Against social work values: their origins, nature and problems

Author: John Harris1
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  • 1 Coventry University, , UK
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‘Social work values’ are a feature of contemporary English social work and social work education that, over time, have become so established that they are now accepted with little questioning. This lack of reflection about social work values is probed, beginning with a historical excavation to reveal the background to their emergence from the social democratic welfare state, via critical and radical perspectives, and the process that led to their official embrace. After completing the historical excavation, the enduring influence of their historical origins is noted, their nature is interrogated and the problems they pose are explored.

Abstract

‘Social work values’ are a feature of contemporary English social work and social work education that, over time, have become so established that they are now accepted with little questioning. This lack of reflection about social work values is probed, beginning with a historical excavation to reveal the background to their emergence from the social democratic welfare state, via critical and radical perspectives, and the process that led to their official embrace. After completing the historical excavation, the enduring influence of their historical origins is noted, their nature is interrogated and the problems they pose are explored.

Social rights in the welfare state: the dominant discourse

The post-war social democratic welfare state’s most significant achievement is widely regarded as the provision of social rights. Marshall was the most notable proponent of this view, seeing the state’s establishment of social rights as the concluding stage in his model of the progressive development of citizenship, bolted on to its previous stages of civil and political rights (Marshall, 1950). Marshall (1963) argued that unfettered market capitalism’s inability to guarantee the provision of services as of right to all citizens led to injustice and so the inequalities of the market had to be contained by the state in order to promote social stability, balancing the socially divisive effects of market-based inequalities by the integrative experience of solidarity generated by the social rights of citizenship. Thus, Marshall saw the institutions embedded in the welfare state as managing the tension between the democratic political system and the unequal economic system, regarding welfare as distinguished from, but potentially in conflict with, democracy and capitalism. Nevertheless, he argued that all three existed together in a more or less functioning system (Marshall, 1981).

Within this assumed consensus on social rights, Marshall viewed service users as passive ‘client-citizens’ (Roche, 1987: 369), with state power as the ‘caretaker’ of their social existence, intervening in their lives ‘to encourage the passive consumption of state provision’ (Keane, 1988: 4). In other words, Marshall considered that social rights were not designed for citizens to exercise power; rather, at their heart was ‘a clientelist relationship between the citizen and the state’ (Powell, 1997: 209). Marshall made clear this distinction by contrasting social rights with civil rights: ‘Civil rights though vested in individuals, are used to create groups, associations, corporations and movements of every kind…. Civil rights are a form of power’ (Marshall, 1981: 141–2); while social rights ‘are not designed for the exercise of power at all…. They concern individuals as consumers, not as actors’ (Marshall, 1981: 141). If citizens were expected to consume welfare state services in this way, the logic of Marshall’s position was that there must be state provision that embodied expertise and professionalism in the delivery of those services (Marshall, 1975). This faith in disinterested professionalism as the exercise of public service enjoyed cross-party political support and became a cornerstone of the post-war social-democratic consensus on welfare (Marquand, 1988):

The characteristic organisational regime of the social democratic welfare state was one of professional bureaucracy (or bureau-professionalism) in which the dominant modes of coordination were those of rational administration and professional discretion. Both modes embodied the Fabian model of social welfare – the application of expertise to the solution of social problems. Both involved laying claim to specific sorts of power; both constructed specific modes of coordination (hierarchical authority and collegial relations); both involved specific sorts of relationships with users and potential users of welfare services; and both laid claim to distinctive forms of neutrality (bureaucratic rationality and professional knowledge and values). The articulation of these modes of coordination in the organisational regimes of the welfare state underpinned its characteristic organisational structures and cultures, its characteristic disputes and conflicts, its characteristic patterns of dealing with ‘citizens’ and ‘clients’. (Clarke, 1996: 48)

The reliance on professionalism and the assumption of citizen passivity led to state social work (as was the case with other welfare state institutions) being provided through bureau-professional regimes in which priority was given to expert knowledge. The corollary was the subordination of citizens without such knowledge to professional authority in what were seen as their own best interests. With hindsight, this uncritical reliance on the discretionary power of professionals can be seen as having had distinctively authoritarian dimensions (Roche, 1992), unforeseen by Marshall, which allowed professionals to be unaccountable to the users of the services they provided (Johnson, 1972; Wilding, 1982; Hugman, 1991).

Questioning the dominant discourse

The welfare state’s edifice of what was represented as benign professionalism, operating in citizens’ best interests, began to crumble in social work in the early 1970s. The first wave of critique was rooted in a class analysis and widespread trade union militancy, which enjoined public sector workers to be in and against the state (London Edinburgh Weekend Return Group, 1980). One of the manifestations of this analysis was Case Con magazine, which, as it said on its cover, was ‘a revolutionary magazine for social workers’. The Case Con Collective produced a manifesto that set out a stark critique of social work:

Every day of the week, every week of the year, social workers … see the utter failure of social work to meet the real needs of the people it purports to help. Faced with this failure, some social workers despair and leave to do other jobs, some hide behind the facade of professionalism and scramble up the social work ladder regardless, and some grit their teeth and just get on with the job, remaining helplessly aware of the dismal reality. Of course, some do not see anything wrong in the first place. (Case Con Collective, 1975: 144)

