Social work has been practiced for ages by religious institutions and charitable organisations. With the poor and the infirm being objects of pity and concern in all religions, helping them with financial and social support has been and continues to be an important activity of many religious institutions and charitable organisations (White, et al, 2009, p 10-19).
Whilst kings and emperors have also from time to time utilised the resources of their treasuries for the social benefit of their citizens, the progressive assumption of dominant roles by states in provisioning of social care and bringing about of social equality occurred in the UK, the USA and other advanced western economies only after the closure of the Second World War (Humphreys, 2000, p 22-29). The emergence of the welfare state in the UK was very much an outcome of a widespread awakening in the country for the need to provide social justice and equality to all individuals and groups, particularly to the economically disadvantaged, the mentally or physically disabled, and the socially excluded (Turner, 2005, p 46-54). It needs to however be recognised that organised and state sponsored social work is associated more with the advanced nations than with the developing economies, which continue to struggle against severe challenges in areas like poverty, nutrition, disease, and illiteracy (Turner, 2005, p 46-54).
The UK is widely acknowledged to be a global leader in the area of social work and social care. The country’s policy makers, right from the initial days of the welfare state in the late 1940s, have striven to provide social benefits for economically and social disadvantaged people (Hardcastle, et al, 2004, p 38-47). Whilst the evolution of social work policies and practice in the country has been shaped by the contributions of different governments and the changing economic and social needs of people, it has also been characterised by its focus on the needs of families (Hardcastle, et al, 2004, p 38-47).
UK policy makers recognise that family life provides the foundation for building of communities and societies. Modern day families face stress on account of factors like incompatibility between spouses, growing divorce rates, greater number of working wives, increasing household costs, physical and mental ailments of family members, difficulties in educating children and finding suitable housing (Burgess & Taylor, 2004, p 51-62). Social work policies in the UK have focused on and are working towards providing support to families in these and other associated areas (Burgess & Taylor, 2004, p 51-62).
Social work practice in the UK has over time been influenced by various approaches like (a) the welfare state policies adopted by the Labour government in the 1940s, (b) the impact of Thatcherism in the 1980s, and (c) the policies of New Labour from 1997 to the present day (Bradshaw & Mayhew, 2005, p 14-21). Numerous legislative enactments have been introduced to bring about social change and provide relief to disadvantaged and oppressed segments of society. Successive governments have formulated and implemented imaginative and carefully planned programmes to deliver social support to individuals and groups in need (Bradshaw & Mayhew, 2005, p 14-21).
This essay takes up the evolution of social work practice in the UK, with special emphasis on its role in supporting families. Areas of focus include enactment of legislative measures, the role of social workers in supporting families and the importance of anti-oppressive, anti-discriminatory and advocacy approaches in social work practice.
Evolution of Social Work
Social work is rooted in society’s challenges in dealing with social and economic disadvantages.
The concept of social work, whilst essentially related to charitable acts, needs to be understood in a significantly broader context. With the need to provide for the poor, the physically ill and the destitute being ingrained in the scriptures of all religions, religious institutions across the world have consistently worked towards providing relief to disadvantaged social segments (Dalrymple, & Burke, 2006, p 19-31). Whilst the charitable work of religious institutions has been supported by numerous private charities, the active involvement of the state and its progressive domination of social work practice and delivery in the UK occurred only after the closure of the Second World War and the formation of the labour government in the UK in 1945 (Hodge, 2007, p 139-142). Policy makers in the UK formulated and implemented a range of policies in the following years to provide social care and social justice to citizens, introduced specific laws for improving the conditions of socially and economically disadvantaged people, and implemented programmes for achieving social work objectives (Dalrymple, & Burke, 2006, p 19-31).
