Social Work Across Time

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Demonstrate a critical Understanding of the current context for social work practice in Scotland and how political, social and economic contexts have shaped social work over time.

Social work practice exists in order to support those in need in t he times of crisis. The support offered by social work practitioners is different but as important as that offered by other professions in that it supports people in the context of the lives they would like to lead as families within the communities in which they live (Pierson, 2008).

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Even before modernity, social care and social welfare existed in its many forms, mostly under the auspices of the Church. In the Middle Ages, almsgiving and charitable giving in the form of direct aid was considered the duty of the wealthy and also served as a sign of piety (Gillead, 2007). It was not until the 19th Century that social work as a profession has its roots. With the advent of industrialization and rapid urbanization, poverty was viewed as a direct threat to social order and new laws such as the Poor Laws were passed, creating an organized system that took care of the urban poor. These laws addressed the increased poverty resulting from mass rural/urban migration brought about by the Industrial Revolution as people moved to seek employment in towns and cities, resulting in not only greater social problems but also the creation of greater social participation and activism. Other rescue societies also entered the arena to provide social support and poverty alleviation.

It is within this historical context that social work practice is an important part of the formulation and implementation of Scottish government social legislation and policies. This paper seeks to critically appraise the evolution of social work practice and legislation and social work practice in Scotland exists and adapts in a continually changing economic and socio-political environment.

Social care and the care of the poor has always existed. The legalization of the Christian Church by Constantine, in the 4th Century meant that the Church was responsible for the poor. Social structures such as old people’s homes, burial societies, poor houses, orphanages, homeless shelters and hospitals often funded by the Empire itself. The giving of alms by the rich was also a means of offering support to the poor. Although such support systems had good intentions, they were inadequate in that they did not address the causes of poverty. Poverty was accepted as a norm in that society and the poor were not given support or encouragement to improve their own lives, making poor even more dependent on charity for survival.

After the decline of the “Feudal Society” at the end of the 15th Century, the poor were no longer viewed as needy but a direct threat to social order and had to be dealt with in a different manner in 16th Century England. This led to the formation of a relief system that would take care of the poor. This system was legislated with in the English Poor Laws which dated from as far back as 1536 in the Tudor period including the Act for the Relief of the Poor of 1597 which was the earliest formalised code of poor relief, through the Old Poor Law, a system of poor relief passed during the reign of Elizabeth l, to the New Poor Law which was an amendment of the Old Poor Law. The Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601 divided the poor into two categories, the “impotent poor” such as the elderly and infirm and the able-bodied poor who were seen as lazy and underserving of relief having refused to work in workhouses and were subject to beatings and accommodation in Houses of Correction in order to coerce them into changing their attitudes towards work. The New Poor Law (The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834) formalized the ad hoc, parish-led nature of the administration of poverty relief exhibited by the Old Poor Law system into a highly centralised system which supported the building of workhouses in different Poor Law Unions. The New poor law restricted the giving of outdoor relief to the “impotent poor” and all other poor were to be assisted within the workhouse system. These laws continued to influence the care of poor people until the beginning of the 20th century. The introduction of the National Assistance Act 1948 led to the formal abolition of The Poor Law system with some parts of the Poor Law remaining in place until 1967.

Social work practice in the form it exists in today, has its roots in the mid – 19th century, developing through three main strands. The first approach was one based on individual casework first carried out by the Charity Organisation Society. Their ethos was based on individual solutions for individual problems, much like current social work practice is based on person-centred approaches. The second, social administration, is one that addresses poverty relief based on principles found within the 17th Century English Poor Laws and systematically implemented by the Charity Organisation Society. The final strand is one that consisted of social action. Developed by the settlement house movement, the idea was rather than addressing immediate individual needs, politicize poverty relief through actions taken by different community groups in order to improve everyone’s social and economic conditions. This was the beginning of activism and the creation of other institutions aimed at addressing the whole range of social problems laying the foundations of modern social work theory and practice.

The Elizabethan Poor Law has the most impact on modern day social work practice because not was its ethos relevant in the day but continues to influence current social work practice in four practical ways. Firstly, it sets the universally accepted principle that the state is ultimately responsible for poverty relief. It helps to uphold the separation of responsibility between the church and state. Secondly, In the same manner as Poor Law Unions administered relief on a local basis, modern day local authorities are responsible for social welfare within their jurisdictions. Thirdly, Poor Law differentiated the treatment according to deserving and undeserving, children, versus adults sick versus able-bodied. The theory lay in the fact that some conditions of poverty deserved greater claim to relief than others. This was a precursor to person-centred care that is offered in current social care. Lastly, Poor Law made it the responsibility of family to help support less able family members. It made family legally liable for each other and helped build resilience within the family unit. The Elizabethan Poor Law was progressive and forward looking and was the basis on which current social practice is founded on.

