Growing need for social work in an increasingly complex and changing world
During a long career in social work, David Jones has been at the forefront of advocating for the profession. A former BASW general secretary, he has spoken in the media on numerous occasions, including during the Orkney child abuse case in the early 90s.
He has been a key figure in emphasising social work as a global profession, particularly through his involvement with the International Federation of Social Workers and the Commonwealth Organisation for Social Work.
Recognised with a lifetime achievement award by BASW earlier this year, David says his social work life has been guided by a “commitment to social justice, social service and respect for all inspired by family example and Christian and humanitarian values".
As he is awarded an honorary degree from the University of London, David reflects on some of the opportunities and challenges facing social work globally in an interview with Professional Social Work magazine editor Shahid Naqvi…
SN: How important is social work in the world today?
DJ: “The evidence appears to suggest that social work is one of the fastest growing professions internationally. The world is juggling complicated issues like the impact of climate change, social change, migration, family disruption and so forth, particularly in the global south.
“Also, in the context of artificial intelligence there’s going to be a real need for engaging with people at a human level. So social work is positioned to be extremely significant.”
SN: What are the challenges facing social work globally?
DJ: "Professor Vasilios Ioakimidis and Dr Aaron Wyllie in their new book Social Work’s Histories of Complicity and Resistance show the real potential risk of social work being co-opted into implementing policies which are antithetical to social work values and what we know about people.
“From history, we can look at the Nazi and the Franco regimes. You can look at Chile where children were taken from families not supporting the government and there were forced adoptions.
"And there are the examples of children removed from indigenous families in Canada and Australia and the UK child migration programme.
“All of this highlights the absolute importance of robust research and an education and training system which is independent of government, but obviously connected to government.
“Social work has to be a partnership between communities, government and the profession. If any of those three elements is out of balance there is a problem in delivery.”
SN: Are those elements out of balance right now?
DJ: “I think there are big risks. It is good that BASW is strengthening its voice - that is crucially important.
"Also, internationally we have done a lot of work that I have been involved with over the last 20 years to strengthen the voice of social work. But governments are always tempted to mould social work in their image.”
SN: Is this more of a risk in countries where social workers are mainly employed by the state?
DJ: “The challenge and the excitement of social work is that it sits in this conflicted environment between the different interests of individuals, government and communities. Social work is therefore always negotiating those relationships and those boundaries.
“That is why it requires people with developed critical analysis and developed skills in relationships - demanding and rare skills to find together and sadly not sufficiently recognised. But it is exciting when these things are recognised by universities and governments."
SN: Is there a danger of social work education being co-opted away from those critical analytical skills?
DJ: “There is always a danger, and there is historical evidence from Germany and Spain and other countries around the world more recently. It is inevitable that there is that tension, and in a way it is right, so I am not being critical of government, they have to shape social policy.
“But the tension is that it can be in the interests of the majority without respecting the interests of minorities and people facing huge problems in their lives.
“That is where a strong professional voice and a strong independent research base is absolutely crucial. Good governments respect that and engage with it and value it.
“In my career working in government agencies and NGOs and professional bodies I have lived those dilemmas and experienced the tensions."
SN: With the rise of populism and extremism in the world, is the role of social work in speaking out for oppressed groups more important than ever?
DJ: “I think these days we have to be very careful about social work speaking out for people. We have to help people to speak for themselves. That is the skill of social work, which can be seen around the world. People seize their own opportunities to speak these days.
“In social work you always start where the client is – why is it people are feeling like this? Often it comes from fear, from rapid change, and an effective response is not to condemn but to get alongside.
“There is a need for understanding, because understanding and bringing people together is the skill that social workers and community workers have. This is desperately needed in the world.
“There is too much hatred being spoken too quickly, often, as we have seen in our country, from the highest levels. And that is so damaging for communities and individuals.
“We know from research that the greater the inequality the greater the social problems and the individual problems, including mental health. Highlighting that evidence from social work, also well-articulated in many faith perspectives, is desperately needed in our world today.”
SN: What are your thoughts on social work regulation?
DJ: “I was involved in campaigning for regulation. The argument against it was it gave too much power to government. When Social Work England was set up we saw that power was abused in that social workers were not appointed to the board. I think that was a shocking position by government. It was an insult.
“Regulation has to be a partnership between the different actors and I am pleased that has since been remedied and Social Work England is trying to work inclusively.
“In relation to fitness to practice, there are some real problems around the profile of cases coming to hearings. That is a challenge not just for Social Work England but employers and agencies.
“We have seen an almost 200 per cent increase in overseas recruitment over the last three years, so employers have to wise up to what it means to employ people who qualified in other countries and to support them effectively.”
SN: How important to your social work is your religious faith?
DJ: “Faith is important to me - exploring what it means and how you find changing dialogues to explain it. There is something in faith that is important to hold on to. That has been a challenge for social work, it hasn’t been an easy dialogue for social work in the West. Interestingly, when I travelled in Africa and Asia more often than not a social work meeting would open with a prayer.
“I think that too often social workers in this country – when we come together for our meetings and our agendas – are about our differences and how we resolve them, rather than affirming our common values.
“A sense of common purpose and values is something faith can offer."
SN: What does getting an honorary degree mean to you?
DJ: “It is an affirmation of the crucial importance of academic social work. Social work education and training in universities offer robust academic research and professional leadership. All of those things that come from the university sector. It is part of the establishment of a mature profession.
“Social work education in the UK has always been diverse in its roots and patterns. That is important. But anything that is only controlled by government and has too much government influence is a challenge. So I am worried by the way funding and some of the arrangements have been constructed.
“It is really important that we are seen to have a qualification framework comparable to other professions. It is important for education and research and it is important for an independent perspective to contribute to the dialogue.
“That feels potentially risky at the moment. We need diversity of routes but we have to ensure those principles are respected."
SN: What has being part of BASW meant to you?
DJ: “It has been very important to me. Being part of BASW and other organisations such as the International Federation of Social Workers, the Commonwealth Organisation for Social Work, and the International Association of Schools of Social Work has given me opportunities to serve, meet and learn from so many colleagues around the world.
"It is about teams and groups of people working together, and that is the fellowship of the profession.”