The years of the welfare state in the UK, from 1946 to 1979, resulted in the development of substantial public facilities for supporting families and children (Lafferty, & Meadowcroft, 2000, p 33-37). This period witnessed the emergence and development of the NHS and the formation of a social infrastructure, through the joint efforts of public departments, the NHS, local authorities and social workers, for providing support to families and individuals in need in areas like medical care, education and community welfare (Lafferty, & Meadowcroft, 2000, p 33-37). Three government departments, the Health Department, the Welfare Department and the Children’s Department assumed responsibility for providing social services to people and groups in need (Hugman, 2005, p 143-149). This period saw the enactment of numerous laws that aimed to bring about social change and improvement, like the Mental Health Act in 1959, the Children and Young Person’s Act in 1963, the Children and Young Person’s Act in 1969 and the Local Authority Social Services Act in 1970 (Hugman, 2005, p 143-149).
The end of the 1970s witnessed the replacement of the labour government by the conservative party led by Margaret Thatcher (Weinstein, et al, 2003, p 47-59). The consequent dismantling of the three decade old welfare state resulted in significant changes in governmental approaches towards social work. The government signalled, following the report of the Barclay Committee in 1982 that Local Authority Social Services would henceforth work as purchasers and regulators of care, rather than as exclusive providers (Weinstein, et al, 2003, p 47-59). With the 1988 Griffith Report recommending that social workers become brokers to care suppliers, care management assumed prominence in delivery of social work. Social workers had to adjust to working in situations of contracting resources and increasing demand by prioritising their focus on groups that needed most help and were at greatest risk (Watson, et al, 2002, p 74-81). Governmental commitment to reduction in public spending resulted in a shift from institutional care to community care. Local authorities were encouraged to make use of services from private, voluntary and not for profit providers, if such services helped in improving the cost effectiveness of care (Watson, et al, 2002, p 74-81). They were also asked to search and locate areas of their own services that could be floated to other providers. The National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990 tried to vigorously implement these recommendations and encouraged local authorities to purchase services from independent agencies rather than provide them on their own (Watson, et al, 2002, p 74-81).
The entry of New Labour to power in 1997 resulted in another major transformation in social work policy and practice. New Labour moved child welfare to the core of social policy with the introduction of the Every Child Matters programme in 2003 (White, et al, 2009, p 10-19). This was followed by the passing of the Children Act 2004 and three important new initiatives, namely the Children and Young People’s Plan, the Common Assessment Framework and the National Services Framework. The introduction of the Children’s Plan in 2007 represented another important step in the government’s social work policy for the welfare of children and families (White, et al, 2009, p 10-19).
The evolution of social work in the UK after 1945 was distinguished by two features, namely (a) the development of a range of programmes and the enactment of numerous laws for bringing about positive social change, and (b) the construction of a vast infrastructure comprising of government departments, local authorities, health officials, private and voluntary organisations and social workers for delivery of required social services (Tew, 2005, p 7-11).
Contemporary social workers assess the various needs of families and children in the community with the help of established tools and processes and thereafter recommend appropriate intervention plans for providing support and sustenance with the active participation and agreement of service users (Barker, 2009, p 14-20).
Social Work with Families and Children
Modern day families are under considerable stress. It is difficult to be a good parent in contemporary times, and with many marriages ending in divorce, increasing numbers of children are growing up in single parent families. Stress on family life has increased and changed due to developments like increase in divorce rates, growing numbers of working women, the emergence of double income and single parent families, the need for children to live with step parents, the growing incidence of family breakdown (The National Archives, 2010, p 4-17).
Family life is often challenged by phenomena like loss of employment or income, domestic violence, substance abuse and child delinquency. Families with physically or mentally ill children need specialised medical advice and help and are sometimes unable to decide on the best course of action (Dalrymple, & Burke, 2006, p 19-31). Carers of old or young people require help in their efforts to find employment nearer home or jobs with flexible timings. Single parents need support in bringing up their children and in ensuring good physical health and educational outcomes (Dalrymple, & Burke, 2006, p 19-31). With children from minority communities and ethnic groups continuing to face discrimination of varying degrees at school and public places, parents of such children are likely to need support in protecting their wards from discriminatory and oppressive practices (Dalrymple, & Burke, 2006, p 19-31).
