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Perceptions of social work: Social work under radar until rare failing

Social work is less visible and less readily praised than other public service roles, according to a report into the perceptions of social work by the regulator Social Work England.

Social Worker Talking To Mother And Children At Home

For many people, social work goes ‘under the radar’ and only attracts attention for rare failings, the report found.

“This tends to be regarded as unfair; there is a belief that if there are problems in social work this is because it is under-resourced and probably struggling to recruit staff,” said the report.

Perceptions of social work, Social Work England

However, when asked about the role of social work, it attracts much favourable comment. Though the specifics of what it does are not widely known, it is regarded as having an important role in helping and supporting vulnerable people.

For people who receive social work intervention, their initial wariness tends to dissipate in the light of good experiences. The reality of receiving an intervention and support is often a revelation and certainly helps to overcome negative perceptions.

Yet because people often do not discuss social workers’ involvement in their lives more widely, these experiences tend not to be disseminated. If the positives of social work involvement were discussed more readily, it could seriously improve the image of social work, the report adds.

Social Work England carried out the research between January and March 2020, and so perceptions may have changed as a result of more families asking for help from social workers during the pandemic.

The regulator based the research on five focus groups with members of the public, an online omnibus survey with 1751 members of the public and 23 face to face depth interviews with people who had experience of social work interventions in the last three years, to hear at first-hand how they felt about it.

“Social work was generally well regarded among the public but was not high profile in comparison with other public services. It was thought to be undervalued, under-resourced and deserving of more favourable media coverage,” the report found.

Social work was believed to be primarily for the vulnerable, especially children and families, but also older people and those with disabilities. Other users were less recognised but were still seen as needing support.

The omnibus survey asked respondents who they thought social workers worked with:

  • 41% said children
  • 27% said older people/vulnerable older people
  • 26% said families/parents
  • 23% reported people with disabilities
  • 21% responded ‘those in need’
  • 17% said disadvantaged
  • 16% said people with mental health problems
  • Just 2% said they didn’t know.

The perceived aim of social work was primarily around helping or safeguarding, providing support for those who lacked it through their families or from other sources, and offering advice and guidance. Social work was believed to have the capability to improve people’s lives and wellbeing.

Perceptions of social work among the general public were largely positive. The omnibus survey revealed that:

- 88% of participants agreed that social work is important in helping vulnerable people

- 77% agreed that it helps ensure children come to no harm

- 74% agreed that the value of social work is not fully appreciated.

There was a minority of respondents who had a more critical perspective and saw social work as an authority role, intended to control and penalise, and to impose values which were not always in keeping with those of the population and, as a result, this discouraged engagement with social work.

While just 8 per cent of the omnibus respondents had received social work support directly, 27% knew of others who had received intervention.

“The general assumption was that receiving social work support would be positive – getting help and improving your life - but a minority saw it as a sign of inability to cope and felt there is a stigma around it,” said the report.

Respondents recognised that the social worker role was demanding, stressful and largely unrecognised and social workers were generally well regarded, and attracted praise for their dedication and commitment. They were perceived as professionals, but were much less visible than those in other public service roles - healthcare professionals, teachers and police officers.

The omnibus survey also revealed:

  • 78% agreed that social workers want the best for the people they work with
  • 70% agreed that social workers make a big difference in improving people’s lives
  • 76% agreed that social workers could do a better job if there were more of them.

However, among the more crucial minority, the survey found a less favourable impression of social workers and saw them as judgmental, unconcerned about clients and only in the role for the sake of having a job.

  • 28% disagreed that social workers are objective and neutral
  • 19% agreed that social workers tend not to believe the people they work with.

In terms of the people who had received social work intervention, their cases were often complex with social workers becoming involved for a number of issues. This will likely have worsened since the research was carried out as Department for Education figures published earlier this year showed that the number of referrals to children’s services at March 2021 was 11% lower than in previous years, however, local authorities reported an increase in the complexity of cases they are receiving. https://www.willispalmer.com/referrals-to-childrens-services-down-by-11-but-case-complexity-rises/

The Social Work England research confirmed that even prior to the pandemic, few cases seemed straightforward where social work involvement was required.

“Experiences of social work among these people were largely positive. Perceptions varied according to individual circumstances, and not everyone had been satisfied by their experience,” said the report. “Generally, parents were happy with the intervention they had received, especially if they had requested it, and some felt that it had made a significant and positive difference to their and their children’s lives. Others, with different needs, felt that social work had not helped them.”

Many of those who had received social work assistance had been wary of social work involvement beforehand. Many clients were concerned about being judged or, at the extreme, having a child taken away and put into care. However, in most cases, they had found social workers understanding, kind, and constructive in dealing with them.

At best, clients had received emotional and practical support which had made material improvements to their lives and some felt that the intervention had turned things round and had had long term impact.

Dissatisfactions with social work fell into three categories:

  1. Clients who felt they were in a low priority group (e.g. adults with disabilities) and received little help.
  2. Those who believed individual social workers had been inefficient or ineffective in dealing with their case.
  3. People who thought social workers had been judgmental and hostile – typically men in domestic abuse cases whose female partners had instigated the intervention.

However, most of those with experience of a social work intervention, including some who had been dissatisfied, believed that in principle it is well-intentioned.

“Disatisfactions with social work seem to be more about individual working styles and sporadic ineffectiveness than about systematic weaknesses in social work as a whole. They might be mitigated by improved training, better communication to clients, or different management approaches, but this would need to be explored at a local level,” the research concluded.

Perceptions of social work

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