So You Want to be a Social Worker?

Let's start with the assumption that you want to be a professionally trained social worker. You will want to know what social work is really about.

Social work is now a major business and the government is eager to attract young people into it. However, what is rarely mentioned is that an understanding of social class is central to social work and to people's feelings about entering the profession.

Social work training is often seen as an opportunity for lifestyle change and for moving up the social scale into a more secure and better paid job. The recruitment campaign assumes that professional training provides automatic entry into the middle class and this is what everyone wants. It fails to recognise class divisions within society and the fact that many working class people feel proud of their class. In fact, many social workers from a working class background continue to feel working class even though by occupation and income they are regarded as middle class.

Much social work is based on the notion that vulnerable people need support to enable them to function better. Some jobs in the voluntary sector, and in community-based projects, offer more scope to those who want to work in a supportive way but in social services departments, where the jobs are easier to find, the safeguarding role often overrides other considerations. Good social work practice is only possible in departments/teams which support it and it is worth doing some research to discover where these are. In my experience you may strive to work supportively but there are inherent constraints within the statutory role which limit what can be achieved in terms of preventative work or in tackling the underlying problems caused by living in poverty and in deprived communities.

Politicians, policy-makers and many middle class professionals are confused about the social work role. They seem ambivalent about the social worker's use of authority and presume that all social work is simply 'social care', which is misleading. They choose to depict social work as a helping profession and as the answer to many social problems - including those that are an inherent part of the socio-economic system and require political action. Working class people, on the other hand, know that the provision of social services is closely linked with systems for monitoring, surveillance and control and are in no doubt about the social control function of social work.

Sometimes those who are highly educated cannot see what is obvious to the rest of the population. Most clients of social services are likely to be poor and to be drawn from those sections of the population with least status, security and power. It is obvious that social work is essentially a class transaction concerned with the transmission of middle class values. It is not surprising therefore that some social workers relate to clients in a rather patronising way, revealing unthinking class assumptions or an exaggerated sense of superiority as a highly educated professional. This raises serious concerns about the limited capacity of qualified social workers to apply their understanding of critical perspectives in practice.

The social work profession claims to have an anti-oppressive orientation but only in those areas that it chooses and is actually very weak on the oppression of working class people. This is because the profession has been taken over by the middle class and has chosen to support those groups that do not threaten its interests e.g. black, gay and disabled people. It suits the middle class in positions of power to ignore the oppressed working class and deny any responsibility for structural inequalities that oppress. They think it is sufficient simply to have the 'correct' attitude.

Social work has always been ambivalent about its class position and its role in maintaining the social system as it is. State social workers are expected to use their professional relationship to keep people in line and this is often justified by wrapping everything up in the language of social inclusion which is often meaningless. Social workers cannot avoid the contradictory nature of their role but sometimes they need to take a stand and show which side they are on. In particular, they should be alert to increasing pressures on social workers to act more on behalf of the state than for the individual and try to avoid becoming part of the 'nanny state'.

There is little coherence to the present system of professional training. Students often find that the knowledge offered by middle class academics is worthless without a good understanding of ordinary life experience; they learn a lot more from working class people who have struggled and survived, including those who are supposed to be their clients. Social work training aims to combine theory and practice but does not really get to grips with the emotional complexities of the job. The middle class idealism students are fed at college does not prepare them for a stressful job which involves extreme rationing, endless office-based work, and little scope for empowering working class people. If social workers are to be fit to practice they need a coherent class analysis to make sense of it all.

Social work is not an easy job but there are many rewards for those who never lose touch with what is important - to understand and respect the life experience of clients and never forget the social and political context in which their problems arise. At the heart of social work is the task of alleviating the stress of clients living in poverty and in impoverished communities, where divisions arising out of class, ethnicity and religion are sometimes entrenched. Poverty and inequality are often at the root of many social problems and social work must recognise the part that class plays in perpetuating these problems.

Hilary Searing


Further Reading

So You Want to be a Children's Social Worker?


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