This initial critique of benign professionalism set its sights on the position of social workers following the implementation of the Seebohm Report (1968) and the establishment of social services departments. The ‘Case Con manifesto’ opined:

It is important to examine the ‘professional approach’ that has been accentuated by Seebohm and happily accepted by social service hierarchies and workers alike. ‘Professionalism’ firstly implies the acquisition of a specialism – knowledge and skills not possessed by untrained workers. This isolates the social worker from the population at large. Secondly, social workers come to see themselves as part of an accepted specialist group on a par with doctors and lawyers. Thirdly, it encourages the introduction of business-like career structures, where ‘correct’ and ‘professional’ behaviour (such as ‘detachment’ and ‘controlled emotional involvement’) is rewarded with advancement. Clearly, such an approach is welcomed by the ruling class…. Professionalism is a particularly dangerous development, specifically because social workers look to it for an answer to many of the problems and contradictions of the job itself – i.e. being unable to solve the basic inadequacy of society through social work. It must be fought at every opportunity. (Case Con Collective, 1975: 145)

Once the wall of supposedly benign professionalism had been breached by this class-based analysis, other critical and radical perspectives, both from service users and from social workers, poured in with their penetrating critiques of traditional forms of professional provision: Black perspectives, anti-racist perspectives, feminist perspectives, anti-sexist perspectives, lesbian perspectives, gay perspectives, anti-heterosexist perspectives, disabled people’s perspectives, anti-disablist perspectives, older people’s perspectives, anti-ageist perspectives and so on. These ‘representational struggles’ (Clarke, 1996: 48) had a significant impact on social work, which was:

a particularly clear focal point for cultural politics and equality campaigns from a range of sources, focused on gender, sexuality, disability, age and ethnicity. Some of these [were] about the representation of need; some about the distribution of power between professionals, users and carers; some about the relationship between social work and the family; some about rights and some about representation within the social work profession itself. These … made their mark on social work…. It is important to note how these processes of cultural and political struggle around identity, rights and representation … constituted ‘difference’, ‘diversity’ and ‘fragmentation’ in very specific ways in the context of social work. (Clarke, 1996: 50–1)

These developments in social work were part of wider social changes:

... new forms of social, cultural and political movements destabilised the social settlement profoundly. Particular lines of social differentiation became the focus for collective action and political conflict. Many of these centred on divisions that had previously been treated as natural categories (such as ‘race’, gender and sexuality) where collective action sought to redefine them as socially produced and constructed. (Clarke and Newman, 1997: 9)

Although the manifestation of these struggles in and against social work was diverse, what united the critical and radical perspectives was their concern with shifting the balance of power in favour of what had been marginalised groups, recognising their agency and making policy and provision more closely attuned to how they saw their needs. The perspectives insisted on: the right to presence and visibility, instead of marginalisation; the right to dignifying representation, instead of stigmatisation; and the right to their identity and maintenance of their lifestyle, instead of assimilation. This involved ‘the right to be different, to re-value stigmatised identities, to embrace openly and legitimately hitherto marginalised lifestyles and to propagate them without hindrance’ (Pakulski, 1997: 83).

The emergence of these perspectives was initially looked at askance by the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work (CCETSW), the accreditation body for social work education that had been established in 1971. In response, a consultative document expressed concern that ‘professional education and training [now] has purposes which are different from a liberal education’ (CCETSW, 1977: 27). In other words, the supposed neutrality of a liberal professional education had been corrupted by critical and radical ideas. The document proposed that senior CCETSW staff should formulate a statement on the type of social worker that university programmes should produce and that the programmes should instil in student social workers a ‘system of shared professional values, to enable them to begin to practise competently’ (CCETSW, 1977: 10). The proposal was widely interpreted as an attack on approaches to social work of the sort represented by the critical and radical perspectives, especially as the consultative document went on to suggest that students should eschew action to ‘change the system’ (CCETSW, 1977: 11). One group of academics saw the document as CCETSW revealing an ambition ‘to impose centralised control, not only on social work education, but, thereby, on thinking about social work itself’ (University of Warwick, 1978). Having considered the responses to this consultation document, CCETSW concluded that it was ‘not consistent with the Council’s general approach to education and training for social work to establish national requirements for a uniform curriculum’ (CCETSW, Introduction (1978) 1977: 6). Thus, in this period, CCETSW retained a professional validation framework that was remarkably permissive by today’s standards, amounting to academic self-regulation (White, 2006: 56) and allowing the continued articulation of critical and radical perspectives in social work education.

Enter values

Within five years of CCETSW’s statement of continuing commitment to academic self-regulation, it moved on to propose major changes in social work education through a further, and drawn-out, period of review and consultation beginning in 1982 (for a detailed account of this period, see White, 2006: ch 5). After the Thatcher government rejected CCETSW’s proposal for a three-year diploma in social work (CCETSW, 1987), CCETSW replaced it with a two-year diploma set out in the publication Paper 30: Rules and Requirements for the Diploma in Social Work (CCETSW, 1989). In contrast to CCETSW’s concerns during the 1970s’ consultation, discrimination and oppression emerged for the first time in official consideration of the future of social work education. CCETSW expressed its commitment to furthering anti-racist and anti-discriminatory practice, requiring qualifying social workers to combat discrimination based on age, gender, sexual orientation, class, disability, culture and religion (CCETSW, 1989: 16). In an introductory statement, CCETSW gave a definition of social work: ‘Social work promotes social welfare and responds to wider social needs, promoting equal opportunities for every age, gender, sexual preference, class, disability, race, culture and creed. Social work has the responsibility to protect the vulnerable and exercise authority under statute’ (CCETSW, 1989: 8). While retaining an emphasis on statutory authority, CCETSW had swung in the direction of supporting critical and radical perspectives in social work education:

