Reconfiguring professional autonomy? The case of social work in the UK
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Chandler, J., Berg, E., Ellison, M. & Barry, J. (2017) Reconfiguring professional autonomy? The case of social work in the UK. In: Blom, B., Evertsson, L. & Perlinski, M. (eds.) Social and Caring Professions in European Welfare States: Policies, Services and Professional Practices. Bristol: Policy Press.
The history of social work in the United Kingdom is a long and complex one, and there are no signs of it getting less complex. If the theory and practice of UK social work is of interest to an international audience it is not just because of the hegemony of the English language, but also because it has often been at the forefront of changes - for good and ill, perhaps. If there is something to learn from the UK experience it might be as much from the wrong turns and difficulties of the occupation in that divided realm, as from the advances in thinking and practice. This chapter focusses on the contemporary position of social work in the UK, and on the challenges to what is seen as a managerial-technicist version of social work (Harlow 2003). If the UK is to be seen as at the forefront of the New Public Management and of managerialist reforms in the 1980s those in other countries and contexts might seek to avoid some of the problems of an 'early adopter'. It will be apparent here, however, that the future course of the social work occupation in the UK is by no means fully charted. At best we can point to certain possibilities and to social imaginaries that may prove to be the basis for revised forms of practice, however liminal these are. In this discussion the focus will be the degree of professional autonomy of social work as an occupational group as a feature of these possibilities. First we focus on the situation from the 1990s to the present day in which this managerial-technicist version of social work takes root and flourishes. Second we focus on three alternatives that have emerged in recent years. In doing so we do not intend to provide an indication of the likely direction of travel for UK social work, nor do we assume that these alternatives are the only ones available; we hope merely to draw attention to possible alternatives that might be worth considering and supporting. The 'profession' of social work in the UK can be regarded as occupying a favourable position, in that social work is a 'protected title' (Health and Care Professions Council 2014) and only those who have undergone graduate level education in social work, in approved courses, can describe themselves as 'social workers'. This means that many occupational groups providing social care, who might, in other countries, be seen as social workers are not so regarded in the UK. This can be seen as a successful case of professionalization in which the occupational group comes to gain a measure of closure and construct barriers to entry, based on a distinct body of knowledge and expertise, a step that fully confirms its professional. However, a cursory glance at the literature on social work in the UK will confirm that this is not how members of the occupation or associated academic commentators construe the situation. If the development of social work in the UK has a long history of debates about the status of the occupation, as well as about the organizational structures appropriate for practice and about the knowledge that is appropriately used by practitioners, then this shows no sign of changing: social work in the UK perennially seems to be 'at the crossroads', to use a title of an article by Lymbery (2001). Whilst systems and structures may vary across the various countries of the UK they have all endured the challenges of a managerial-technicist reconstruction of social work within a New Public Management paradigm. However, there are many roads that could be taken from this point. The purpose of this chapter is to signpost three alternatives to the managerial-technicist form of social work that have emerged in the social work literature in recent. First, though, in the next section, we seek to clarify the context in which these 'alternatives' have emerged.