The Poor Law in turn influenced sthe way in which social care policy would be carried out after World War 2. Known as the founder of the Welfare State in the United Kingdom, William Beveridge a Liberal politician, economist and progressive social reformer, presented a report to parliament in 1942 outlining the necessary changes, support and social security measures that the government would have to implement at the close of the Second World War. His report was the result of social surveys carried out between the two Great Wars and in response to the increased poverty brought about by the War itself. He looked upon the destruction caused by war as an opportunity for government to rebuild Britain into a more secure and caring land which looked after its poor, aged and disabled through a system of social and health security operated by the state. He proposed that everyone of working age should pay a national insurance contribution weekly so that people who are ill, unemployed, widowed or retired could receive benefits when incacipated. Beveridge’s argument was that the system would ensure that anyone needing it, would receive “a minimum standard of living below which no one should be allowed to fall”. His war on want was aimed at fighting the ‘five giants on the road of reconstruction’ of Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness with the assumption that as part on his war on want, there would be a National Health service that would be free at access for everyone (Addison, 1975). `


Social work practice exists and responds to the prevailing political, social and economic climate. These factors influence the way in which social work professional are able to respond to the needs of the people they serve. Globalization is about movement, access, change and exchange of people and of technology. In the context of social work practice, Globalization can be defined as a process of global integration in which diverse peoples, economies, cultures and political processes are increasingly subjected to international influences” (Midgley, 1997, p. xi). Globalization has had a great impact on social work practice; from the training, recruitment and retention of staff to practice itself.

Globalization also comes with political and economic implications that affect not only multi-national corporations but the people who are or were employed by them (Brown et al, 2010). The need for greater economic performance and greater corporate profit has resulted in the globalization of labour and the outsourcing of different commercial services and activities to different parts of the world where labour is cheap. This has an impact on the lives of people who receive the jobs and those whose livelihoods have been taken away. When corporations outsource their services to poorer countries that whose citizens are paid below the UK minimum wage, people losing those jobs in the UK become economically vulnerable and, in many cases, needing social support (Hanley, 2011). This support often comes in the form of Universal Credit which has proved to be inadequate in maintaining the welfare of poor families in society. Food Banks have become commonplace in many parts of the country with families finding it impossible to make ends meet (JRF, 2017).

Conflict and the resulting social and economic fallout often give rise to both legal and illegal migration. People fleeing national conflicts in different parts of the world, as well as those seeking greener pastures and better economic prospects may end up on British shores adding to the texture of the social fabric of different communities (Crawley, 2010). Within this social work context, globalization is about the cultural, ethnic and religious diversity of both staff and the service users. Where traditionally social work in the UK was placed in a local community- based needs context, it has now had to redefine what community is and what their needs are. This mobility and movement of people across and within borders has a direct impact on social work education as student social workers need to gain increased cultural and ethnic awareness and sensitivity in response to the changing nature of the communities which they serve. Social work is no longer about addressing local poverty-related issues, it now encompasses other dimensions such as culturally related issues such as forced marriages, female genital mutilation. Most, if not all of these practices may seem culturally accepted within their particular ethnic or religious settings but are also illegal practices in the eyes of the laws of the UK. In their need to serve their diverse communities, social workers need to tread a fine line between being culturally insensitive towards service users and keeping both themselves and their service users from breaking national laws (Lyons, 2006).

Globalization also introduces other migration-related issues such as asylum seekers, people trafficking, modern day slavery, child sexual exploitation as well as more benign issues such as international adoptions. We have recently seen cases where migrants have lost their lives trying to reach perceived greener pastures in the United Kingdom. There is a greater need for the internationalization of social work education and practice to increase awareness of such issues and find ways in which to address them adequately (Butterfield, 2004).

In the same context of the internationalization of work, globalization has also opened up new opportunities for social work staff. Government reciprocal agreements and the acceptability of social work qualifications in different parts of the world has meant that social work staff have increased mobility and are able to work in many parts of the world.

In the UK, globalization has brought about great changes in which social care is provided. It has introduced market forces within social care provision by encouraging the privatization and market orientation of social care. Government has systematically cut social care funding expecting councils to take greater responsibility of its funding. According to the Children’s Society, between 2010/11 and 2015/16, Central Government cut funding for children’s services by £2.4bn in real terms. Emphasis on individualized quality care has been removed and replaced with the need for competitiveness, and target orientated care. Healthcare delivery has become a postcode lottery where people living in more affluent councils receive better social and health care than those people living in financially challenged councils. Many people needing social care are being excluded because local councils have insufficient funds. Between 2011 and 2015, Central government reduced funding for English Local Authorities by 14% in real terms (Sharif et al, 2017). Managers are faced with dilemmas when allocating funds and are having to choose which cases are more deserving of social care funding, much like the choices made in Elizabethan times where the poor were divided into deserving “impotent poor” and undeserving able-bodied poor.

