The Effective Social Worker

by Neil Thompson and Sue Thompson

Professional Standards: the 4P approach

Some books published in the UK focus on the Professional Capabilities Framework (PCF), but this is problematic for two reasons: (i) they apply to England only, and so such an exclusive approach that marginalizes Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales is discriminatory and not consistent with social work values; and (ii) there is much to be learned from exploring a wide range of professional standards within the UK and further afield that is missed by focusing narrowly on one set of requirements.

Different countries have different sets of professional standards for social work, although there is considerable common ground across them all. The basic idea is that there is much to be gained from social work practitioners having a clear picture of what is expected of them in terms of professional standards or requirements. It is for this reason that social work education often emphasizes the need for students to be aware of these standards and to demonstrate in their written assignments and placement experiences that they (i) understand them; and (ii) can relate them to real-life experiences.

Links to the various national standards appear below. It is worth exploring each of these to get a sense of the common ground they share and the differences from nation to nation.

Neil Thompson and Sue Thompson have developed an approach that captures the main elements of what is needed for effective professional practice. Given the diversity of professional standards/frameworks in operation mentioned above, the 4P framework will not map directly onto one that you are familiar with or required to use, but it will nevertheless give you an important and helpful picture of some key issues. They have termed it the 4P approach because it involves recognizing four dimensions of social work, each of which begins with P:

Professionalism | Process and activity | Purpose and value | Place and context. It is important to explore each of these in more detail in order to get a fuller picture of the range and significance of professional standards:


It can be helpful to break down professionalism into its component parts, namely:
  • Knowledge The knowledge base underpinning social work is quite vast. It incorporates elements of psychology, sociology, social policy, law and philosophy, as well as knowledge relating to specific client groups (children, older people and so on), particular problem areas (substance misuse, loss and trauma, abuse and so on) and a range of models or methods (solution-focused approaches, family therapy and so on). There is also an immense body of knowledge that has developed from social work theories and research. There should be no doubt, then, that there is a significant body of professional knowledge for us to draw upon.
  • Skills The range of skills is equally vast and impressive. In addition to the skills that are shared across the people professions (interpersonal skills and self-management skills, for example), there are some that are specific to social work (developing a holistic psychosocial assessment, for example). These skills often have to be used in very challenging circumstances. So, it is fair to say that social work is a highly skilled activity.
  • Values Social work also has a strong set of values (see Understanding Social Work Chapter 5 for a fuller discussion of these). The main reason values are important when it comes to professionalism is that they act as a safeguard against the inappropriate use of power. Professionalism brings a degree of power, and so it is important that there are ways of seeking to ensure that such power is used appropriately. Consequently, values such as dignity, equality and being non-judgemental provide a framework of protection to help ensure that vulnerable people are not subjected to exploitative uses of professional power. Values, then, are – amongst other things – a set of checks and balances. Given that the people we serve in social work are so often in positions of relative powerlessness, it is vitally important that we keep a clear focus on social work values. If we lose sight of them we could find ourselves practicing dangerously
  • Accountability To be accountable means taking ownership of our actions and decisions. It is not the same as blame. It is about recognizing that, in exercising professional power, it is quite appropriate that we can be called upon to account for our actions, to provide a professional rationale. This helps to ensure that professionals are not acting arbitrarily or in potentially harmful or destructive ways. One positive aspect of accountability is that it means that we are being trusted as professionals – accountability and values both help to ensure that such trust is not betrayed.
  • Development An important aspect of professionalism is that we get better at our jobs over time. For example, it is difficult to imagine that many parents would find it acceptable that their children were being taught by teachers who are no better at teaching or classroom management after five years than they were after five weeks. Inherent in the notion of being a professional is the expectation that the more experienced we are, the better we will be. Sadly, some people reduce the idea of continuous professional development to simply attending the occasional training course. In reality, it is much more than this. It is about taking responsibility for your own learning and doing whatever you reasonably can to make sure that you maximize your learning.
  • Identity Professionals generally work in bureaucratic organizations and have bureaucratic procedures to wrestle with much of the time. It is therefore important to be aware of the danger of allowing the bureaucracy to make us feel as though we are bureaucrats and lose sight of our professionalism. We therefore need to make sure that we retain a strong sense of identity as professionals. A professional who does not see him- or herself as a professional is in a hazardous situation, as this means that professional standards are not being taken seriously. The focus shifts from serving our clientele to making sure that the bureaucratic boxes are ticked.
  • Registration This is a formalized way of seeking to ensure that professional requirements are met. It is a form of protection for clients, professionals and, of course, the profession itself. Removed someone from a register is a means of ensuring that people who do not meet their profession’s standards can be prevented from practicing.


Process and activity

Social work encompasses a wide and diverse range of processes and activities, and so it is difficult to pin them down precisely. However, it can be helpful to identify some general themes, such as the following:
  • Promoting rights – particularly in situations where someone is not able to promote their own rights (for example, because of a learning disability)
  • Promoting equality and social justice ­– recognizing that recipients of social work help are often prone to discrimination and oppression.
  • Promoting dignity and empowerment – helping people to help themselves and to be respected in doing so.
  • Identifying problems and unmet needs and potential solutions
  • Identifying and reinforcing strengths and resilience factors
  • Assessing and managing risk
  • Care management – where it is necessary, due to the unavailability of other solutions, to manage a package of care services.
  • The helping process: Assessment | Intervention | Review | Ending | Evaluation (see People Skills).
This is not an exhaustive list, but it should be enough to begin to give you a picture of what is involved in social work.


Purpose and value

Social work has a long history during which it has changed and evolved considerably, but its basic purpose has remained the same – to help, support, protect and empower those in social need. In the hustle and bustle of pressurized workplaces some people can lose sight of that purpose. They can become bogged down in the detail and lose any sense of a bigger picture – they fail to be holistic in their approach.

When we lose sight of purpose, then we can also lose sight of the value of social work, the important difference it can make to people’s lives. We cannot guarantee to make a positive difference on every occasion but we can often make at least a minor positive difference to people’s lives and sometimes make a huge positive difference.

If we are not fully tuned in to the value of social work and what it can offer, we will fail to achieve the best results and thereby not fulfil our professional potential.


Place and context

Social work is not a straightforward unidimensional undertaking. It has many aspects and the extent to which a particular aspect is to the fore will depend on where the practice is taking place and in what context.

The place may be a social services team, a multidisciplinary team, a hospital or clinic setting, a school, a specialist centre or many other possibilities. Wherever social work is practised there will be a common core that makes it distinctive, as discussed above, but there will also be issues that are specific to the location or to the context (generic or specialist; statutory, private or voluntary; with willing clients or ones who have been referred against their will – for example, by a court; child care, adult, family or community focus; and so on).

An effective professional social worker needs to be able to keep a clear focus on the core elements of social work while also being able to ‘read’ the specific place and context in order to be able to tailor our input to the specific circumstances.


The national standards



Standards are set on a province or territory basis rather than nationally. One example is to be found at:


Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland Social Care Council (NISCC) Code of Practice is at:

The NISCC quality framework for education and training is to be found at:

The Republic of Ireland

The Code of Practice for the Irish Association of Social Workers is at:


The United States of America

The National Association of Social Workers provide various standards relating to specific areas of practice at: