Clive Sealey makes the case for why studying social policy is so important to social work practice.If you are training to be a social worker, it can be a very exciting and rewarding period of your life, especially when you enable a positive change for your service users. However, as a busy practitioner, you rarely have time to pause for breath. Your focus is on work, work, work. One of the reasons for this is that in this time of austerity, the immediate requirement from above is on you doing more with less, and this means that your work is focussed on making the best of ever more scarce resources. Additionally, your work processes and procedures can change from year to year, month to month, week to week. So a significant amount of your time is spent understanding and working round these processes and procedures, the logic of which often baffles you.
One of the core emphasis of social work teaching is its professional focus (Burgess and Taylor, 2005), something which perhaps has become more evident as social work training has moved from diploma to degree level. This means a focus on both professional regulation and professional change, and requires practice that is up to date, consistent and output driven, mainly focussed on understanding the technical requirements of the work (Webb, 2001). These requirements can mean that your work is typically located in the now, as a huge amount of your time is spent on understanding what you need to do to function effectively as a social worker, and the choices you make reflect this. Consequently, an ‘unintentional consequence’ of this is that there is little time available for understanding the wider social context of your work, meaning the connection between what you do in practice and the social context and theories that govern what you do (McNay et al, 2009).
A good example of this is when considering the notion of welfare need. A significant amount of work as a social worker is with those having what we term subsistence needs such as food, clothing, water and shelter. In such instances, your focus is very likely to be on ensuring that these subsistence needs are being met. However, it is often the case that while the cause of the intervention may appear as such subsistence needs, the real cause is related to their participatory needs not being met. Participatory needs are things which improve the quality of life of individuals, such as love, social interaction, and participation and self-development. (You can find out more about subsistence and participatory needs in this article.)
The study of social policy is a study of real life, which goes a long way to putting the social back into social work practice.
This is where the relevance of social policy to social work practice makes itself evident. The primary function of social policy is an understanding of the wider social context of policy and practice, and linking this wider context to the everyday experiences of both practitioners and non-practitioners. The end result is an understanding that social policies do not simply happen, but occur from the active choices that individuals make, as expressed through our values, principles and political perspectives. For instance, rising poverty and inequality are arguably the most serious problems for social work practice. Studying social policy provides social workers with the possibility of deep and meaningful engagement with the reality of poverty and inequality, including it causes. Furthermore, making policies that may solve such problems is the essence of social policy, through the action that follows from this deep and meaningful engagement grounded in reality. This is something that could make a real difference to many people in many ways. The study of social policy is a study of real life, which goes a long way to putting the social back into social work practice.
This article is an edited and abridged extract from an Expert Opinion resource on the Macmillan Social Work Toolkit, an online resource designed to support social work students with their studies and practice.