The implication of reduced social funding on social work practice means that in many cases, professionals are unable to carry out their jobs properly and are unable to support service-users adequately. Referrals to other services are deferred or not offered due to tight budgets and according to Carter (2017), many of the social workers in Adult Social Services surveyed by Community Care claimed that due to budgetary constraints, they were forced to reduce care packages to unfair and unsafe levels.

Current Scottish Social Work Policy

The 1968 Social Work (Scotland) Act heralded the birth of community social work (CSW) practice in Scotland. In order to fully appreciate community social work practice in Scotland it is necessary to gain an understanding of what community is. According to Pierson (2008) community is more than just the geographical location in which people live as he argues that many communities could co-exist within the same geographical location. Rather, community is about self-identity and a sense of belonging. “ this can be based on religion, ethnic identification, shared employment or any other common feature recognised and shared by individuals as a group” (Turbett, 2018). Post-war prosperity and growth of the 50s and 60s allowed the rapid creation and expansion of a welfare state. The

The Kilbrandon report of 1964 emphasised the need for social welfare to concentrate its efforts on child welfare and social education. This was later built on by the 1966 ground-breraking Social work and the community, report which was pivotal in the creation of community based social services. The deliberate use of the word ‘community’ in the 1966 Social work and the community report was not only forward looking but also reflective in that it drew parallels between modern social work practice with that which had been practiced by the 19th century ‘settlement’ movement whose ethos was based on the provision of education and recreation within communities to improve the lives of the poor within the locality served. (Lavalette and Ferguson, 2007).

The 1968 Act created social work departments made up of social workers from various disciplines. They were headed by social work qualified directors in organisations accountable to local councillors and led by social work qualified directors. These became influential, powerful and popularly supported organisations, particularly after the reorganisation of local authorities in 1975 that created Scotland’s seven regional and three island councils (Turbett, 2018). These authorities were able to formulate social work strategies that went beyond their remit to better combat poverty.

Community social work and community were at their height in the 1970s and 1980s as local authorities provided strategies to address community need, continued in the mainstream. The 1982 Barclay Report brought ‘community social work’ into mainstream by arguing for the social workers to work within localities to find solutions for local problems by drawing on the community as a source of resilience (Turbett, 2018). The report greatly influenced Scottish social work policy and practice as it lived up to the spirit of the 1968 Act in terms of its commitment in the promotion of social welfare (Crosbie et al, 1989). Evenso, Right wing politics of the 1980s and 1990s did not favour the Barclay report meaning that if never progressed beyond local community initiatives. It was not futher helped by scandals surrounding the deaths of children in Orkney described in the Clyde report of 1991. This was a set back in social work as a profession unpopular with both the public and government resulting in local government reorganization of social work by the dismantling of the larger regional authorities, in the 1996. Social work was amalgamated in many authorities, with either or both housing and education. Changes also influenced a move from generic social work into specialisms with special emphasis on risk assessment, protection of the vulnerable and targeted service provision.

The Christie Commission (Scottish Government, 2011) issued a challenge to find new ways to engage with families and communities, government policy and strategy papers now talk of ‘community empowerment’. This concept became enshrined in legislation through the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 (Turbett, 2018). The Act gave a voice to communities to ask for what they needed and also gave them the right and power to be a part of the decision-making processes that affected their lives. Emphasis is on building resilience within communities and seeks community empowerment as an important outcome (Scottish Government, 2016).

In 2016, legislation was implemented by the Scottish Parliament that enforced health and social care integration on the basis of partnership arrangements devised locally between health boards and the local authorities within their area. Budgets in the operational areas within partnerships became pooled under the direction of partnership boards (along the same lines as health boards rather than through elected councillor accountability).

According to Duffy, 2013, Scotland further places emphasis on citizenship as the foundation of all Human Rights and social justice. Citizenship and social justice will continue to influence any future direction that social work in Scotland and the rest of the world will take. In conclusion, historically social work practice is heavily influenced and shaped by the political, social and economic climate in which it exists. From its earliest inception to the 21st Century and beyond, social work practice will continue to change and shape itself to suit the needs of the people it serves.

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Social Work Across Time. (2022, Jan 03). Retrieved from

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