been silenced” in debates over the future of social work training sparked by the Narey and Croisdale-Appleby reviews.

2. Has social work education lost its way?

During a debate about social work education panellist Kish Bhatti-Sinclair, from the Anti-Racist Social Work Education Group, said: ’We have lost our way, even I don’t know where I’m going”. Frontline, the controversial government-backed fast-track programme for children’s social work, was said to embody the confusion in social work training. Bhatti-Sinclair argued that social work education in Britain was heading in the opposite direction to the rest of the world at a time when “we need to align ourselves” with international systems.

3. How can you close the ‘disconnect’ between academics and practice?

Panellist Liane McGovern, a newly qualified social worker, said that there seemed to be a disconnect between academics and practising social workers. Alan Baird, the chief social work adviser to the Scottish government, picked up on the point and argued that academics should be required to return to practice regularly. Regular experience on the frontline would help academics keep in touch and boost their “street cred” with practitioners.

4. Are government reforms about innovation or smoke and mirrors?

Isabelle Trowler, the chief social worker for children, argued that the government’s innovation scheme was an opportunity “to completely redesign” how we do social work. Yet Trowler had to defend allegations that the programme was actually a method to cover up falling social services budgets.

5. Austerity: excusing the inexcusable?

Throughout the debate, audience participation was encouraged. One participant argued services had become fragmented and struggled to cooperate since the introduction of a ‘business model’ approach to social services by ex-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The problems had, it was argued, been made worse by austerity. Hugh McLaughlin described austerity as an excuse to do things to people that would never be done in any other situation.

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