Paper 30 marked a substantial shift from CCETSW’s concerns in the 1970s and early 1980s in opening up consideration of the impact of discrimination and oppression in relation to social work and, in the process, placed in the mainstream of state deliberations themes, issues and debates that had previously existed predominantly in academic and to some extent practice contexts. (White, 2006: 59)

This change of direction was short-lived. The second edition of Paper 30 (CCETSW, 1991), to which only minor revisions had been made and questioning critical assertions had remained, received extensive media coverage. The coverage focused on the sections that dealt with discrimination and oppression. Claims were made in national newspapers and journals that social work and social work education had fallen prey to ‘political correctness’ (see, for example, Appleyard, 1993; Phillips, 1993; Pinker, 1993), and more sustained critiques of this alleged phenomenon emerged (Dunant, 1994). In the run-up to the appearance of the third – more extensively revised – edition of the rules and requirements, Virginia Bottomley, the then Secretary of State for Health and previously a social worker, announced in a speech to the Conservative Local Government Conference that ‘a National Core Curriculum for Social Work Training … will be no place for trendy theories or the theory that isms or ologies come before common sense and practical skills’ (quoted in Preston-Shoot, 1996: 13).

In the aftermath of the press campaign against political correctness and in response to government pressure, substantial revisions were made to Paper 30, which re-emerged with a new reassuring title: Assuring Quality in the Diploma in Social Work 1: Rules and Requirements (CCETSW, 1995). In this version, CCETSW removed anti-oppressive and anti-discriminatory practice as a central element of the qualification under the influence of central government’s concerns about ‘isms and ologies’. The revised rules and requirements moved away from what was now depicted as the previous combative emphasis on anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive practice, and towards a more modest mandate for social work. This required students to develop knowledge and understanding of ‘diversity and difference’ (CCETSW, 1995: 9), and the assessment of students’ competence was to be in terms of how they managed diversity, using an individualistic approach of the kind described by Williams (1992: 226), which has remained at the heart of social work values:

This approach proclaims difference as essential in distinguishing need and prescribes responses to that need as a technical activity stripped of critical or radical ambition for change. It is essentially individualist, populist and pragmatic, and effectively operates to dissipate the politicisation of need by holding that everyone’s needs are unique and special. The model holds no hope of intersectionality between groups as it serves essentially to fragment them, but it can accommodate notions of multi-oppression in that everyone is unique.

CCETSW’s individualistic emphasis on diversity in Assuring Quality was a shift away from its brief flirtation with a focus on the impact of social divisions and the experience of oppression, and towards a view of diversity as the reflection of a range of differences that social work students would encounter: ‘Diversity is reflected through religion, ethnicity, culture, language, social status, family structures and lifestyle’ (CCETSW, 1995: 28). When such differences were encountered, students were enjoined to respect them and not to make things any worse than they already were as they gained ‘practice experience in delivering social work services to children, families and communities in ways which are responsive to and respectful to different faiths and cultural traditions, neither compounding disadvantage arising from race and social class, nor stigmatising people by reason of age, disability, illness, poverty or other difference’ (CCETSW, 1995: 9).

Anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive practice no longer appeared as requirements in relation to any of the ‘core competencies’. The only point at which sources and forms of oppression emerged as part of the requirements for the qualification was under the heading ‘Ethics and Values in Social Work’. Here, it was stated that students should be aware of ‘sources and forms of oppression, disadvantage and discrimination based on race, gender, religion, language, age, class, disability and being gay and lesbian, their impact at a structural and individual level, and strategies and actions to deal with them’ (CCETSW, 1995: 23). Any action on the part of students to ‘counter discrimination, racism, disadvantage, inequality and injustice’ had to take account of ‘strategies appropriate to role and context’ (CCETSW, 1995: 18). The inability to self-censor strategies appropriately in relation to ‘role and context’ would presumably serve to indicate a student who was not competent. Thus, the Assuring Quality agenda was intended to lead in the direction of a no-nonsense vocational training, which prepared people for employment in a way that reduced the scope of critical and radical perspectives, and replaced them with values for guiding individual social workers’ practice.

A perfect illustration of what this shift represented is provided by juxtaposing the Thatcher government’s Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which banned councils and schools from ‘promoting the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’, with reference to gay and lesbian people in the Assuring Quality document. If we look at exactly what was proposed in Assuring Quality, we can understand why it did not conflict with Section 28. We have already seen that students were to be ‘aware of sources and forms of oppression, disadvantage and discrimination based on being gay and lesbian’. In other words, social workers needed to be able to empathise with people who are not heterosexual (note the assumption of where social workers will be coming from in relation to sexuality). Empathy was a traditional quality that social workers had long been enjoined to have, albeit now with a new focus for their empathetic concern. From this moment on, the official pronouncements about social divisions were primarily located in the value framework that social workers were asked to adopt. This reduced the impact and countering of social divisions to a personal ethic of respect for people who are located within them. When thinking about the embeddedness of values talk in contemporary social work, and the sometimes extravagant claims made for its progressive nature, we would do well to remember that the according of a central place to values was a New Right Thatcherite achievement, which marginalised, subordinated and took the sting out of critical and radical perspectives, turning social work’s gaze away from oppression and directing it inwards to the character and characteristics of individual social workers. This is one of many examples of the New Right taking radical critiques and transforming them into claims that it was speaking for the ‘customer’ against the entrenched interests of professionals, who needed to modify their responses to the people using their services (Clarke, 1996: 48–9).

