Reflective essay on social work
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Examine your own personal and professional development in relation to the values of social work.
Social workers are usually motivated either by personal experience, something that has happened in their lives, or by a desire to see that people receive the kind of help that they need in times of crisis. I think that looking at these issues and trying to analyse what motivates you and what helps you to develop professionally are critical issues in social work training. This kind of examination spills over into a person’s professional practice because it helps the social worker to take more care when it comes to assessing a person’s need. This course has helped me to examine my own personal values as they relate to values issues during the course and also how this works out in my professional practice. In some respects values and ethics are interchangeable in this paper, in others values represent the more personal aspect and ethics the wider context. This need to think about my values and the values of social work, is making me into what Schon (1991) calls a reflective practitioner. Shon’s work demonstrates how important it is for social workers to be reflective, to think about what they are doing and to refine their later actions. This reflection is extremely important when it comes to values and how values impact on the way you look at the world and relate to other people.
This paper will look at my personal and professional development in relation to the values of social work. There will be an assessment of social values as they are found in the literature that I have looked at during the course. Finally I will evaluate the areas where I would like to develop both personally and professionally in relation to social work values.
Personal and Professional Development and Values Issues
I think that this course has helped me to assess what my personal values are, not just that they are inherited, but how they have become my own. I believe that this process is invaluable to my personal and professional development and to my understanding of issues to do with values. During my time on the course I have learned to think more deeply about what I do and to examine my own personal values and see how far they might be comparable to the values issues I have been studying. I have also learned that I constantly need to think about what I am doing and how far this agrees or conflicts with my basic values and the values of social work. Shon (1991) has argued that:
Professionals claim to contribute to social well-being, put their clients’ needs ahead of their own, and hold themselves accountable to standards of competence and morality. But both popular and scholarly critics accuse the professions of serving themselves at the expense of their clients, ignoring their obligation to public service, and failing to police themselves effectively (Schon, 1991:11-12).
The way in which social workers ‘police’ themselves is to think critically about what they are doing, why they are doing it, and what moral implications this may have. Certainly social work ethics does not lead me to believe that the social work profession should serve itself, rather the needs of the client should be most important. There should also be an early establishing of clear relationship boundaries as to great a personal involvement with a client is contrary to what the BASW has to say about social work ethics and values.
One of things that I have learned during the course is that in higher education attention always has to be paid to the question of knowledge and what it is that makes knowledge. Since the Enlightenment it has been said that knowledge is drawn from observable facts (as in science) and this has meant that knowledge based on experience is not so highly thought of. The objective, scientific view of knowledge has increasingly been challenged as a narrow view that maintains there is a specific response to situations that a practitioner can employ and thus solve a problem. The Enlightenment view is one which tends to forget that people (both social workers and their clients) are individuals and so there is not one size that fits all, rather each situation has to be responded to in a way that best suits the situation and the people involved. Schon (1991) maintains that this knowledge is acquired through process or doing. It is a key part of reflective practice which recognises the importance of non-rational knowledge. Arguably this type of knowledge is invaluable to social workers because they deal with people and have to think about their relationship with others on a daily basis.
Social workers are often faced with a conflict of values, on the one hand there is a particular client and situation and on the other there is an increasing need to satisfy bureaucracy by processing a case as quickly as possible. In a situation like this it is very easy to be governed by rules and procedures and particular theoretical approaches that may have little basis in reality. I am finding that good social work practice puts the needs of the client first and the rules and procedures second, particularly where they might contradict the values of social work. Social work, it would seem to me is based on a common sense of justice and on the basic worth of all human beings. Once this value is acknowledged and it is accepted that all human beings are valuable then the response has to be the one that best suits the situation and the people involved.
I have been brought up to have respect for myself and other people and to tell the truth. I have found that if I try to understand my work from this basis which in the literature, is a human rights perspective, then not only am I being true to the values of social work, but I am being true to my own values. Cemlyn and Briskman (2003) argue that social workers who base their practice on concepts of human rights and social justice need to be more aware of how the inequalities that they see in society might affect their practice. Sometimes society and its rules are not always just, society does not always operate in the best interests of the individual person, furthermore, the fact that social care is now based on how well it operates in the market, means that the legal framework within which a social worker has to act may also (however much it is unintended) work against individual rights. In these cases, Cemlyn and Briskman (2003) believe that the social worker has a duty to be prepared to go outside of the immediate context and be ready to operate at a personal level from an ethical sense and decision making process that is informed by the valuing of the human person and the concept of human rights. In a contemporary context the notion of human rights is all encompassing, however much the present Government might try to restrict it in many cases. In social work, it is arguably the case that the values of human rights and social justice are different from Enlightenment ideas of human rights and justice.. They are more inclusive in that the concept refers to all people and in this sense they are more true. Such values, it has to be said, should not be at the mercy of a system which is more concerned with rules that are governed by budgetary concerns. Ring (2001) explains this process when he says that:
The last two decades have seen an increasing emphasis on the performance of health and social services. This is attributable partly to central government's concern to ensure value for money and contain expenditure, but variations in the range, quality, and costs of care, and failures to protect vulnerable individuals have also been significant concerns (Ring, 2001:1)..
