In terms of image, social workers are up there with traffic wardens, politicians and bankers in the most reviled profession stakes. But there are signs that this is starting to change – in Scotland at least.
A new poll, commissioned by Scottish social work body the Association of Directors of Social Work (ADSW), found that 47% of people rated social work as positive, compared to 38% last year. Additionally, the survey found that 80% of service users were happy with the services they received.
This was despite negative press coverage of the profession because of the Baby Peter and Brandon Muir cases.
As I see it, this result is not down to 2 main factors. Firstly, in Scotland ADSW has run a high-profile PR campaign – ‘Social Work Changes Lives’ – for the past year or so, with the aim of improving the image and understanding of social work, including putting positive stories into the local media.
But the sector also has government support. When the Brandon Muir case came to court last year, Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond came out and defended the profession, rather than damned it for its failings. As Scottish social workers have said to me since, this had a great positive impact on morale. The political reaction was also strikingly different to that seen in Westminster to the similar Baby Peter case, where social work was roundly condemned.
Against this backdrop, it makes it easier for positive messages from social work to come through.
It would be interesting to see the results if a similar poll were conducted in England; I don’t think they would be as positive. While there has been an advertising campaign to promote social work, and sterling work done by celebrities like Goldie and Samantha Morton to do the same in the past year, the media coverage of the profession is still overwhelmingly negative, which has a big effect on public perception.
The new government could certainly learn from their colleagues north of the border, as could social work bodies; if a coordinated campaign were to be launched, along with a feed of positive stories about social work to the media, then, as Scotland proves, a demonstrable impact can be made.