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Public Knowledge of and Attitudes to Social Work in Scotland

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Chapter Four: General Perceptions of Social Workers and Sources of Information

This chapter looks at general perceptions of social workers. In particular, it considers to what extent these perceptions are generally positive or negative and why. It also examines the public's main sources of information on social workers and social work services.

General Perceptions of Social Workers

People are more likely to be positive about social workers than negative by a margin of about 2:1. Few hold strong views one way or the other, perhaps indicating a lack of detailed knowledge.

Figure 4.1: Perceptions of social workers
IAS Fig4-1

People who had had contact with social work services, either personally or through a family member, were significantly more likely to hold positive perceptions of social workers than those with no such experience (48% versus 41% respectively). However, and as we typically find, this difference in part reflects the fact that non- users are much more likely than users to give a don't know response.

The focus group research provided an opportunity to identify considerations underpinning positive and negative perceptions of social workers. At the outset of the groups, participants were asked to mention any words, phrases or images that came into their minds when they heard the term social worker. Several people began by mentioning people or groups to whom social workers provide support, particularly children, families and the elderly. Others described their feelings or impressions of social workers, sometimes referring to personal experiences. On the positive side, social workers were variously described as, 'helpful', 'nice', 'good people' and 'vital'. There was a perception that the profession does not receive sufficient credit for the work it does. More negatively, the words 'interfering' and 'busy-bodies' were mentioned in most groups, and there was some feeling that social workers are often inefficient and ineffectual. Several people felt that to be in need of a social worker is to be in very serious trouble.

Actually they're very good help. They are. They're really, really good people and helpful.
(Female, C2DE, 65+, Dundee)

I don't know many people in the village now, but just looking at it generally as a country, I think they're probably an essential part, they are necessary but it's the way they go about things or the way they have to go about things. I don't know.
(Female, ABC1, 65+, West Linton)

It's not my own opinion but I think a lot of people think social workers are interfering.
(Female, Asian, Glasgow)

They're not there when they're needed.
(Female, Inverness)

Useless.
(Female, 18-24, Edinburgh)

Once you're involved with social workers I think you're into trouble. I've never been involved but from general impression, newspapers and speaking to people there are complications once social workers come into it.
(Male, ABC1, 65+, West Linton)

There was also a shared perception that social workers are too thin on the ground and thus generally overworked and stressed. Furthermore, it was widely suggested that their ability to help people is often severely curtailed by excessive bureaucracy in the system, as well as restrictive rules and procedures.

Overworked
(Male, ABC1, 45-64, Aviemore)

I think there are too many procedures to follow. Sometimes the worker may want to help but couldn't
(Chinese)

Like most things now it gets bogged down with admin and advisors advising advisors. I think like many facets of our life at the moment it's all been very structured for us and you've got to do what you're told.
(Female, ABC1, 65+, West Linton)

In all groups there was spontaneous reference to the 'bad press' that social workers receive, with participants generally feeling that this is perhaps unfair and a reflection of a broader tendency on the part of the media to highlight bad rather than good news. A few people pointed out that the media rarely present the details and complexities of the social work cases it publicises, but rather tends to focus mainly on the role and perceived culpability of the social worker(s), or case management process. There was a widespread perception that the media has contributed significantly to negative perceptions of social workers among the public.

If anything happens and something went wrong, say with a child, abuse or anything like that, they're crucified on the telly.
(Male, C2DE, 65+ Dundee)

Nine times out of ten they are helping people and they get a lot of hard time and a lot of stick for trying to help. A lot of the time it's a very negative environment so I think they put up with a lot. Nobody really realises that. There are people slagging them off in the press all the time.
(Female, 18-24, Edinburgh)

I think because the reports the media make of court cases in particular that involve either sad situations that have happened with children or perhaps people who have been left on their own and it looks as though the social work department have mishandled what's going on, there seems to be an abnormally high level of information given with regard to the social work department's involvement in those cases. I think that colours people's impression.
(Female, ABC1, 45-54, Aviemore)

I think the media have got to blame for an awful lot of things because they give too much publicity to the bad things and not enough to the good things.
(Male, ABC1, 65+, West Linton)

Perceptions of Social Workers Compared to Other Professions

To help contextualise perceptions of social workers, survey respondents were asked to consider to what extent they would trust different groups of professionals, (judges, doctors, teachers, bank managers and social workers), to make the right decision in particular circumstances. As table 4.1 shows, the most trusted profession were doctors, with almost three quarter of respondents saying they would trust this group to make the right decision 'always' or 'most of the time'. Judges and teachers were similarly trusted by clear majorities of respondents - 69% and 65% respectively. The results for the social work profession were considerably more negative, however, with fewer than half (49%) of respondents saying they would trust a social worker to make the right decision (table 4.1). Only one other profession, bank managers, received a lower trust rating. These findings are broadly in line with comparable results from other studies MORI has conducted into the issue of trust and public institutions (see figure 4.2) 6.

Table 4.1: Trust in different professions
Q I'd like you to think about people doing different types of jobs and how much you would trust them to make the right decisions in particular circumstances. Taking your answer from this card, to what extent would you trust the decision of…?