Values … on … and … on …

This New Right approach to values was consolidated through a range of policies and organisations that followed. The New Labour government replaced the diploma in social work with an undergraduate degree, which Higgins (2016) argues involved a ‘double curriculum’: a ‘broad’ curriculum and a ‘narrow’ curriculum. He locates the broad curriculum in the ‘Benchmark statement for social work’ (Quality Assurance Agency, 2008). The statement described social work as a moral practice, engaging with social justice and empowerment, along the lines of the international definition of social work (International Federation of Social Workers, 2014). The ‘Benchmark statement’ contrasted with the other three documents that underpinned the narrow (majority) elements of the social work degree curriculum: the Requirements for Social Work Training (Department of Health, 2002), the National Occupational Standards for Social Work (TOPSS, 2004) and the Codes of Practice for Employers of Social Care Workers and Social Care Workers (GSCC, 2004). For example, in the National Occupational Standards for Social Work, produced by the Training Organisation for the Personal Social Services (TOPSS) that had been set up by the New Labour government in 1999, sources of discrimination were mentioned in relation to the knowledge base underpinning social work. However, social divisions were only referred to in one of the hundreds of performance criteria that made up the standards, when social workers were asked to ‘identify the nature of the relationship and the processes required to develop purposeful relationships, taking account of ethnicity, gender, age, disability, sectarianism and sexuality issues’ (note the absence of class) (TOPSS, 2004: 27). In this performance criterion, social divisions are abstracted from sets of power relations to an ethical responsibility to bear them in mind as a facet of social workers’ relationships with service users. In tandem with TOPSS’s responsibility for occupational standards, the New Labour government also established the General Social Care Council as the regulator. It adopted a similar tone to TOPPS in its Code of Practice for Social Care Workers, which stated that practitioners should promote equal opportunities, respect diversity and difference, and not condone any unlawful or unjustifiable discrimination (GSCC, 2004). The overall aim of the social work degree was to ‘produce competent practitioners’ (Department of Health, 2002: i). To achieve this, the National Occupational Standards (TOPSS, 2004) set out social work’s key roles in accordance with a competency model of assessment in social work education, leading to criticisms of this being a reductionist and formulaic approach that did not recognise the complexity of social work practice (Higgins, 2016).

The short-lived College of Social Work produced a ‘professional capabilities framework’ (PCF), of which the British Association of Social Workers became the custodian after the College’s demise (BASW, 2018). In the PCF, ‘capability’ was broken down into nine domains, which were presented as much broader in scope than the previous key roles. For example, there are domains on values and ethics (Domain 2), diversity and equality (Domain 3), and rights, justice and economic well-being (Domain 4). Thus, with the advent of the domains, there was a marked swing away from the ‘double curriculum’ in the original formulation of the social work degree, and towards a ‘broad’ curriculum that was closer to the international definition of social work (International Federation of Social Workers, 2014). For example, in the PCF’s current iteration, social workers:

  • ‘Promote human rights and social justice … [and] develop and maintain our understanding of the value base of our profession throughout our career, its ethical standards and relevant law.’ (Domain 2)

  • ‘Recognise diversity and apply anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive principles in practice. Social workers understand that diversity characterises and shapes human experience and is critical to the formation of identity. Diversity is multi-dimensional and includes race, disability, class, economic status, age, sexuality, gender (including transgender), faith and belief, and the intersection of these and other characteristics. We understand that because of difference, and perception of difference, a person’s life experience may include oppression, marginalisation and alienation as well as privilege, power and acclaim. We identify this and promote equality.’ (Domain 3)

  • ‘Advance human rights and promote social justice and economic wellbeing. Social workers recognise and promote the fundamental principles of human rights, social justice and economic wellbeing enshrined in national and international laws, conventions and policies. These principles underpin our practice and we use statutory and case law effectively in our work. We understand and address the effects of oppression, discrimination and poverty. Wherever possible, we work in partnership with people using services, their carers and families, to challenge inequality and injustice, and promote strengths, agency, hope and self-determination.’ (Domain 4)

The standards of the new regulator, Social Work England, offer injunctions that are to be followed by social workers alongside adherence to the PCF domains, but expressed more tersely:

  • ‘Recognise differences across diverse communities and challenge the impact of disadvantage and discrimination on people and their families and communities.’

  • ‘Promote social justice, helping to confront and resolve issues of inequality and inclusion.’ (Social Work England, 2020: Professional Standard 1)

North of the border, social work values are more modest in scope. Social workers are required by the Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC, 2016): to ‘Work in a way that promotes diversity and respects different cultures and values’; to ‘Use established processes and procedures to report allegations of … discriminatory behaviour or practice’; and not to ‘Condone any discrimination by people who use services, carers or my colleagues.’ When compared to Domains 2, 3 and 4 of the PCF, are the SSSC’s requirements woefully unambitious or simply more realistic about what is possible in contemporary social work? Either way, if a social worker located in Berwick-on-Tweed moved to a post in Dunbar 30 miles away, they would have to change their social work values as they crossed the border.

