Centre for Social Work Practice

Rationale: A site of national leadership for therapeutic and relationship-based social work

A site of national leadership for therapeutic and relationship-based social work

The Context

Nationally, social work as a profession and social workers as professionals achieve amazing things every day; there are countless examples of the good that social work does as a role and function of society. Poverty across the UK has been increasing steadily over the past thirty years, and continues apace, while funding for social work activity is decreasing and services are being further fragmented or closed altogether. The recent critiques of the quality of social work education have paved the way for initiatives (Step Up to Social Work, Frontline) that are not proving to be the solution hoped for

Social work lacks strong identity, confidence, clarity of role, and strength of theoretical underpinning. Clinical or therapeutic social work has been almost eradicated over the last two decades. Fifteen years ago there were a number of training centres, social work agencies, and professional associations that represented and promoted psychodynamic and other varieties of clinical social work. These have now all closed or declined significantly. At the same time, a small number of social work trainings and post-qualifying programmes, as well as ‘the word on the street’ provide strong evidence for the continuing relevance and professional interest in psychodynamic and systemic practice in modern social work and social care.

The proposal to establish a centre for social work practice was a response to the strength of a small number of scattered training centres, and to the weakness of the professional situation nationally. Many therapeutically oriented practitioners and educators say that there is no focus for leadership and confidence building for this tradition of work. This is what the centre aims to offer.

Variable potential

The potential for development and ‘revival’ of relationship based social work is different in different sectors. There are difficulties but also opportunities for development in all domains.

In the adult mental health arena social work will probably soon share its hitherto distinctive statutory role with other professions, while other role boundaries with adjacent professions are already blurred and uncertain.

In child care and child protection work there is more clarity of role, and a continuing tradition of therapeutically oriented practice and training, supported by the PQ Child Care Award in certain regions; but equally little space to think clinically (or sometimes at all) in many parts of the child protection system. However, there are probably no areas in which all is already lost. Thus a key question for the centre is ‘What can be realistically achieved through careful leadership, partnership and strategy?’

Social work and social care

Social care is now the accepted title for a broad generic occupational group, of which social work is one branch. There is reason for optimism about the future of social work as a distinctive professional activity; hence our decision to retain ‘social work’ rather than ‘social care’ in the title of the centre. Nevertheless, in certain domains the work of the centre will need to strike a delicate balance between addressing the development and needs of social workers and social care workers. In adult mental health in particular, we envisage a programme of work that combines focused opportunities for the continued development of adult mental health social work, with a more wide-ranging response to the needs of the social care workforce. A balanced approach is also required (and already implemented to some extent) in other areas, such as the child primary mental health workforce. As government policy redefines the task, the relationship shifts between occupational boundaries, task and professional identifications. The Centre must both respond to these developments but also provide leadership that supports realistic occupational identity.

Networking – the basis for the centre’s development and potential

The initial work of the Centre has depended on collaboration among a relatively small number of interested and committed groups of practitioners and educators working in a range of institutions across the UK. The Tavistock Clinic and UEL have led the initiative to found the Centre, but its management and leadership reflect its collaborative aims. As it grows and develops, the aspiration is that the Centre should be a ‘dispersed’ organisation, with a number of regional ‘hubs’ - and several such regional groupings have already emerged. In widening our reach we are keen to engage increasing numbers of people in the national debate, in developing relationship based social work practice and in nurturing the environmental conditions that place relationships front and centre while at the same time, meet the requirements for modern day recording, monitoring and evaluation of service provision.

The potential of social pedagogy for relationship based social work practice

Understanding the foundations of human wellbeing, arguably an aim of social work, is just as much a matter of relationships as understanding the origins of human suffering, conflict and disadvantage. Social work education, policy and practice could perhaps benefit from better understanding and working with what contributes to human wellbeing (while recognising that individual circumstance, choice and preference will vary), and knowing how to create and develop the kinds of meaningful relationships that both nurture wellbeing and address difficulties.

Social pedagogy is centrally concerned with wellbeing and relationships – including relationships between the individual and society, between care and learning, and between theory and practice. Social pedagogues work in relationships with people from across the life course and in a very broad range of settings. As a professional and academic discipline in most continental European countries and others across the world, it has a strong body of theory and research evidence that helps practitioners traverse the complex conditions of relational practice. As an holistic approach, social pedagogy theory draws from a wide range of disciplines - those that make up social work (e.g. sociology, psychology, criminology) and others, including education, health sciences, anthropology. Social pedagogical practice is founded on a clear and coherent ethical framework, using theories, concepts, models and methods that are applicable to a wide range of practice situations. As a professional and academic discipline centrally concerned with relationships, social pedagogy has considerable value and potential to usefully contribute to relationship based social work theory and practice in the UK. In some countries and regions, the education and qualification of social workers and social pedagogues take separate routes, and in others the education is merged, resulting in a dual qualification as social worker and social pedagogue. Until relatively recently social pedagogy was somewhat unknown in the UK social work field, but since the early 2000s a growing body of UK research and learning and development programmes in local authorities and other organisations have contributed to an emerging UK discipline. The Social Pedagogy Professional Association was launched earlier this year, attended by, amongst many others, Bianka Lang, the Community Care Social Worker of the Year 2016, who is dually qualified.

Those interested in relationship based practice often lament the kind of managerialism and bureaucratic processes that have (perhaps unintended) taken root in social work and elsewhere, those that have placed compliance with processes as the dominant concern, at the expense of relationships. This shared concern and the discourse between social pedagogy and social work has much to offer relationship based social work practice, education, leadership and policy, and CfSWP is happy to bring these two disciplines together in dialogue for the benefit of all.

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