Always

Most of the time

Sometimes

Hardly ever

Never

Don't know

Base: All respondents, 1,015

%

%

%

%

%

%

A judge deciding whether or not to send a person to prison

18

51

24

4

1

2

A social worker deciding whether or not to take a child into care

7

42

40

6

2

3

A doctor deciding whether or not someone with mental health problems should be kept in a secure ward

19

54

20

2

1

3

A head teacher deciding whether or not an unruly pupil should be excluded permanently from school

19

46

25

5

2

2

A bank manager deciding whether or not to repossess someone's home

6

34

35

10

9

6

Source: MORI

Figure 4.2: Trust in professions

Figure 4.2: Trust in professions image

To further explore how social workers are perceived compared with other professions, respondents in the survey were presented with a series of attitudinal statements relating to one of 4 professions and asked whether they agreed or disagreed with each. The professions were social workers, teachers, nurses and the police. The CAPI programme randomly assigned one of the professions to each respondent.

In several respects social workers are seen to be worse off than the other professions. There is a perception that they are less highly regarded than other professions working with the public, and that they are less likely to have the support of the public to do their job. Additionally, while the image of each of the professions is seen to have worsened over recent years, this is particularly the case for social workers.

On the other hand, the social work profession is no more likely than the teaching or nursing professions to be perceived as understaffed or under funded. Moreover, there is a view that social workers are less likely than teachers, nurses and the police to be blamed unfairly when things go wrong. Of course, the latter finding may reflect judgements about the extent to which the different professions deserve to be blamed for problems. It may be that people are more ready to assume that social workers make mistakes, than they are to assume the same about nurses and teachers.

Table 4.2: Perceptions of different professions
Q From your own experience or from what you have heard, to what extent do you agree or disagree with the following?

% agree

Social workers

Teachers

Nurses

Police

Base: All who were asked about each profession

(252)

(254)

(236)

(273)

Social work services departments (schools, police force and NHS hospitals) are adequately staffed and funded

15

22

18

23

Social workers (teachers, police and nurses) have the support of the public to do their job

36

44

70

46

Social workers (teachers, police and nurses) have the support of politicians to do their job

38

37

27

48

Social workers (teachers, police and nurses) are not as highly regarded as other professions working with the public

75

54

55

55

Social workers (teachers, police and nurses) are often unfairly blamed when something goes wrong

64

73

69

66

The image of social workers (teachers, police and nurses) has worsened in recent years

74

66

50

68

Social workers (teachers, police and nurses) are not well paid

30

33

69

22

Source: MORI

Sources of Information About Social Workers

Respondents in the survey were asked to mention any sources of information that have been important in shaping their general impressions of social workers. Almost half mentioned television news and current affairs programmes, while a similar proportion mentioned personal contact or experience and around two in five mentioned each of national newspapers and word of mouth, as table 4.3 illustrates.

Asked to consider the single most important influence on their perceptions of social workers, a third mentioned personal contact or experience, while 21% mentioned television new and current affairs programmes. Word of mouth was mentioned by 15% and national newspapers by 7%.

Table 4.3: Sources of information
Q There are many ways in which people might form an impression of social workers. I'm interested to know how you gained an understanding of social workers and what they do. Taking your answers from this card, which if any, of the following have been important in forming your impressions?
Q And which one of these sources would you say was the most influential for you?

Sources of information

Most influential

Base: All respondents, 1,015

%

%

Television news and current affairs programmes

47

21

Personal experience or contact

43

32

Word of mouth

36

13

National newspapers

36

8

Local newspapers

23

3

Work

20

10

Radio

9

*

School/college

10

4

Books/leaflets/magazines

7

1

Television soaps

6

1

Other TV

6

1

Internet

2

*

Other

3

1

Don't know

4

4

Source: MORI

As table 4.4 (below) shows, the sources of information or influence listed were mentioned to varying degrees by different groups of respondents. Most notably, people working in higher and lower managerial or professional occupations were more likely to mention national newspapers and television news and current affairs programmes than people working in more routine occupations. There was also some variation by gender, women being significantly more likely than men to mention work.

It is worth noting that the survey uncovered no correlation between respondents' sources of information on social workers and their propensity to hold either positive or negative view of the profession.

Table 4.4: Top 4 most influential sources of information, by key sub-groups
Q There are many ways in which people might form an impression of social workers. I'm interested to know how you gained an understanding of social workers and what they do. Taking your answers from this card, which if any, of the following have been important in forming your impressions?

Base: All respondents 1,015 (row %)

Television news and current affairs programmes

Personal experience or contact

National newspapers

Word of mouth

%

%

%

%

All

47

43

36

36

Men

48

40

39

35

Women

46

46

33

37

Higher managerial/prof occupations

65

47

50

30

Lower managerial/prof occupations

50

49

41

39

Intermediate occupations

52

35

43

40

Small employer

57

43

52

48

Lower supervisory/tech occupations

59

35

41

45

Semi routine occupations

36

47

30

33

Routine occupations

37

38

23

31

Never worked/long term unemployed

-

-

-

-

User

38

69

29

36

Non-user

53

26

41

37

Source: MORI