Problems with social work values

Although there are some familiar themes in the current official iterations of social work values with regard to understanding how oppression impacts on service users and how social workers need to internalise the correct values, there are, as we have seen, some seemingly more radical and ambitious statements. Social workers: ‘promote equality’; ‘challenge inequality and injustice’; and ‘advance human rights and promote social justice and economic wellbeing’. However, social workers are reminded elsewhere that they are ‘accountable to employers’ (Domain 1). Although this is only briefly mentioned, it is the clue to how the seemingly radical and ambitious statements are to be read. One of the things that student social workers learn quickly when going into placement is that the domains’ high-flown sentiments are to be pursued in a way (as it was put in a previous era [see earlier]) that is ‘appropriate to role and context’, and that context is highly regulated and dominated by surveillance and managerialist roles. Higgins (2016: 1990) reviews the research evidence which has shown that this comes as a reality shock to students and newly qualified social workers, and identifies the continuation of a more narrow version of social work that dominates practice. Thus, in placement meetings, minor (though important, see Hill and Laredo, 2020) acts of kindness and consideration that have been shown by students to service users become evidence of their advancing human rights, promoting social justice, challenging inequality and so on. In this way, social work values domesticate critical and radical perspectives, as they have always done, and amount to a form of wish fulfilment.

This mainstream current could be described as having a ‘thick’ approach to social work values. The values are seen as at the core not just of social work, but also of the person of the individual social worker. Accordingly, one of the criteria scrutinised by social work programmes when interviewing prospective recruits is whether they either already have social work values or whether their own values are sufficiently in alignment with social work values that, if accepted on to the programme, they will have no trouble embracing them. Of course, the vast majority of people who come for interview know what is expected when they get to this point in the selection process and have no problem rattling out what the interviewers want to hear. The minimum that is acceptable is that recruits should have at least the potential to embrace social work values because of some aspects of their personal values that can be built on after selection. This is the beginning of a demand for thoroughgoing immersion in and complete fidelity to social work values. Once signed up, social work values are expected to constitute one’s judgement of what is important in life. There is a tinge of the totalitarian or religious (or both) about this: we will tell you what you should think and what should constitute the core of your being because all social workers should embrace and share these values. When official values statements change, all of social workers’ values apparently change in unison from a specified date in a way that is reminiscent of reactions to Communist Party pronouncements in Eastern Europe pre-1989 or when the Vatican announces a new or revised dogma. For example, as we saw earlier, when the initial version of Paper 30 was published in 1989, all social workers were required to combat discrimination; however, when the final version was published in 1995, they were not. Additionally, as we have also seen, social workers crossing from England to Scotland when changing jobs have to change their allegiance to a different and much more modest set of values.

The ‘thick’ approach to values ignores other values that social workers may possess and that may guide them in a much more powerful way than social work values. Fenton (2019) has researched the impact of generational changes on the cohort of social work students mostly born post-1995, and therefore belonging to the ‘iGeneration’ (iGen). Her results showed that the iGen students’ mean attitudinal measures were right-wing authoritarian in relation to crime and punishment and to unemployed people: ‘Overall, the iGen cohort was significantly more right-wing authoritarian than their older colleagues. In essence, there was evidence to suggest that an individualistic, self-sufficiency neoliberal narrative had been quite profoundly internalised by the iGen cohort of students’ (Fenton, 2019: 1238). Elsewhere, Fenton (2016) suggests that younger social workers are increasingly affected by rule-bound or manager-directed practice, which leaves little room for autonomy or responsive practice, but with which they are comfortable. She concludes that iGen social workers may enter the profession with an uncritical acceptance of neoliberal hegemony, negative views about the ‘undeserving’ and a tendency to follow regulations or instructions uncritically (Fenton, 2019). Presumably, most iGen students who hold these views pick up enough about social work values to know how to conceal their views.

Also, consider the position of social work students who have strong beliefs in the revealed religions of Islam and Christianity, which are at the core of their being. While I have had occasional conversations with a handful of adherents to these religions in which they have told me that social work education has caused them to question aspects of their religious beliefs, much more common are the examples outlined in Box 1, which I have encountered a number of times.

Religious examples

Example 1

Quran 4:34 sets out the husband’s role as protector and maintainer of his wife and how he should deal with disloyalty on her part. Translations of what is the appropriate response to wifely disloyalty differ. Options include ‘strike them’, ‘lightly strike them’, ‘beat them’ and ‘scourge them’. When writing essays or dissertations on domestic violence, Islamic students have mentioned this verse to me and said that this is their position but they know that this is not acceptable in social work.

Example 2

Bible 1 Corinthians 6: 9–10: Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

Bible 1 Timothy 1: 10: ‘The law is for people who are sexually immoral, or who practise homosexuality, or are slave traders, liars, promise breakers, or who do anything else that contradicts the wholesome teaching.’

Christian students have quoted one or both of these passages to me when discussing lesbian or gay perspectives but say that they know these views are not acceptable in social work.

