Much human suffering, conflict and disadvantage has its origins in human relationships, and all suffering conflict and disadvantage has profound implications for our personal and social relationships. Social work is one means by which society tries to alleviate suffering and disadvantage and mediate conflict. Meaningful and effective social work always entails the provision of an attuned, reflective, and professionally thoughtful relationship with service users, carers, networks, social work colleagues and colleagues from other disciplines – even under conditions of conflict. Good services are by definition services provided through, or in the context of, such relationships.
Modern social policy, professional training and service management frequently and systematically neglect these dimensions of social work. The Centre for Social Work Practice exists to challenge this neglect, and to promote the centrality of relationship based social work practice, management, training and policy. The philosophy of the Centre is that ethical social work practice is impossible in the absence of relationship based practice.
Relationship based practice takes many forms, because it is the central thread running through the wide spectrum of activities and responsibilities that make up social work. The provision of sound, basic therapeutic relationships as a part of ordinary front line service provision is just one such activity. The capacity to work effectively with adverse power dynamics in the lives of service users, but also in our own teams and organisations is another. Social work’s value commitments are only have meaning when they are enacted through direct relationships. The ability to deliver, and receive, reflective supervision and to integrate this with the demands of modern management systems is another. Working effectively within inter-professional systems, where competition, rivalry and hierarchical tensions can so easily arise, is equally a matter of relationships. Knowing how to look after ourselves in the face of the emotional and relational demands of the workplace is just as important – emotionally and physically depleted individuals and teams cannot provide good relationship based services.
Relationship based social work draws upon a variety of theoretical and practice resources. These include psychological, psycho-social, systemic, and socio-political perspectives. But importantly, social work needs to rediscover greater confidence in developing its own body of theory for practice. Wilson et al (2008) represents one statement of relationship based practice theory that reflects the Centre’s broad ethos.
The Centre for Social Work Practice recognises that many individuals and other organisations – training programmes, service users, service providers, research units – share these perspectives. But there is no other national forum or voice dedicated to promoting the importance and centrality of relationship based social work.
Nationally, social work as a profession lacks strong a 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 which 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 is 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 will aim to offer.
The potential for development and ‘revival’ of therapeutic 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 during its initial period of activity will be ‘What can be realistically achieved through careful leadership, partnership and strategy?
Social care is now the accepted title for a broad generic occupational group, of which social work is one branch. With the introduction of the 3 year social work qualification, the formation of the GSCC as a registering body, and a climate of stronger government support for social work, 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.
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.