Social and healthcare policies in the UK aim to provide services to families in areas of health, education, social services and law and order (Weinstein, et al, 2003, p 47-59). The government is attempting to meet these needs better with improved NHS services and through a slew of programmes for improving the physical, mental and educational upbringing of children. Social workers engage with families to identify their needs, assess their requirements and plan and implement effective interventions with the support of professionals in areas of health, education and even the police, depending upon the nature of cases and determined interventions (Weinstein, et al, 2003, p 47-59).
With children forming the core of most families, New Labour’s multidimensional social and health care approach for improving the physical and educational outcomes for children essentially aims to improve family life and experiences (The National Archives, 2010, p 4-17). The government is focused on five specific areas for improvement of family experiences, namely (a) ensuring that parents can access required advice and support, improving services and enhancing the ways and means whereby wider family and communities can sustain and take care of family life, (b) enhancing family prosperity, lowering child poverty, and ensuring that governmental systems recognise the costs of rearing children, (c) making it simpler and more feasible for parents to give more time to their children by assisting families to balance home and work, (d) strengthening marriage and lowering family breakdown risks, and (e) tackling serious problems like domestic violence and teen pregnancy (The National Archives, 2010, p 4-17).
Role of Social Workers
Social work delivery depends upon the individual and joint efforts of a vast body of trained social workers engaged in different settings who work, (often with the help of agencies in areas like health and education), in the community (a) to bring about positive changes in the lives of disadvantaged individuals, families and groups, and (b) challenge oppression and discrimination in its various forms (Watson, et al, 2002, p 74-81). Contemporary social workers undergo rigorous training, operate in a range of organisational settings and provide social services to socially and economically disadvantaged individuals, families and groups. Much of their activity happens in the community and concerns the providing of appropriate support to families in areas like (a) medical health to the young, the old and the ailing, (b) education of children, (c) child welfare, (d) domestic violence, (e) child neglect and teenage pregnancies, (f) substance abuse, and (g) young offenders. As is evident, the bulk of their work concerns supporting and sustaining families in need in different ways (Watson, et al, 2002, p 74-81).
Contemporary social work practice has been shaped by different social work theories and a number of social work models. These have developed over the years and place individuals and families at the centre of the social work process (Turner, 2005, p 59-62). Whilst social work practice in the past was dominated by daddy-knows-best approaches and decisions on service users were made without taking account of their views, modern day social workers use the person centred approach during the conduct of assessment, planning and delivery processes and take decisions only after careful consideration of the viewpoints and perspectives of service users and their agreement with final intervention decisions (Turner, 2005, p 59-62).
Social work is defined by the concepts of social justice and equality and social workers abide by clearly laid out codes of ethics and conduct in their actions with service users, their employers and various other private and public agencies (Maluccio, et al, 2002, p 63-71). The complex needs of individuals and families in need, the limited resources available to them and the objectives of their employers often result in the development of extremely challenging situations and require social workers to take difficult and complex decisions. Well defined codes of conduct and ethics help and guide social workers in taking appropriate decisions in such situations (Maluccio, et al, 2002, p 63-71).
Role of Anti-Oppressive Practice, Anti-Discriminatory Practice and Advocacy
The challenging of oppression and discrimination in different forms and the advocacy of the rights of disadvantaged segments of society are integral to modern day social work.
Numerous segments of society continue to be discriminated against on account of issues like gender, ethnicity, colour, race, religion, age, and mental and physical disability. Such discrimination often results in challenging in the creation of difficult and oppressive conditions in areas of education, employment and in accessing of various public facilities (Dalrymple, & Burke, 2006, p 19-31). UK law makers have over the years brought about numerous enactments like Sex Discrimination Act 1975, Race Relations Act 1976, Disability Discrimination Act 1995, and the Equality Act 2010; which together combine to make discriminatory activity of practically all sorts and types illegal (White, et al, 2009, p 10-19) (Legislation.gov.uk, 2010, p 1-2).
