An introduction to social work
An introduction to social work

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An introduction to social work

1.2 Values, ethics and anti-oppressive practice

As a profession, social work requires a specific qualification and registration with a professional regulatory body. Without this, people cannot call themselves ‘social workers’. Each of the four nations of the UK has a different regulatory body, each with its own set of standards and codes of practice that all registered social workers have to adhere to. In Wales, for example, social care workers must ensure their practice is informed by the National Occupational Standards for social work [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] and underpinned by the Care Council for Wales’ Codes of Practice. To begin with it is helpful to look at what ‘values’ are, where they come from, the context in which social work values have arisen and how they are being put into practice.

What are social work values?

Traditionally, the values that underpin social work have been central to its practice and what makes it distinctive among other professional groups. Maintaining behavioural codes and standards of practice aimed at protecting the public are undoubtedly essential, however, social work values are perceived to be more than adhering to a set of rules. Due to the types of situations social workers encounter and have to deal with, they also have to explore personal aspects of their value base and be aware of how their values affect the work they do. In this way their professional identity and standards of professional integrity inform the complex and difficult situations they deal with (Wiles, 2012, Banks, 2010).

Banks (2010) suggested that in the education of social workers there needed to be consideration of:

  • ‘A commitment to a set of values, the content of which relates to what it means to be a ‘good person in a professional role’ and/or a ‘good professional’.

  • An awareness that the values are interrelated to each other and form a coherent whole and that their interrelationship is what constitutes the overarching goals or purpose of the profession.

  • A capacity to make sense of professional values and their relationship to the practitioner’s own personally held values.

  • The ability to give a coherent account of beliefs and actions.

  • Strength of purpose and the ability to implement these values.’

Social work values are not then considered as a mechanistic adherence to rules and regulations, but will involve the exploration of your personal value base and motivations to work with people who may be vulnerable or disadvantaged in some way. However, there are broad themes that are consistently felt to represent the value base of the profession. In 2012, the British Association of Social Workers issued a revised Code of Ethics for Social Work that emphasised its commitment to three basic values:

Human rights – respect for the inherent worth and dignity of all people as expressed in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Social justice – a responsibility to promote social justice, in relation to society generally, and in relation to the people with whom they work

Professional integrity – a responsibility to respect and uphold the values and principles of the profession and act in a reliable, honest and trustworthy manner. (BASW Code of Ethics for Social Work - Statement of Principles (p. 8))

Ethics and accountability

In reading statements of standards of professional values it may be hard to think of how they could be in any way problematic for you. It is likely you will think you are going to respect everyone you work with, or that you will always be reliable, honest and trustworthy. However, you will note that a BASW values statement is contained within the Code of Ethics. Ethics is one aspect of values, and one way of understanding the term is that it is about the resolution of professional moral dilemmas. The BASW code, for example, also notes that social workers have to:

  • work with conflicting interests and competing rights
  • have a role to support, protect and empower people, as well as having statutory duties and other obligations that may be coercive and restrict people’s freedoms
  • are constrained by the availability of resources and institutional policies in society.

Social workers frequently play an important part in resolving such moral dilemmas, for example, when making decisions involving risk, protection and restriction of liberty. The way in which you act in these situations should be guided by something beyond your personal beliefs alone. You have to be aware of the publicly stated values of your agency and make skilful judgements based on your accumulated knowledge and experience. Ethical considerations are rarely the responsibility of one worker, however, and agencies’ policies and structures of accountability offer both guidance and a standard against which your practice can be measured. Accountability, therefore, is the process through which employers and the public can judge the quality of individual workers’ practice and hold them responsible for their decisions and actions.

Anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive practice

Exploring personal and professional values for social work practice does not only relate to the individual ways in which service users are treated. Social work also has an inbuilt social perspective. This is an appreciation that opportunities and life chances are also influenced by wider factors than personal qualities of, for example, motivation or intelligence. By way of further example, if you were born into a poor family you would be more likely to remain poor and die earlier (Marmot, 2008). If you are a young black or disabled person in your early twenties in the UK, you are twice as likely not to be in employment, education or training (NEET) as young white and non-disabled people (EHRC, 2010).

There are no straightforward explanations for these statistics; however, insofar as social workers work with people who appear to be largely disadvantaged by such societal forces, understanding how these forces may affect individuals becomes a key concern for social work. This understanding then becomes integral to an approach that seeks to be anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive.

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