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Roles and Functions of Social Workers in England and Wales

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Social Work
Wordcount: 2782 words Published: 19th Jul 2018

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The definition of social work is very complex and controversial. There is no generally accepted definition of what social work is. Social work sits within the broader range of the social care sphere. (Horner, 2003, p.2)

There are three views of social work. The first is the reflexive-therapeutic views. This view sees social work as seeking the best possible well being for individuals, groups and communities in society. (Payne, 1997, p.4) The other view is the socialist-collectivist views; this view sees social work as seeking cooperation and mutual support in society so that oppressed and disadvantaged people can gain power over their own lives. (Payne, 1997, p.4) The last view is the individualist-reformist views. This view sees social work as an aspect of welfare services to individuals in society. (Payne, 1997, p.4) There is a general consensus amongst writers that the three different views are present within the social work discourse. (Payne, 1997, p.6)

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The International Association of Schools of Social Work and the International Federation of Social Workers defined social work as a profession that, ‘’promotes social change, problem solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance well being…social work intervenes at the points where people interact with their environment. Principles of human rights and social justice are fundamental to social work ’’. (Citied in Horner, 2003, p.2)

Another definition of social work that was propounded by the former minister for health, Jacqui Smith is as follows, ‘’social work is a very practical job. It is about protecting people and changing their lives, not about being able to give a fluent and theoretical explanation of why they got in to difficulties in the first place .New degree courses must ensure that theory and research directly informs and supports practice. The requirements for social training work set out the minimum standards for entry to social work degree courses and for the teaching and assessment that social work students must receive ’’. (Horner, 2003, p.2) The major difference between these two definitions is that the first definition fails to emphasise the control element of social work practice, which involves the use of legislation by the state to intervene and protect vulnerable children and young people who are at risk, to enforce mental health treatment and services and to protect vulnerable older people. (Horner, 2003, p.3) The second definition focuses on social work as a ‘rational technical activity and its inherent anti-intellectualism’. (Horner, 2003, p.3)

This essay will examine the current roles and functions of social workers in England and Wales.

Key roles and skills of social workers

A lot is expected from social workers. Society expects social workers to protect and care for citizens deemed in need of protection and care and at the same time to care and protect the community as a whole. (Horner, 2003, p.5)

A social worker is employed by the local authority, on behalf of the state and has to work within the confines and constraints of the law. (Horner, 2003, p.4) A social worker must at all times been conversant with relevant legislation and procedure and must abide to them. The social worker is always faced with balancing the rights of vulnerable individuals to fulfil their wishes, whilst at the same time carrying out the state’s need to protect all vulnerable people, sometimes by restricting rights and liberty of others. (Horner, 2003, p.4)

Generally, a social worker is there to give help and support to people who are going through a difficult patch in their lives. A social worker has to ensure that the rights of service users are identified and promoted. (Lymbery and Postle, 2007, p.23) A social worker is a paid professional, ‘’who aims to assist people in overcoming serious difficulties in their lives by providing care, protection or counselling or through social support, advocacy and community work’’. (Collins, 2006, p.516) The role of a social worker is to assist people who are socially excluded from society and are experiencing difficulties in their lives, to get back on their feet. The process of social exclusion revolves around five components: poverty and low income; lack of access to the job market; lack of social support and networks; the overall condition of the local neighbourhood; and exclusion from services. (Collins, 2006, p.505) The role of the social worker is to tackle social exclusion and promote social inclusion. The social worker needs to address approach to practice that will effectively strengthen social networks, maximise options for income and ensure that services are more accessible. (Collins, 2006, p.505)

Social workers have specific legal duties that distinguish them from other groups. A social worker investigates allegations of child abuse. A social worker can apply where necessary and appropriate for a person to be detained in hospital, when his or her mental state presents a risk of harm to self or to other members of the public. A social worker also supervises children in care of the local authority. (Thompson, 2000, p.2)

A social worker requires skills in making assessments personally or jointly with service users and their families in order to discover the strengths, needs and preferred need for each particular service user. The social worker needs to treat each service user as a unique individual and accord the service user the respect he or she deserves. A social worker should be skilled and knowledgeable on how to handle hostile and aggressive situations, without putting her safety or the service user at risk. Most importantly, knowledge of the law, policies and regulations affecting social work practice must be mastered by the social worker.