Giving way to this means that those who actually need the social services, for instance the poor, or children at risk, or those with physical and mental disabilities, end up the losers and are pushed even further to the margins of society.
Reading and Values
Practical reflection Ruch (2002) contends makes a practitioner more open to new and different ways of coping with clients and their situations. Social workers also have to be aware of the more rational and theoretical approaches that underpin their work. I have learned from my reading about social values and social work that these things do not operate in isolation but are drawn together when I reflect critically on what I have read and what I am doing. I hope that the critical reflection which is a result of the above two processes means that I will work for the good of whatever client I may be dealing with and that I will be able to hold to the view that oppression is wrong. My reading on social values has taught me that as a social worker my practice should work against oppression. From an ethically informed perspective critical reflection should be a necessary part of social work training and practice because there is always a need to stop and think when you are dealing with people. In the same way, an emancipatory and anti-oppressive attitude is a critical component of ethical social work. When a practitioner is driven by target orientated structures then he/she does not have the time to think about what they are doing and to learn from the process. They can then, without meaning it, be drawn into unethical practice, or practice that works against the needs of the client. In this way they can end up violating their professional code of ethics if they are not careful. Social work practice that is based on heavily prescribed rules and actions is not equipped to deal with the complex nature of modern western society. In this way such practice is actually contrary to social work ethics as it neglects the fact that you are dealing with each client and situation on its on merits.
Reflective practice, on the other hand, acknowledges the uniqueness of each human being and each situation that arguably makes it much more compatible with social work ethics. Who a person is, their life history their culture, their race, and their gender all affect how they act and judge in a given situation. When I reflect on my work it is a way of noticing where and if I am biased about something and how this affects and influences my perception of a given person or situation. Holding to my personal values and to the values of social work means that I have to get to know myself well. Self-knowledge is, or should be a necessary component in a social worker’s continuing development. Papell (1996) contends that:
Social work learners must perceive the human situation which they confront in their practice and recognise that their perceptions are filtered through their own thinking and knowing processes, through their emotions and feeling processes and through the way they themselves integrate and regulate their own doing and behaving. Knowing the self is more than knowing how one feels. It is knowing how one thinks and acts (Papell, 1996:19).
How far then, is a social worker being guided by even general ethical principles and his/her own social values, let alone a specific code of practice. Ethics are moral principles on which our behaviour is based and in that sense they are interchangeable with values such as telling the truth and valuing people. Ethical codes on the other hand, while they may be based on moral principles, are not as generalisable in that they refer to particular professions and the way in which professional behaviour is governed. Butler (2000) maintains that such ethical codes cannot be said to be neutral or value free because they have arisen in a particular context for a particular purpose and as such are influenced by the ideologies held in that context. The ethical code or code of practice as it is outlined by the British Association of Social Workers defines social work and the values inherent within the profession in the following way:
The social work profession promotes social change, problem solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance well-being. Utilising theories of human behaviour and social systems, social work intervenes at the points where people interact with their environments. Principles of human rights and social justice are fundamental to social work (BASW,2001). 
The Association maintains that ethical practice must be centred on the needs of service users Social workers of necessity intervene in people’s lives and have an influence on situations, ethical decision making is therefore a vital component of social work practice (Osmo and Landau, 2001). The Association is there to give advice to social workers on what constitutes ethical decision making in different contexts. Decision making has to be grounded in the values of ethics of social work. Some of the issues that social workers have to deal with and that involve them in ethical decision making centre around balancing the rights of one individual against others, around public welfare and issues of institutional and structural oppression. This can make life difficult because the social worker has then to identify when institutions and structures are being oppressive and how the values of social work may be used to combat this.
