Clare Jerrom speaks to professor of social work Dr Ray Jones about the misconceptions in social work, the challenges social workers face and why he is giving his backing to #Respect4SocialWork.
“Most people don’t think about social work, they might have a marginal awareness of it when it may have cropped up on the news, but many of the public do not give social work any thought or attention until they need to draw on the services provided by social workers,” said Professor Ray Jones, Emeritus Professor of Social Work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London.
Dr Ray Jones was formerly director of social services at Wiltshire between 1992 and 2006 and was the first chief executive of the Social Care Institute for Excellence. Between 2008 and 2016 he was professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London and he is the author of eight books including ‘The Story of Baby P: Setting the Record Straight’.
Dr Jones is backing #Respect4SocialWork which aims to challenge the misconceptions of social work and celebrate the huge contribution that social workers make to our communities.
“Social workers are only in the public gaze in the media when something horrific happens which captures the media’s attention and shows social workers associated with a child being abused or an elderly person being neglected. This taints social work as it is only spoken about when something has gone wrong, that social workers are at the centre in some way,” said Professor Jones.
He adds that there has been some “really inaccurate journalism” surrounding social workers and not just in the big cases such as the death of Baby Peter Connelly in 2007 or Maria Colwell in 1973. “There have been shocking incidents of misreporting, putting social workers at the centre of the case when in reality, they were on the margins of the case or not involved at all,” explains Ray.
While the national media may have been more influential in previous years, Professor Jones believes that while the national press plays a significant role, it is not dominant as the rise in the popularity of social media has resulted in more people accessing information that way, and they also see and are aware of what is happening in their neighbourhoods, meaning people “create their own judgements of what is happening in our communities”.
This is borne out in Mori public opinion polls, adds Ray, when a survey asked members of the general public to rank a whole range of occupations in terms of whether they are trusted professionals. “At the top of the list public servants such as were doctors, nurses, teachers, and judges. At the bottom of the list were estate agents, journalists, bankers and politicians. The general public are not stupid, they know the media is biased, and are happy to make their own judgements.”
Professor Jones adds however that negative reporting in right-wing media outlets is bound to affect the morale of social workers as, while they probably don’t give it much attention, they will be aware it is there. Ray tracks media coverage of social work as part of his role as a professor.
“In terms of the right-wing press, whatever is in there will be critical of what social workers are trying to do. But they are also targeting a whole range of public servants in the right-wing press including police, doctors, teachers – these public servants are no longer getting the respect they would have had in previous years.”
Professor Jones’ involvement with the media stepped up several notches from November 2008 when three adults – Baby Peter Connelly’s mother Tracey Connelly, her boyfriend Steven Barker, and Jason Owen were found guilty of causing or allowing the death of Peter Connelly, known as Baby P. As Ray was a professor at Kingston University, he was accessible to the press who could have him in a tv studio in 25 minutes and given his role as a professor, he could speak out independently about the case unlike a local authority director of children’s services. Given his wealth of experience in social work, he was also ideally positioned to offer observations on the case.
“The more I responded to media requests, the more concerned I became with how the story was shaped and the implications of that,” explains Ray. “It was skewed to focus on social workers and not the professions which might be seen to be less on top of their jobs than others.”
“I was also deeply concerned about the sharp increase in the number of children being taken into care and the portrayal and role of social workers was seen to move away from providing help to a focus on risk management and more as a threat to families,” said Ray, explaining why he started to write the book ‘The Story of Baby P: Setting the Record Straight’. “Individual social workers and their managers were being harassed, vilified and placed in danger. There were huge implications for the child protection system. It became a struggle to recruit paediatricians, teachers were referring more and the whole system was becoming overloaded.”
“I didn’t know the social workers involved, I didn’t know the director of children’s services at Haringey Council, the borough in which Baby Peter died, Sharon Shoesmith, but I knew they were being placed in danger and that needed to be told.”
Given his 50 years’ experience in social work, Professor Jones has seen the perception of social work change over the decades. “In the 1960’s, social workers were seen as good people, kind, compassionate, considerate who took pride in providing help. In the 70’s, following the death of Maria Colwell, who was killed by her step-father aged seven in Brighton, there became a greater focus on child protection and social workers were seen to have more power.”
“In the 80’s under Thatcher, social workers were portrayed as ineffective and inefficient and rationing help rather than providing it. Social workers were cast as gatekeepers for services for elderly people and they were often forced to deny access to help,” said Ray. “They were not characterised as compassionate any more, but people who had power, who were a threat if they were involved with your children and gatekeepers to the shrinking resources the public wanted.”
However, since then, Dr Jones said there have been welcome moves in recognising social work as a more skilled profession. The title of social worker has become protected, social work has become a graduate entry profession and social workers must register with Social Work England which has heightened the professionalism of social work.
“During the last 10 years of austerity, I think there has been some recognition that social workers are at the sharp end trying to tackle deprivation, difficulties and distress without the time or tools to do that. I think there is a concern for social workers that they have the responsibility without the resources to fulfill their responsibilities,” added Professor Jones.
However, because social workers provide assistance to people who are disadvantaged or marginalised and who are stigmatised and stereotyped, that rubs off on social workers. “Social workers engage with others who are not respected or helped in the community and are seen as low status in society and therefore social work can be seen as a low status profession,” explains Ray.
“Most people don’t look forward to the idea of a stranger coming into their home and to have confidential conversations”, adds Ray. “There may be a reluctance to engage as it feels like an intrusion.”
“The reality is that social workers in children’s and adult services engage with people in turmoil or at crisis point for a range of reasons and who may need help and assistance. At the core of social work for professionals in children’s and adult services is to engage with individuals and families at a time of difficulty and carve a safe space for them amid the turmoil to think and try and find a way forwards,” he added.
It is Professor Jones’ vast experience in social work which has encouraged him to endorse WillisPalmer’s #Respect4SocialWork campaign, which calls for a greater understanding of the life-changing work that social workers carry out.
“Any initiative or campaign that helps the public to understand the major contribution that social workers make to our communities, working alongside people in crisis and providing protection when necessary and enabling them to see a way forwards within their lives is vitally important,” said Professor Jones.
“It is important too for social workers themselves to have the opportunity to be given recognition for the work they are trying to do and the contribution they are making. It is now 10 years that we have had austerity measures targeting poor families, children and disabled people. We need this kind of energy to stand up and say families are becoming poorer and more stressed, disabled and older people are becoming more isolated and social workers are less able to provide assistance – getting that message across is crucially important,” added Professor Jones.
“We need to challenge the misinformation we are being provided about what is happening. ‘Levelling up’ is the slogan. The political message is that the NHS is adequately funded, that problems in social care have been dealt with…..the NHS is not adequately resourced, the issues in social care have not been tackled, children and families are getting poorer, disabled and older people are being made more vulnerable due to austerity measures. Until that is challenged and reversed, the contribution of social workers in providing help, care and contributing within compassionate communities will continue to be hindered ” concluded Professor Ray Jones.
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