A social worker is charged with caring for the entire community by protecting and promoting the welfare of the community as well as that of the individual. This might mean enforcing some elements of control over an individual. This at times leads to conflicts and tensions as the social worker is caught in between the community and the individual. (Thompson, 2000, p.3)

Social workers work with young people and their families as well as the elderly. Social work is divided in to adult services and Children services. Adult services includes, working with people with mental health problems or learning disability. Adult services can also include working with people in residential care, working with offenders in the community or working with the elderly.

Children and family social work, is a branch of social work, where the social worker provides assistance and advice to keep families together. It can also involve work in children’s home or providing support to younger people leaving care.

I will focus on children and families social work. Social work with children and families spans a wide range of activities primarily directed at protecting the child. (Cree and Davis, 2007, p.15) It is often a very controversial and volatile area because of the state interference with family life. The government has introduced a lot of policy and organisational changes in children and family services in recent years that have greatly changed the terrain of children and family social work. The 1989 and 2004 Children Acts as well as key policy document such as Department for Education and Skills 2003, Department of Health and Department for Education and Skills 2004 and Secretary of State for Health 2003, have all combined to create a role for social workers which combines contributing to the assessment of the needs of children and young people, protecting them from harm and consulting with other relevant agencies to deliver services that promotes the children’s well being and safety in partnership with the social workers and their families. (Cree and Davis, 2007, p.15)

Social work within the social policy frame work

Collins defined social policy as, ‘’government policy in the area of welfare, and the academic study of its development, implementation and impact’’ (Collins, 2006, p.507)

Modern social work is no longer based on the poor law parish structure, but is governed by legislation and delivered through local government structures, however, some voluntary sector organisations, many of which have their origins in the established and non-conformist churches still provide some services for those that are socially excluded. (Horner, 2003, p.17) Contemporary social work can be seen to play a crucial role in relation to current social problems, concerns about wide spread substance abuse and problems of social disintegration among others. (Horner, 2003, p.26)

Social work deteriorated in the 1980s and 1990s in Britain under the Conservative government. There was little direct political concern with social services during the Conservative, Thatcher administration. (Payne, 2005, p.97)The reasons for the deterioration were: ‘’service failures, particularly in the area of child protection; a professional attack, both from the right wing and the left wing on its social policing role and a political attack on its role in the welfare state’’. (Payne, 2005, p.94) The Labour government under Tony Blair came in to power in 1997. According to Payne, ‘while social care was not a major plank of policy, it was affected by general government policies and priorities, which focused on education and health’’. (Payne, 2005, p.103) The government initiated a modernization agenda which focused on effective delivery of services; including cooperation amongst the multi-agencies and involving service users’ own priorities. The government laid a lot of emphasis on improved care for children and the mentally ill. However, most of the labour government’s policy were slowing building on past policies and did not take a new direction. (Payne, 2005, p.103) The labour government introduced the quality improvement projects. The labour government also brought about increased legislation in to the realm of social work. The General Social Care Council was also set up to take over responsibility for regulating social work education.

Mental health social work has seen a lot of changes in recent years. The 1980s and 1990s saw the closure of the many long stay Victorian asylums and the development of community based alternatives. (Cree and Davis, 2007, p.60) The Mental Health Act 1983 was a land mark legislation in many respects. Section 114 of the Act requires local authorities to provide an approved social worker for mental health service users.