Banks (2003) has argued that codes of practice and ethics are often idealistic that is to say that they are too far removed from the situation. Human rights for example might mean ensuring that someone has the right information to access the help they need, it is not always about large scale abuse. Codes of ethics can also encourage a false sense of security as they may be seen as providing a blueprint for how a social worker should act when it is impossible to legislate for every situation. Social workers need to be able to critically reflect on their own practice in order to act in an ethical manner in any given situation. Ethical codes are something that imposed from outside. This means that they do not have anything to say about a practitioner as a person and whether, and in what ways their personal values agree with or differ from the values of social work. It is here that reflection on practice is crucial. Without reflection on previous actions and how these might relate to the code of ethics the social worker could be at a considerable disadvantage in decision making and could either leave a child open to danger or infringe the rights of a possibly innocent client.
Social work intervention if it is based on real social values cannot be allowed to be target driven if it is to be truly ethical and based upon notions of social justice. In some respects organisational and managerial ethos does not always fit well with the ideals of social workers and their practice and some councils are not so inclined to recognise the rights of service users. This can leave social workers with a dilemma, do they operate within a human rights framework or don’t they? Moral engagement with clients takes place at a personal level and Husband (1995) maintains that social workers should not feel themselves limited by codes that does not operate within a framework that is informed by human rights and social justice. Ife (2001) argues that within the context of social work practice a framework, and working perspective of human rights:
…reinforces and validates the traditional understandings and practices of social work while in other cases it challenges some of the assumptions of the social work profession (Ife, 2001:1).
Social Work Values and Continuing Personal and Professional Development
While continuing professional development can tend to be outcome orientated in that the practitioner is attempting to reach a certain level of professionalism. This does not mean to say that reflective practice should be entirely forgotten and become totally process orientated. Rather, Postle et al. (2002) argue for a more inclusive approach of development where both outcomes and process are of equal value in the practitioner’s continuing development. This inclusive approach is achieved by reflecting on personal values and how far these can be said to be the same as social work values. I think my values are consistent with the values that underpin social work. I think that perhaps my understanding of how these values govern my behaviour and dictate how I deal with clients needs developing further. I also think that I need to pay more attention to what being reflective in my work really means and how this can be achieved.
Clearly social work values and social work practice have to be understood as two sides of the same coin. A social worker, I believe, cannot operate effectively without recognising how closely connected social values and the business of social work are. How we interpret those values, particularly if they appear to conflict with what is regarded as correct practice, needs careful thought and reflection. Our values may seem to remain constant but they do operate differently in response to different contexts and this is an area which I think needs further development. Adherence to a specific code of ethics and to social work values tends to imply that myself, and others learning to be social workers already possess a certain moral character and will thus act in accordance with specific values that take into account concern for the welfare of others whilst also having a concern for the self. I would hope that eventually this will truly be the case. Until such time, my values of truth and the worth of a person are very much in line with what I have understood about values in the course and what is contained in the literature. I hope that my engagement with social values during the course will lead me to develop into a more efficient, reflective, and ethically informed practitioner.
Banks, S. 2003 From oaths to rulebooks: a critical examination of codes of ethics for the social professions European journal of Social Work Volume 6 No. 2 July 2003 p. 133-144
Barr, J and Steele, T. 2003 “Revaluing the Enlightenment: Reason and Imagination” Teaching in Higher Education 8 (4) October, 2003 pp.505-515
British Association of Social Workers (2002) The Code of Ethics for Social Work.http://www.basw.co.uk/.
Butler, I 2000. A Code of Ethics for Social Work and Social Work Research http://www.elsc.org.uk/socialcareresource/tswr/seminar6/butler.htm
Cremlyn, S and Briskman L. 2003 “Asylum, Children’s Rights and Social Work” Child and Family Social Work 8 (3) pp. 163-178
Gardner, F. 2001 “Social Work Students and Self-awareness: How does it happen” Reflective Practice 2 (1) 2001 pp.27-40
Husband, C. (1995) The morally active practitioner and the ethics of anti-racist social work. In: Ethical Issues in Social Work (eds R. Hugman & D. Smith), pp. 84–103. Routledge, London
Ife, J. (2001) Human Rights Social Work: Towards Rights-Based Practice. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
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Taylor (Eds) Reflective Learning for Social Work (Aldershot, Arena).
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Ruch, G 2002 “From triangle to spiral: Reflective practice in social work education, practice and research” Social Work Education Volume 21 no. 2 2002
Ruch, G. 2000 “Self and social work: Towards an integrated model of learning” Journal of Social Work Practice Volume 14, no. 2 November 1st 2000
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