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Public Knowledge of and Attitudes to Social Work in Scotland

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Chapter Nine: Social Work in the Future

This chapter looks at perceptions concerning the future of social work. It considers to what extent people think that demand for social work services will change in the future and why. It also looks at the public's priorities for social work.

Future Demand For Social Work Services

Almost three-quarters (73%) of the survey respondents thought that demand for social work services will increase over the next 20 years, while 12% thought it will stay the same and only 3% thought it will decrease. Around one in ten declined to give a response.

Figure 9.1: Future demand for Social Work Services
Fig9-1

Older respondents were a little more likely than younger groups to think that demand for social work services will increase (57% of 16-24 years olds compared with 81% of those aged 55-64 and 75% of those aged 65+). There was also some variation by NS- SEC classification, with those working in higher and lower managerial and professional occupations being more likely to feel that demand will increase than those working in more routine occupations (84% and 81% respectively versus 70% of those in semi routine occupations and 61% of those in routine occupations).

Asked why they felt demand for social work services would increase in the future, respondents gave a range of responses. These can be grouped into four distinct themes, namely, the ageing population (27%), a perceived increase in the number of drug and alcohol related problems (11% and 4% respectively), a growth in the number of children experiencing problems (8%) and family breakdown (6%).

In discussing the growing pressure on social work services, several of the focus group participants suggested that successive governments have contributed to the problem through the policy of community care. More specifically, they pointed out that the closure of residential homes for older people and mentally ill people has meant that more and more people are having to be looked after in their own homes, and that this has placed huge burden on social workers and social carers, as well as families and individuals.

The government's shifted a lot of these responsibilities anyway, back into the community.
(Male, C2DE, 45-64, Stirling)

I think too psychiatric care out in the community and not enough money being pumped into it. Not nearly enough.
(Male, C2DE, 65+, Dundee)

I just wondered how much the finance comes into decisions that are made. When things were changing it was supposed to be care for the community rather than help in other ways. I'm all for people being kept at home as long as there's structure there to give to people.(Female, ABC1, 65+, West Linton)

My concern is where there's a couple and one has Alzheimer's, although they're married, you're not trained to look after mentally ill people. They are doing that. They're leaving people with mentally ill brothers or wives or whatever and they're not trained to know what to do with them. I don't think that's right that they're left with them.
(Female, C2DE, 65+ Dundee)

Priority Services for Social Work

The focus group participants were asked to consider the relative priority they would assign to different social work services in the event of future rationalisation. Across the groups, there was a consensus that services for children, older people and disabled people are among the most important, not least because these groups are often unable to help themselves.

Because [children] cannot take care of themselves. Also, legally, they don't have as many rights and so may not be able to do what is right for themselves even if they have wanted to.
(Chinese)

Some of the stories about residential care for the elderly, for instance, they're horrific some of the things they have to go through, so I would put that much higher.
(Male, C2DE, 45-64, Stirling)

In terms of lower priorities, there was much less agreement across the groups. That said views did appear to vary along class lines. ABC1s were generally reluctant to attach less importance to some services than to others, suggesting that all are necessary and important. C2DEs, however, reiterated the view that services for ex-offenders and people with drug or alcohol problems should be limited, if they are to be provided at all. In all groups there was some discussion as to whether or not it was necessary for social work services to provide help and advice on housing, benefits and debt. The emergent consensus was that there were several other organisations, including the Citizens' Advice Bureau, who are better placed than social work to provide this service.

Because [respite care and occupational therapy are] not life threatening or anything.
(Female, 18-24, Edinburgh)

Spend it on the people, that sort of thing, instead of helping offenders.
(Female, C2DE, 65+, Dundee)

[Benefit advice is] nothing to do with social work.
(Male, C2DE, 24-44, Inverness)

Help and advice for benefits and housing department, that shouldn't really be social workers, I don't think.
(Female, C2DE, 45-64, Stirling)

A New Breed of Social Worker?

In discussing the future of social work, participants in most of the focus groups suggested spontaneously that social workers often appear to lack the skills they need to do their job effectively and that this needs to be addressed. Several people suggested that staff need to receive more training on how to handle difficult situations and deal with different client groups, for example people with mental health problems. Others were keen to emphasise that social workers ought not to be too young, otherwise they may lack the life experience that will enable them to empathise with clients and generally interact effectively with members of the public.

My experience of social workers which I did have when I was working, I felt a lot of them were young and no experience of life which I think they really should have.
(Male, ABC1, 65+ West Linton)

A social worker needs to be married or at least 25, to have lived a bit, at least 25!
(Female, ABC1, 45-54, Aviemore)

It's one of these things that you can't go straight from university into it, you need to work. I know that sounds strange but you need to work somewhere for the simple fact you need to have skills. You need to have people contact.
(Female, 18-24, Edinburgh)

A few people also suggested that there should be more specialisation in social work so that staff are able to develop a level of expertise in a particular field, and therefore provide more effective help and support to clients.

I know that they used to be separate departments, a children's department and all the others, and there was a big reorganisation of social work in the sixties and early seventies. They insisted first of all that everybody had to go to university and get a degree. And then they sacked all the people who had been doing the job for twenty years because they didn't have qualifications. The result was there's nobody else left but youngsters who had just come out of college and they were also told to be generalist. They hadn't got to specialise in just children's work or adult offenders or whatever it was. I think in many ways this was the start of the downward path of the perception of social workers not being very good because there was such a huge number all at once who were inexperienced and never had the chance to really build up experience because they were being shifted around all the time.
(Male, ABC1, 65+, West Linton)

I think they're going to have to have a different stem of social work. All right the social workers of maybe that section deals with the sixteen year olds or [people who are] drinking all the time. That one deals with the wee kids. You've got social workers that are maybe one minute they're dealing with a bairn… and then the next minute they're expected to go and deal with an adult at sixteen that's getting drunk.
(Female, C2DE, 45-64, Stirling)

Notwithstanding such suggestions, in a couple of the focus groups, there was also some feeling that the onus for tackling social problems should not lie solely with a new and improved social work service. Rather, it was felt that the government needs to make greater efforts to tackle the causes of problems by, for example, encouraging individuals to take more responsibly for themselves and their families.

I was going to say I think there's far too much onus put on social work. There's something wrong with society. Society's up the spout. It's crap. They're going to have to deal with it at a political level, not social work. It's no use saying whenever there's a problem we'll call in a social worker. They're going to have to get to the root of the problem first and deal with that at grass roots level. Until they can do that the social work department is going to be struggling.
(Male, C2DE, 45-54, Stirling)

I think education in schools, I think that's the only way … Folk are growing up, they don't know how to look after children properly, but if you taught them in school and gave them some sort of basic things that you need to help you cope when you have children yourself. I think at some level the government does need to come in and say 'we've got a big problem. If we don't do something now, it's only going to get worse and worse'.
(Female, ABC1, 45-64, Aviemore)