Both of the examples in Box 1 could be presented as cynical and duplicitous ways of the religious ‘passing’ (in both senses of the word) as social workers. Alternatively, they can be seen as representing the position of people who hold deep religious convictions, to which they owe greater allegiance than they do to social work values, but who know that these religious convictions are not acceptable in secular social work, respect that that is the case and know how they should behave when in the social work role. They presumably become adept at moving between two different worlds – social work and their faith communities. The latter are pre-eminent because they are held to be responses to revelations of God. I am not suggesting that the religious are unique in this respect; rather, I suspect that most social workers hold to their own values when they vary from social work values but know not to behave as though they do.

Furthermore, official social work values are presented as self-evidently true and analysis-free. They do not critique social work and its oppressive facets; instead, they allow social work to present itself as having a moral and political purpose in the broadest and vaguest sense, such that any shade of political opinion held by (critical/radical/liberal/conservative) social workers can be encompassed by them. One aspect of this vagueness is that values are rarely rooted in the real world. For example, consider the social worker in an under-resourced social work team in which all of the supportive services for service users have been abandoned because of austerity policy and who, as a result of daily bombardment from desperately needy people to whom they have little to offer, begins to treat service users curtly and unsympathetically. They have transgressed social work values but there is nothing in official social work values that places any responsibility for them doing so on the material context.

A much wider aspect of the importance of context is provided by the way social work is shaped by place and time. An extreme example of this is the role social work played in the Third Reich (Lorenz, 1993; Schnurr, 1997). This extreme example sensitises us to the way in which social work is always contingent on context and that its context needs to be analysed (Harris and McDonald, 2000; Harris, 2008; Lorenz 2008; Harris et al, 2015). For example, while social workers are enjoined to apply social work values to themselves and how they treat service users, they are not encouraged to apply those same values to profit-making and dehumanising trends in policy, procedure and practice. Social workers in training on the Frontline programme are presumably enjoined to embrace social work values in relation to their practice but not to criticise the financial support of Frontline by hedge funds and the appointment of bankers to its board, notwithstanding the widescale immiseration they have caused in their pursuit of profit. Furthermore, when Deloitte has provided teaching on the Frontline programme, they have presumably not been encouraged to ask questions about the profits it makes from advising clients on avoiding taxation (Jones, 2019: 76). Instead, social work values gloss over the unacceptable and present social workers as value-bearers, operating in value-neutral organisations and ignoring the existence of organisational values (Bourne and Jenkins, 2013). Preston-Shoot (2011) notes that social work has been uncritical of organisational structures and cultures, and highlights how organisational processes can compromise ethical behaviour to the point at which ethics are erased and unethical behaviour that follows agency procedures is transformed into the good or right thing to do:

When discussing ethical violations and unlawful actions within their agencies, social workers describe cultures that are autocratic or totalitarian, intolerant of criticism and unresponsive to questioning. They recognise that bureaucratic requirements, such as meeting targets within performance assessment frameworks, can obscure morally right action but convey a sense of being a cog in a social services wheel, with associated feelings of powerlessness…. They feel uncomfortable and recognise that credibility is being lost … and that values are being discarded or distorted. The dominant feeling, however, is that challenging rather than complying will be detrimental for their careers and their clients. (Preston-Shoot, 2011: 185)

These kinds of considerations led Petrie (2009: 53) to conclude:

The changed nature of UK social work and the ethical challenges inherent in the current social, political, and regulatory context for social work practice requires an urgent review of the nature of social work in the UK before any code of ethics is feasible…. Without a major effort to detach social work from political agendas and recover a professional identity, social work in the UK will continue to disintegrate, and a code of ethics will not only be of little use but irrelevant.

Since 2009, social work has become even more enmeshed in political agendas, making the title of Petrie’s (2009) article even more apposite: ‘Are the international and national codes of ethics for social work in the UK as useful as a chocolate teapot?’ Political agendas require social workers to inform service users about the slashing of support services in a way that is consistent with social work values but not to use those values to attack the slashing of the services in the first place. These kinds of issues about social work values are at their most extreme and reactionary when social work is uncritically complicit in immigration controls, including deportation, that are degrading and inhuman (Humphries, 2004).

Conclusion

Clearly, we need something laid down about how social workers should seek to behave when they are with service users. For this, instead of the official social work values, we could accept a ‘thin’ approach to values as simply standards of behaviour. For example, the standard for the social work apprenticeship programmes has the following: communicate openly, honestly and accurately; treat people with compassion, dignity and respect; and work together (Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, 2020).

Having a minimum standard of behaviour along these lines would free us from the constraints and false consensus of official social work values, and allow us to engage in discussion about social justice. We could stop using social work values as a veneer to make us feel better about some of the things we have to do. We could set aside ‘thick’ accounts of values that are a diversion from the development of critique because they transform it into a preoccupation with personal ethics. We could go beyond contextless value statements and reintroduce analysis of the context in which social work is located and how power operates within it. We could participate in a critical and radical questioning of social divisions that surpasses what is ‘appropriate to context’ and includes consideration of when the roles given to social work at the current time perpetuate those divisions. The acid test is: if we woke up tomorrow morning and the official social work values had disappeared, would it make any difference?

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

References

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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  • Marshall, T.H. (1950) Citizenship and Social Class, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Marshall, T.H. (1963) Sociology at the Crossroads, London: Heinemann.

