2 What is the ‘Welsh context’ of social work?
Context is important for all social workers to understand, regardless of where they work. Themes such as rurality, poverty, industrialisation, and inward and outward migration affect the lives of service users and carers and the services they receive as much in Wales as in Glasgow or Cornwall. However, these features will not be the same in every location or nation, or even within nations, and it is imperative that social workers develop an understanding of the impact of these social and demographic features on the lives of the people they work with.
For example, the former industrial heartland of the South Wales valleys has seen significant industrial decline in the past century, with an inevitable loss of employment. Social workers might consider the impact of this on the lives of service users or carers who live in this area. Contrast this situation with someone living in rural mid-Wales, socially isolated, with poor public transport links and the resulting difficulty in accessing services, or the experience of an asylum-seeking family living in a dispersal area such as Swansea, Newport or Wrexham. Clearly service users and carers living in different areas will have different needs, and an important part of a social worker’s role is to consider such questions of context as they assess a person’s needs and work with them to determine how these might be met.
While social workers work with individuals, groups and communities, and have much in common in terms of values and ethics across the UK and further afield, the services they provide and the understanding of their profession are influenced by the values adopted by the government of the nation in which they work. In Wales, thinking about welfare provision has begun to take a different trajectory from the other nations of the UK.
Devolution has provided the Welsh Government with full legislative and policy making responsibility in a number of areas, one of which is health and social care. It is therefore essential that social work practitioners know what legislation, policy or strategy governs the service they provide, or which piece of legislation they will be using in carrying out their statutory functions in Wales.
Language, too, is an important feature of the Welsh context, with 19.8% of the population in Wales being Welsh speaking (ONS, 2011). While many languages can be heard across the nation, which also deserve sensitivity and require good practice, the two official languages of Wales (Welsh and English) place specific requirements on public bodies and, in particular, on welfare services.
Activity 1: What is the ‘Welsh context’?
Look at the questions below, and jot down your responses.
How long have you lived in Wales?
Is your community rural or urban?
What changes are taking place in your community, and what’s causing them?
What difference has the Welsh Government made?
How many pieces of Welsh legislation can you name?
What is your preferred language?
What is your experience of the Welsh language?
Do you know how many Welsh speakers are in your area?
Have you ever worked with any Welsh-speaking service users?
Try some of these questions on work colleagues, friends or family.
Were you surprised at some of the responses, and if so, in what way?
You might have been surprised at how much you knew (or didn’t know) in relation to these questions. Some students, including social work students, who have done this activity have been surprised that they hadn’t even thought about these kinds of questions previously. Many had no idea how many Welsh speakers were in their area, or even whether they had Welsh speakers on their case load. For some groups the questions provoked quite vigorous discussion, for example regarding their own family history and personal identity, personal and professional values, and political issues.
Social workers need to be aware of the context in which they find themselves because there clearly is no single ‘Welsh context’. The arrival of refugees and asylum seekers, for example, has brought new challenges to some communities and services, while in other areas, Welsh-speaking service users or carers, while not a new phenomenon, may not always have their language needs met. Social workers need to be familiar with the relevant legislation and policy to support their anti-discriminatory practice, and to access the right support and services for these people’s welfare and wellbeing.
In the next activity, you will further consider how social and demographic factors may be important for social workers to bear in mind.
Activity 2: Facts and figures: exploring social factors
Read the summary of the report ‘Monitoring poverty and social exclusion in Wales 2013’, [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] by the Joseph Rowntree Trust (JRT, 2013).
Find one piece of information relating to the effects of poverty from the summary that you did not know before. Make some brief notes about how this information could be important for social workers.
The report shows that while the proportion of people living in low-income households in Wales has not changed much over a decade, the proportion of working households on a low income has risen since the early 2000s. However, the proportion of families claiming in-work or out-of-work benefits varied across Wales, with high numbers of families in the West, North-West and East receiving in-work benefits, while the South Wales valleys had high numbers of families claiming out-of-work benefits.
With a higher percentage of the working-age population being inactive (26.5%), Wales was higher in this category than either Scotland or England, and higher than the British average by 3.5%.
It is striking that there are now high numbers of people in work who are experiencing poverty. The link between poverty and health and wellbeing are well established, yet preventable inequities persist (and indeed are increasing) across Wales, and ‘require sustained commitment to ensure that where a person lives or their social circumstances, does not lead to a lesser quality of life and a premature death’ (Welsh Assembly Government, 2009).
Since Wales is a ‘profoundly unequal society’ (Williams, 2011, p. 116), the need for social workers to make themselves aware of these inequities and to pick up the challenge of anti-discriminatory practice is self-evident. You will learn more about anti-discriminatory practice in Section 4.
The Joseph Rowntree Trust website is an excellent resource for discussion and research on many aspects of social work, and you may find it helpful to visit this site on other occasions. You will also be able to compare figures UK-wide from this site.