Colin Turbett – 11th November 2021
Community social work is at the heart of Common Weal’s ideas for a new National Care Service – our soon to be published blueprint will certainly outshine the Scottish Government’s own proposals in both scope and vision. Our ideas for bringing social work back to communities have been touched upon in various papers – in particular Struggling to Care and Care in Your Community. It is pleasing to see that community social work is gaining support across Scotland and several Councils are looking seriously at how this might be done. At the Social Work Scotland Conference on October 26th, I was invited to be part of a Panel looking at the theme of “The Future of Social Work” and issued this challenge to delegates in my opening remarks against the backdrop of the picture shown.
“We live in a deeply unequal and divided world on a heading for environmental disaster – and COP-26 looks likely to fulfil Greta Thunberg’s prediction of being a corporate greenwashing jamboree with a lot of bla bla bla…..“
That is all the result of rampant capitalism – in which social work has become embedded as a gatekeeper of a diminishing share of resources, and an agent of social control. After 1968 social workers were able to navigate a path between relationship-based engagement with people in their communities, and decisive statutory interventions when required. We didn’t always get it right, but we certainly don’t now. We have become obsessed with risk and we have become over proceduralised. We have also become inaccessible and remote from the communities we work in. We have sacrificed relationship-based practice on the altar of assessment, and action by others.
The pandemic has tested everyone, and thankfully promoted some reflection. Social work is broken! If we want to repair it we have to look at ways of rebuilding community engagement based on relationships. Integration – that is top-down integration – has taken us further away from this. We need to rediscover the promise of 1968 – begin again to seriously promote social welfare and involve ourselves in preventative rather than reactive practice. It can be done and there are examples across Scotland that suggest some social work leaders are already looking at this.
Iona Colvin, the Chief Social Work Adviser says in her introduction to this conference that the Scottish Government recognise the place of social work. Do they? As we debate with them our role in the new National Care Service, will we be listened to or will it be more bla bla bla? More of a system that downplays the importance of care in society and subsumes it to health on the one hand, and a market economy on the other. It’s up to us to demand a return to community-located practice and the resources we will need to do that. Let’s get out of the silos and centralised offices, and back to the neighbourhoods!
A Common Weal supporter, Lusta, recently made contact to share her experiences of Council sponsored community social work in Hackney, North London in the 1980s. Her thoughts echo with our proposals for some of the ways this could work in Scotland. Lusta volunteered in Centreprise, a cooperative run bookshop, coffee shop and cultural community centre that had been a social services office. After training she worked as a “patch” social worker in the nearby social work team office. She writes:
“Basically, you lived and worked on your patch with everybody. People I would work with over issues during the week would bump into me at the local shop at the weekend. That was the plan! We would basically be a local resource. Hackney introduced special advisers (consultants) from each and every local community, and if, for instance, I was asked to visit a Hasidic family, I would take along a consultant from the Hasidic community; the same with Caribbean families, and so on. They wanted us to learn to think from the standpoint of communities we hadn’t grown up in so that our own cultural bias was mitigated. The area manager for Social Services told us that we had to regard children who were looked after by the authority as if they were OUR children. She insisted that we argue hard for resources for them – and we did! I left there to work in an authority in Northern England and was shocked to find no one else had these ideas.”
Patch social work was the name given in those days to community social work, and Lusta’s experiences combine a community focused social work style with the importance of a hub for cultural and other services and activities. Sadly, such experiments in the local democratic service delivery using community strengths and resources did not survive the Thatcher years. They had almost been forgotten in the adaptation of social work to the market and work based primarily on very downstream risk assessment. The revival of relationship-based practice focused on prevention is long overdue.
Care Reform Working Group