  • Marshall, T.H. (1975) Social Policy in the Twentieth Century, London: Hutchinson.

  • Marshall, T.H. (1981) The Right to Welfare and Other Essays, London: Heinemann.

  • Pakulski, J. (1997) Cultural citizenship, Citizenship Studies, 1(1): 7386. doi: 10.1080/13621029708420648

  • Petrie, S. (2009) Are the international and national codes of ethics for social work in the UK as useful as a chocolate teapot?, Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics, 6(2): 5267.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Phillips, M. (1993) Oppressive urge to end oppression, The Observer, 1 August.

  • Pinker, R.A. (1993) A lethal kind of looniness, Times Higher Education Supplement, 10 September.

  • Powell, F. (1997) The new Poor Law, in M. Millard and S. Lee (eds) The Politics of Social Policy in Europe, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

  • Preston-Shoot, M. (1996) A question of emphasis? On legalism and social work education, in M. Preston-Shoot and S. Jackson (eds) Educating Social Workers in a Changing Policy Context, London: Whiting and Birch.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Preston-Shoot, M. (2011) On administrative evil-doing within social work policy and services: law, ethics and practice, European Journal of Social Work, 14(2): 17794. doi: 10.1080/13691450903471229

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Quality Assurance Agency (2008) Benchmark statement for social work, www.qaa.ac.uk/Publications/InformationAndGuidance/Documents/socialwork08.Pdf.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Roche, M. (1987) Citizenship, social theory and social change, Theory and Society, 16(3): 36399. doi: 10.1007/BF00139487

  • Roche, M. (1992) Rethinking Citizenship: Welfare, Ideology and Change in Modern Society, Cambridge: Polity.

  • Schnurr, S. (1997) Why did social workers accept the new order, in H. Sünker and H.U. Otto (eds) Education and Fascism: Political Formation and Social Education in German National Socialism, London: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Seebohm Report (1968) Report of the Committee on Local Authority and Allied Personal Social Services, Cmnd 3703, London: HMSO.

  • Social Work England (2020) Professional standards, https://www.socialworkengland.org.uk/standards/professional-standards/.

  • SSSC (Scottish Social Services Council) (2016) Code of practice for social services workers, https://www.sssc.uk.com/the-scottish-social-services-council/sssc-codes-of-practice/.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • TOPSS (Training Organisation for the Personal Social Services) (2004) National Occupational Standards for Social Work, Leeds: TOPSS.

  • University of Warwick (1978) Preparing for Social Work Practice: A Contribution to the Unfinished Debate on Social Work and Social Work Education, Coventry: Department of Applied Social Studies.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • White, V. (2006) The State of Feminist Social Work, Abingdon: Routledge.

  • Wilding, P. (1982) Professional Power and Social Welfare, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

  • Williams, F. (1992) Somewhere over the rainbow: universality and diversity in social policy, in N. Manning and R. Page (eds) Social Policy Review 4, Canterbury: Social Policy Association.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Appleyard, B. (1993) Why paint so black a picture?, The Independent, 4 August.

  • BASW (British Association of Social Workers) (2018) Professional capabilities framework, https://www.basw.co.uk/social-work-training/professional-capabilities-framework-pcf.

  • Bourne, H. and Jenkins, M. (2013) Organizational values: a dynamic perspective, Organization Studies, 34(4): 495514. doi: 10.1177/0170840612467155

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Case Con Collective (1975) Case Con manifesto, in R. Bailey and M. Brake (eds) Radical Social Work, London: Edward Arnold, pp 1447.

  • CCETSW (Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work) (1977) Consultative Document 3: Patterns of Education and Training Leading to the Certificate of Qualification in Social work. Policy Issues Arising from Consultative Documents 1 and 2, London: CCETSW.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • CCETSW (1987) Care for Tomorrow, London: CCETSW.

  • CCETSW (1989) Paper 30: Rules and Requirements for the Diploma in Social Work, London: CCETSW.

  • CCETSW (1991) Revised Paper 30: Rules and Requirements for the Diploma in Social Work, London: CCETSW.

  • CCETSW (1995) Assuring Quality in the Diploma in Social Work 1: Rules and Requirements, London: CCETSW.

  • Clarke, J. (1996) After social work?, in N. Parton (ed) Social Change, Social Theory and Social Work, London: Routledge, pp 3660.

  • Clarke, J. and Newman, J. (1997) The Managerial State, London: Sage.

  • Department of Health (2002) Requirements for Social Work Training, London: Department of Health.

  • Dunant, S. (ed) (1994) The War of the Words: The Political Correctness Debate, London: Virago.

  • Fenton, J. (2016) Organisational professionalism and moral courage: contradictory concepts in social work?, Critical and Radical Social Work, 4(2): 199215. doi: 10.1332/204986016X14651166264156

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fenton, J. (2019) Talkin’ bout iGeneration: a new era of individualistic social work practice?, British Journal of Social Work, 50(4): 123857. doi: 10.1093/bjsw/bcz099

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • GSCC (General Social Care Council) (2004) Codes of Practice for Employers of Social Care Workers and Social Care Workers, London: GSCC.

