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­The Challenges of Teaching Social Work

February 15, 2023

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Written by Dr Neil Thompson, independent writer, educator and adviser and a visiting professor at the Open University. His website, with his acclaimed Manifesto for Making a Difference, is at www.NeilThompson.info.


I have been involved in teaching social work for over 30 years. To begin with, the majority of students were mature students who generally had some direct experience in the social work world (as social work assistants, care workers or foster carers, for example). It could be assumed, then, that we did not need to teach them about what social work is.


Over the years, though, the student demographic has changed considerably. We now have a greater proportion of younger students, many of whom have little or no experience in the field. Much of the early teaching therefore needs to focus on the nature and purposes of social work in order to establish a common baseline of understanding. This is necessary because a significant proportion of the general public have little or no idea of what social work is or what social workers actually do.


In my experience, misconceptions are more common than a genuine understanding of what is involved in the day-to-day work of social work teams up and down the country. Media distortions play a big part in this, reinforcing stereotypes of child care social workers as child snatchers (rather than highly skilled professionals who work extremely hard to keep families together while protecting children and safeguarding their health, education and welfare). Removing a child is, of course, a last resort.
Social workers in other fields of practice are generally invisible, in the sense that, unless you are professionally involved or you have had direct experience of being on the receiving end of social work support, the chances are you will have little more than a vague inkling of what social work is all about.


This low level of understanding (or high level of misunderstanding) is also to be found among fellow professionals at times, and so social workers will often have to clarify and negotiate their role before they can get down to the actual business of their work (for example, convincing GPs who issue instructions rather than make interprofessional referrals that social workers are obliged to make their own holistic assessment based on engaging with the individual or family concerned). I once had an elderly woman give me a referral letter from her GP and tell me that it was a ‘prescription’ for a place in a care home. It turned out, following a social work assessment, that all that was needed was a light package of support services – she was nowhere near the criteria for admission to residential care.


Social work is highly complex and demanding (if a problem is simple or straightforward, it is unlikely that it would find its way to a busy social worker’s desk, as they are likely to be up to their eyes with more high-profile cases with higher levels of risk). It is often poorly understood – even by people who should know better; largely underfunded (consider the longstanding concerns about the NHS experiencing difficulties because of the shortage of much-needed social care provision); and currently subject to major recruitment and retention problems (austerity measures have increased demand while decreasing supply, making the job unmanageable much of the time). These challenges then, of course, make teaching social work very challenging too. Successfully preparing students for all that they will face in the ‘real world’ of social work is no mean feat.


But, despite all these pressures and challenges, social work remains a popular choice for students who recognize that the pressures are largely counterbalanced by the rewards of the job – making a positive difference to the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in some of our most disadvantaged communities and promoting social justice.


Given the complexities and dilemmas that are part and parcel of social work, effective teaching needs to be much more than conventional talk and chalk (or the death by PowerPoint equivalent). I have been fortunate in my teaching career to have worked alongside some very creative and inspiring teachers. So, when it came to writing my Teaching Social Work book, I was privileged to be able to draw on what I had learned from such gifted educators, while also adding many ideas of my own developed over many years.


Despite the tabloid media’s predilection for distorting social work and for highlighting and exaggerating the small minority of cases that go wrong, social work is a major force for good, helping to make our society a humane, caring and inclusive one. By its very nature it is challenging and demanding, and so effective and safe practice relies on high-quality educational experiences. There is no easy, formula way to ensure such experiences, but what Teaching Social Work offers is a foundation of ideas, exercises and approaches that can help students engage with the professional knowledge base that can guide them in all their endeavours.


Teaching Social Work
is available to purchase now.

Neil Thompson, Independent writer, educator and adviser and visiting professor at the Open University, UK

Read a sample chapter on Elgaronline.

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