Should social workers be expected to ‘do it all’?

25 November 2009

Social workers in England have more responsibility and a wider remit than many of their continental European counterparts, according to a new report published by the Thomas Coram Research Unit at the Institute of Education, and funded by the Nuffield Foundation.

Social workers in England have responsibility for all aspects of case management and direct contact with families, but in much of continental Europe these responsibilities are split between several different highly-trained professionals.

In England, most direct work with children and families is undertaken by support staff, many of whom have no specialist qualifications. In Denmark, Germany and France, most of this work is undertaken by professionals highly qualified in therapeutic and direct work, working alongside social workers.

Scrutiny and review
Social work in England is currently subject to an unprecedented level of scrutiny and debate. High profile cases such as the death of Baby Peter, and recruitment and retention problems, have led to the appointment of a Social Work Task Force to conduct a review of the profession and to advise on a comprehensive reform programme for social work. The Task Force is due to make its full recommendations to Government before the end of the year.

The report’s authors, Dr Janet Boddy and Professor June Statham, called for a fundamental reassessment of what social workers can and should be expected to do:

“Social workers have told the Task Force they don’t have enough time to spend with families, are tied up with bureaucracy and are frustrated by the support and tools they have,” Professor Statham said.

“Debate tends to focus on the best split between case management and face to face time with families, but a better question to ask might be -‘Is it reasonable to expect social workers in England to do a job that is shared amongst members of multi-professional graduate teams in other European countries?’

Social workers spend between 80% and 90% of their time on indirect work such as assessment, planning and review. This split has remained broadly constant over the last seven years but the tasks required of children and family social workers within the Every Child Matters framework have become more time consuming.

Social workers are also younger than in the past, with the proportion under the age of 24 having doubled in the last five years (20% in 2003/04 compared to 39% in 2007/08). The minimum age, previously set at 22, has now been abolished.

The Thomas Coram report, European Perspectives on Social Work: Models of Education and Professional Roles, examines how comparative evidence from other countries can offer new ideas for social work in England.

The main findings include:

  • Social workers in England are now required to have a Bachelor’s degree, but concerns remain about the level of experience and training among those undertaking challenging work with children and families.
  • In England, staff who undertake most of the direct work with children and families, such as social work assistants, family support workers and sessional workers are not required to have a professional social work qualification, and have a mix of experience and training, rarely to degree level.
  • In many continental European countries, most staff carrying out direct work with families have a common Bachelors-degree level qualification in “social pedagogy”, offering a workforce alongside social workers that is specifically qualified for therapeutic and direct work with families and children.
  • In many continental European countries, child psychologists are routinely based within multi-disciplinary social services teams; this contrasts with the UK, where psychologists are usually based in separate Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and educational psychology teams, with high thresholds for involvement in social services work.

Sharon Witherspoon, Deputy Director at the Nuffield Foundation, said:

“We need to focus on the skills and knowledge required to undertake the range of tasks overseen by social workers. It is clear that most families in the child protection system have complex and serious problems, and that safeguarding children is not easy. We need both better assessment and better interventions for children and families.

“We should consider different ways of organising the core tasks of social work and the professionals who provide them. The successful development of new approaches such as the Family Drug and Alcohol Court, which brings together child protection and substance misuse treatment under a family court judge, demonstrates how expert multi-disciplinary teams can work together to make better decisions for children. This report suggests there may be potential to develop similar models in other areas of social work.

“There is growing evidence that having specialist professionals working alongside social workers could help deliver a better service for children and families. Some of these professionals may be employed by voluntary sector bodies, but they are unlikely to be volunteers themselves given the issues they must handle.”


For further information contact Fran Bright at the Nuffield Foundation 020 7681 9586 

Notes to Editors

1. European Perspectives on Social Work: Models of Education and Professional Roles by Dr Janet Boddy and Professor June Statham is available to download from the Institute of Education website

2. The report was funded by the Nuffield Foundation, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation.

3. European Perspectives on Social Work: Models of Education and Professional Roles draws mainly on two studies of work with children and families in other European countries, which were funded by government and published in June 2009:

Working at the ‘edges’ of care - This research was conducted in England, Denmark, France and Germany, and was concerned with work with young people and their families, when placement away from home was being planned or considered. Expert reports were commissioned from academics in the three continental countries, and this was followed by interviews with over 100 professionals across the four countries (including England). They included social care practitioners and managers, workers in related services such as mental health (CAMHS) and youth work, and national policy advisers in each country.

International perspectives on parenting support: non-English language sources – This study was based on expert reviews of parenting support in five European countries: Denmark, France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. Because this work was focused on mainstream parenting support – rather than targeted social care services – it offered understandings of the work of social care professionals in universal services, such as schools. It also highlighted links between mainstream and targeted provision for children and families.

4. Data on social workers and time use: Holmes L., McDermid S., Jones A. And Ward H. (2009) How social workers spend their time. Research Report DCSF-RR087. Nottingham: DCSF

5. Data on average age of social workers: General Social Care Council (2009) Raising Standards: social work education in England. London: GSCC

6. The Government established the Social Work Task Force in December 2008 to conduct a ‘nuts and bolts’ review of the profession and to advise on the shape and content of a comprehensive reform programme for social work. The Task Force is chaired by Moira Gibb CBE, Chief Executive of the London Borough of Camden, and made its interim report in July 2009. More information is available at