  • Harris, J. (2008) State social work: constructing the present from moments in the past, British Journal of Social Work (2008) 38, 662679. doi: 10.1093/bjsw/bcn024

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Harris, J. and McDonald, C. (2000) Post-Fordism, the welfare state and the personal social services. A comparison of Australia and Britain, British Journal of Social Work, 30(1): 5170. doi: 10.1093/bjsw/30.1.51

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Harris, J., Borodkina, O., Brodtkorb, E., Evans, T., Kessl, F., Schnurr, S. and Slettebø, T. (2015) International travelling knowledge in social work: an analytical framework, European Journal of Social Work, 18(4): 48194. doi: 10.1080/13691457.2014.949633

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Higgins, M. (2016) How has the professional capabilities framework changed social work education and practice in England?, British Journal of Social Work, 46(7): 198196. doi: 10.1093/bjsw/bcv018

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hill, D. and Laredo, E. (2020) The personal is political: reframing individual acts of kindness as social solidarity in social work practice, European Journal of Social Work, 23(6): 96979. doi: 10.1080/13691457.2020.1805587

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hugman, R. (1991) Power in Caring Professions, Basingstoke: Macmillan.

  • Humphries, B. (2004) An unacceptable role for social work: implementing immigration policy, British Journal of Social Work, 34(1): 93107. doi: 10.1093/bjsw/bch007

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (2020) Social work (integrated degree) standard, https://www.instituteforapprenticeships.org/apprenticeship-standards/social-worker-(integrated-degree)-v1-0.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • International Federation of Social Workers (2014) Global definition of social work, https://www.ifsw.org/what-is-social-work/global-definition-of-social-work/.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Johnson, T. (1972) Professions and Power, London: Macmillan.

  • Jones, R. (2019) In Whose Interest? The Privatisation of Child Protection and Social Work, Bristol: Policy Press.

  • Keane, J. (1988) Democracy and Civil Society, London: Verso.

  • London Edinburgh Weekend Return Group (1980) In and Against the State, London: Pluto.

  • Lorenz, W. (1993) Social Work in a Changing Europe, London: Routledge.

  • Lorenz, W. (2008) Paradigms and politics: understanding methods paradigms in an historical context: the case of social pedagogy, British Journal of Social Work, 38(4): 62544. doi: 10.1093/bjsw/bcn025

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Marquand, D. (1988) The Unprincipled Society, London: Fontana.

  • Marshall, T.H. (1950) Citizenship and Social Class, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Marshall, T.H. (1963) Sociology at the Crossroads, London: Heinemann.

  • Marshall, T.H. (1975) Social Policy in the Twentieth Century, London: Hutchinson.

  • Marshall, T.H. (1981) The Right to Welfare and Other Essays, London: Heinemann.

  • Pakulski, J. (1997) Cultural citizenship, Citizenship Studies, 1(1): 7386. doi: 10.1080/13621029708420648

  • Petrie, S. (2009) Are the international and national codes of ethics for social work in the UK as useful as a chocolate teapot?, Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics, 6(2): 5267.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Phillips, M. (1993) Oppressive urge to end oppression, The Observer, 1 August.

  • Pinker, R.A. (1993) A lethal kind of looniness, Times Higher Education Supplement, 10 September.

  • Powell, F. (1997) The new Poor Law, in M. Millard and S. Lee (eds) The Politics of Social Policy in Europe, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

  • Preston-Shoot, M. (1996) A question of emphasis? On legalism and social work education, in M. Preston-Shoot and S. Jackson (eds) Educating Social Workers in a Changing Policy Context, London: Whiting and Birch.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Preston-Shoot, M. (2011) On administrative evil-doing within social work policy and services: law, ethics and practice, European Journal of Social Work, 14(2): 17794. doi: 10.1080/13691450903471229

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Quality Assurance Agency (2008) Benchmark statement for social work, www.qaa.ac.uk/Publications/InformationAndGuidance/Documents/socialwork08.Pdf.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Roche, M. (1987) Citizenship, social theory and social change, Theory and Society, 16(3): 36399. doi: 10.1007/BF00139487

  • Roche, M. (1992) Rethinking Citizenship: Welfare, Ideology and Change in Modern Society, Cambridge: Polity.

  • Schnurr, S. (1997) Why did social workers accept the new order, in H. Sünker and H.U. Otto (eds) Education and Fascism: Political Formation and Social Education in German National Socialism, London: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Seebohm Report (1968) Report of the Committee on Local Authority and Allied Personal Social Services, Cmnd 3703, London: HMSO.

  • Social Work England (2020) Professional standards, https://www.socialworkengland.org.uk/standards/professional-standards/.

  • SSSC (Scottish Social Services Council) (2016) Code of practice for social services workers, https://www.sssc.uk.com/the-scottish-social-services-council/sssc-codes-of-practice/.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • TOPSS (Training Organisation for the Personal Social Services) (2004) National Occupational Standards for Social Work, Leeds: TOPSS.

  • University of Warwick (1978) Preparing for Social Work Practice: A Contribution to the Unfinished Debate on Social Work and Social Work Education, Coventry: Department of Applied Social Studies.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • White, V. (2006) The State of Feminist Social Work, Abingdon: Routledge.

  • Wilding, P. (1982) Professional Power and Social Welfare, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

  • Williams, F. (1992) Somewhere over the rainbow: universality and diversity in social policy, in N. Manning and R. Page (eds) Social Policy Review 4, Canterbury: Social Policy Association.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 1 Coventry University, , UK

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