John Simmonds

Working together to strengthen the social work profession

  • Date:

Social work is a relatively young profession, but the history of providing ‘help’ to people in need is long and mixed. Historically, morality, religion, class, age and gender all played significant parts in making judgements about who was the ‘deserving poor’ and those who ‘deserved to be poor’. This often resulted in institutional based solutions such as workhouses and orphanages. 

The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 reinforced this state of affairs and Charles Dickens explored the details of the impact on children in his novel Oliver Twist – published in the late 1830s.  Oliver, as an orphan, finds himself compelled to navigate a life where survival often necessitates theft. Although the distressing nature of his circumstances is evident, there are also encouraging indications stemming from various adults who assume a supportive role in his life. This symbolises the need for and the pivotal role played by social workers and caring individuals in guiding vulnerable young people towards a better future. 

The history of these stark splits in society and their impact on individuals may seem a story from the past. There clearly have been significant developments in the creation of a welfare state that accepts its duties and responsibilities to citizens who do not have access to the resources that they need to keep themselves safe, engage in the world around them or care for their children.  

The emergence of the social work profession has played a part in these developments. When I started my training as a social worker in 1971, the three core principles set out by Rogers for best practice were: 

  1. Non-judgmental attitude 

  1. Accurate empathy 

  1. Non-possessive warmth 

In my first post as a social worker in a local authority, my practice responsibilities focused on three services - child and family social work, adult services, and mental health. I would structure my day with child and family issues in the morning, adult services in the afternoon and mental health in the evening or at night. The complexity of these responsibilities led to a division in services – children’s services and adult services – in the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970 following the Seebohm Committee in 1968 that made recommendations about re-ordering current services into a unified local authority service. Social work was recognised as one of the professions central to these developments alongside and linked to working with universal services such as financial support, housing, health, and education.  

Work with children and families typically starts with a referral to the relevant service, an assessment of need and circumstances and a proposal about the provision of wider resources and support. The challenge often lies in establishing trust between the individual or family and the social worker. It also involves ensuring that the social worker has confidence that what is being shared and discussed is focused and includes openness and honesty from the individual or family about their experiences and current situations. It is here that the significance of working together in a thoughtful, informed, experienced and evidence-based way needs to be acknowledged and facilitated.  

Creating an atmosphere of supportive and collaborative working is essential but often very challenging. One of the key factors in this professional challenge is understanding what might be ‘going on’ in the mind of the adult and the child – what are they feeling, thinking and doing? And then there is another perspective to consider – what is the parent’s or child’s view about what is going on in the mind of the social worker – what are they feeling, thinking and doing? The relational dynamics of these issues need to be explored openly and helpfully to agree a safe, workable and sustainable resolution for the child, parent/s and social worker. 

We also cannot ignore the multi-disciplinary context in which social workers operate – health, education, and the courts. There needs to be open and respectful processes at each step of problem resolution. For this to happen, there needs to be a ‘safe physical and psychological space’ where putting feelings into words and actions facilitates helpful and workable resolutions. There needs to be leadership driven by curiosity, open-mindedness, and engagement.  

Being and feeling understood can be ‘game changing’ and life enhancing. And this returns us to the historical drivers for the social work profession as committed to a non-judgemental attitude, accurate empathetic and non-possessive warmth.   

John Simmonds, Director of Policy, Research and Development, CoramBAAF