Whilst discrimination of any type is undoubtedly illegal in contemporary Britain, it continues to occur because of entrenched attitudes in people and leads to oppression among different disadvantaged segments (Dalrymple, & Burke, 2006, p 19-31). Social workers play constructive roles in combating discrimination and oppression by providing advice to individuals and families about their rights and by taking up their cases at appropriate forums. They have to moreover take care to ensure the elimination of all personal discriminatory attitudes in the conduct of their work and in their dealings with service users (Dalrymple, & Burke, 2006, p 19-31). Thompson’s PCS model specifically argues that discriminatory attitudes are shaped over the years by a range of personal, cultural and social influences upon individuals; they are likely to be deeply entrenched in the individual psyches of most individuals and shape individual responses, attitudes and actions (Thompson, 2006, p 5-17). Dominelli has time and again stated that discriminatory and oppressive attitudes continue to be rampant in modern day society and permeate the contemporary social work infrastructure in the UK. Social workers, whilst being guided by their ethical codes of conduct, need to constantly and purposely adopt anti-oppressive and anti-discriminatory attitudes (Dominelli, 2002, p 3-114).
This is particularly important because social workers are constantly called upon to empower service users through the use of a range of advocacy services, either on their own or through other people (Hugman, 2005, p 143-149). Advocacy represents the process of speaking for and representing the views of service users. Advocacy projects are of various types, including self advocacy, peer advocacy, citizen advocacy and professional advocacy (Hugman, 2005, p 143-149). Social workers are often called upon to speak for individuals, families and groups and use their knowledge and skills in bringing about desired outcomes. The process is often challenging because family members could have conflicting wishes or views in opposition to the views held by the social workers (Hugman, 2005, p 143-149).
Social workers in such circumstances need to ensure that their views are not shaped by entrenched discriminatory attitudes or because of the contradictory objectives of their employers.
This short essay deals with the evolution of social work practice in the UK, with special emphasis on its role in supporting families.
Social work was in the past practiced by religious institutions and charitable organisations. The increasing role of the state in the UK in providing social care and bringing about social equality occurred only after the closure of the Second World War. Social work practice in the UK has over the years been shaped by various approaches like (a) the welfare state policies of successive governments from 1945 to the late 1970s, (b) the policies of Margaret Thatcher and John Major in the 1980s and 1990s, and (c) the policies of New Labour from 1997 to the present day. Numerous acts have been introduced to bring about social change and provide relief to disadvantaged and oppressed segments of society. The evolution of social work in the UK resulted in two important outcomes, i.e. (1) the development of programmes and the enactment of laws for bringing about social change, and (b) the construction of a vast infrastructure for delivery of social services.
Family life, whilst forming the foundation of society, is often challenged by phenomena like loss of employment or income, domestic violence, substance abuse and child delinquency. Families also have to cope with different problems like physically or mentally ill children, caring of old people, bringing up children and coping with discriminatory and oppressive attitudes. Social and healthcare policies in the UK aim to provide services to families in areas of health, education, social services and law and order.
Social work delivery is driven by the efforts of trained social workers who work in the community to bring about positive outcomes in the lives of disadvantaged individuals, families and groups, and challenge oppression and discrimination in its various forms. Social work is defined by concepts of social justice and equality and social workers adhere to clearly laid out codes of ethics and conduct in their actions with service users and other people and organisations.
The challenging of oppression and discrimination and the advocacy of the rights of disadvantaged social segments are integral to modern day social work. With numerous segments of society continuing to be discriminated against on account of issues like gender, ethnicity and colour, social workers combat discrimination and oppression through various approaches and measures. Whilst doing so they have to take care to ensure the elimination of all personal discriminatory attitudes in their dealings with service users. Dominelli has repeatedly stated that discriminatory and oppressive attitudes continue to present and that social workers need to constantly and purposely adopt anti-oppressive and anti-discriminatory attitudes and adhere to ethical codes of conduct.
The UK is acknowledged to have one of the best social work systems in the world. Continuous development of the person centred approach and focus on anti-oppressive and anti-discriminatory measures is however essential for improving its effectiveness for service users in future.