The first week of the Summer Institute is an opportunity for both practice tutors and participants to examine what is at the heart of social work.
We can all learn from debating and discussing the nature of social work and what we think a social work intervention should look like. In this first week, teaching focusses on developing an understanding of the context of the lived experiences of those we work with. We have considered the impact of poverty, discrimination, prejudice and disadvantage; developed self-reflexivity; and thought about the importance of skilled and purposeful intervention.
On the first day of the Summer Institute, the author of Hackney Child shared with the group her experience of social work services and how she had hoped that social workers would help her to escape the poverty and neglect she had been subjected to as a child. She explained that the service she received often extinguished that hope. Driving home after that first day, I tuned into File on 4 and listened to a programme which explored the experiences of a boy and his family who sought help from professionals and social workers following his disclosure of sexual exploitation. One message that came across powerfully was that once the professionals became involved, the family were hopeful that they could have a chance to resolve their problems – though a solution was not always forthcoming.
In a lecture on social justice, Chris Helmsley – one of our principal practice tutors – spoke to the cohort about the importance of addressing the deleterious impact of poverty in social work interventions. It is essential to offer practical support, as well as offering interventions designed to help people change issues that are negatively impacting them. She recounted observing a situation in which a student had listened to a family explaining their housing and benefits problems, to which the student had stated, “fingers crossed things will get better.” Chris eloquently explained that “fingers crossed” is not a social work intervention and that we should always be offering purposeful, respectful interventions. She described how social workers should not simply refer to other services, but rather plan work designed to give people hope of change, and then follow through with a plan designed to improve people’s lives.
Later that same day, I spoke to an experienced social work practitioner who stated that, in her view, the worst thing we can do as social workers is to walk into a family home and give them hope that we can help facilitate change, and then walk out without providing skilled intervention. Next week we will begin teaching participants some of the important foundational skills we need as social workers: to build relationships with practice based on systemic ideas, motivational interviewing and social learning theory, in which formulating plans with families and setting goals for intervention are fundamental.
So, “fingers crossed” is not a social work intervention. Authoritative, relationship-based interventions, where risk is transparently communicated, are fundamental – as is giving hope that we can together build a more positive future.