The NHS and Community Care Act 1990 provided a frame work for the organisation and delivery of services under existing legislation. The Act tried to alter the balance of care in four fundamental directions: ‘’ from institutional care to community based care; from public sector to independent sector provision; from NHS to local government responsibilities and from supply led services to needs led services’’. (Horner, 2003, p.76) The social worker had a key role to play in identifying the range and location of services. (Horner, 2003, p.77)

The Children’s Act 1989 reformed the law relating to children. Contemporary social work practice with children, young people and their families is largely governed by the Children’s Act of 1989. (Horner, 2003, p.46) The Children’s Act 2004 provides the legal basis on how social workers, collaborate with other agencies to ensure that the best interest of the child is protected and achieved at all times.

The Human Rights Act 1988, incorporated in to English laws, the European Convention on Human Rights. It gives individuals the power to challenge gross abuses of civil liberties and it also requires legal an administrative action to take account of human rights in the course of any action they under take. (Payne, 2005, p.104)

The future of social work in England and Wales appear to lie in a range of roles in diverse services, heavily regulated by the government and the development of multi professional work, where the social worker interacts with other professions roles. (Payne, 2005, p.105)

Professional principles and values of social work

Social work is a highly regulated profession these days. It is a very difficult and complex profession and any one coming in to the profession will need to exhibit the right temperament. You will need to be in control of your emotions at all times and also avoid being judgemental or stereotyping people. There are professional principles and values social workers must exhibit.

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A social worker at all times must maintain the dignity and worth of service users. The social worker should always bear in mind, that she is there to help the service user get back on his feet and not to control him or run his life. A social worker ought to be aware and value the rights and duties of individuals, their families, groups and the entire community at all times.

A social worker must believe in the principle of social justice. This includes ‘’fair access to public services and benefits to achieve human potentials; social development and environmental management in the interests of present and future human welfare’’. (Horner, 2003, p.135) A social worker will need to treat all service users with respect and without any bias based on their sex, colour, or creed. For example, a social worker should have an open mind when working with a paedophile or some one that is mentally unwell.

A social worker’s primary objective is the promotion of social justice. The social worker has as one of his fundamental goals, to meet the personal and social needs of service users in order to help them meet and develop their potentials.

One core value of the social worker is confidentiality. A social worker must maintain absolute confidentiality when dealing with a service user. The social worker should not divulge any information without first obtaining the consent of the service user. This also goes to show that the case worker respects the service user. A social worker must possess integrity. This comprises all the elements of honesty, reliability, openness, equity, and fairness. A social worker needs to be competent in the discharge of her duties. This entails keeping abreast with new laws and legislations in the field of social work.

A social worker needs to address at all times, injustice in the system and explore ways of eliminating them. The social worker should also expose any bad policies that contribute to hardship and social exclusion in society. The social worker should also at all time up hold the civil and political rights of service users as well as their economic and social rights.


Social work has a long way. The profession of social worker is highly regulated today in England and Wales. The work of the social worker is to help vulnerable people in the society, within the constraints of legislations, so that they can get back on to their feet and get on with their lives. A lot of professional principles and values are expected to be imbibed by the modern social worker. Despite the very complex nature of social work and countless policies and legislation, the value of the social worker in our society today can not be overemphasised. Social workers today are highly trained professionals who despite their challenging and demanding jobs continue to ensure that vulnerable people and those that are socially excluded are given all the protection and support they need in order for them to take back control of their lives.


Collins (2002) Internet based dictionary of social work, Harper Collins, Glasgow

Cree, V.E and Davis, A (2002) Social work, voice from the inside, Routledge, Oxon

Horner, N (2003) What is Social work? Context and Perspectives, Learning Matters, Exeter

Koprowska, J (2008) Communications and interpersonal skills in social work, 2nd Edition, Learning Matters, Exeter

Lymbery, M and Postle, K (2007) Social work: A companion to learning, SAGE, London

Payne, M (1997) Modern social work theory, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke

Payne, M (2005) The origins of social work, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke

Shardlow, S and Payne, M (1998) Contemporary issues in social work: Western Europe, Arena, Aldershot

Thompson, N (2000) Understanding social work, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke


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