Leading Article: Mending social work's esteem

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SOCIAL workers are not well paid. Their job is to help others, and they spend much of their time dealing with matters that the average member of society would prefer not to face. So why are they so unpopular? In a 1989 Mori poll, respondents said they trusted social workers less than doctors, politicians, members of the Royal Family and teachers; and one in 12 said that of all the people they encountered, social workers were the least trustworthy. Only journalists, estate agents and trade unionists came off worse.

This is partly because most people meet social workers only under circumstances they would rather forget. Social work has that much in common with estate agency and journalism: however hard its practitioners try, their 'clients' are rarely in a mood to be friendly. But two specific forces have harmed the reputation of social work. One is the fear that social workers have on occasion abused their legal powers; the other is the public impression that social workers have political views which interfere with their work.

Luckily, the first of these is being corrected. The wide powers that social workers have are now being exercised with more caution. After the Orkney and Cleveland cases, social workers are subject to closer supervision, are more aware of the consequences of their actions, and keep in closer contact with the police.

The second is more difficult. Great damage has been done by the controversy over Paper 30, part of the curriculum that the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work (CCETSW) recommends for social workers during their two years of training. This document says racism is 'endemic' in British society, even in social services and social work education itself. University tutors have complained that this and other woolly statements oblige them to teach a 'politically correct' syllabus, and that students who want to qualify as social workers must subscribe to fashionable nostrums about race and society.

Jeffrey Greenwood, the solicitor who takes over next week in the chair of the CCETSW, was right to acknowledge in this newspaper yesterday the truth of some of the criticism. (If there were nothing in it, why should a mixed-race couple in Norfolk have been refused permission to adopt a child because of their lack of knowledge of racism?) Wisely, he conceded that there is a 'crisis of confidence' among social workers, and promised that the nonsense of political correctness will be rooted out of the curriculum.

Although Mr Greenwood was careful to distinguish between impressions that are evidently unflattering, and a real standard of social work that he believes is praiseworthy, social workers and their representatives may be tempted to react angrily. They would be unwise to do so. His more important aims are to improve the quality of social work training, to make sure that courses are more rigorously monitored and students better prepared, and to lengthen the time it takes to win a diploma from two years to three. These will require more money from the Government. An outsider who talks a language that ministers understand is well placed to win it.