Domestic Abuse Act continues half-century of progressive reforms – Janine Bolger

This April, ­Scotland will introduce new domestic abuse legislation that not only covers physical abuse, but ­other forms of psychological and controlling behaviour, which can’t be ­easily prosecuted using the existing law.

Janine Bolger, Head of Social Work and Associate Head of the School of Applied Social Studies, Robert Gordon University
Janine Bolger, Head of Social Work and Associate Head of the School of Applied Social Studies, Robert Gordon University

The ­Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018, viewed by many as the gold standard, appears to continue Scotland’s ­tradition of progressive approaches to public reform.

Social work in Scotland is ­constantly evolving and it is the job of educators to equip the next generation with the skills to succeed in their professional career, whatever changes come their way. This latest legislation is one in a long line of developments that have shaped the country’s social work ­profession.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

One of the most significant ­pieces of legislation celebrated its 50th anniversary last year – the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968. This brought about a major reorganisation in social services and embraced a more active and promotional approach. It also challenged attitudes towards those in poverty and emphasised that social work could be a positive and radical force for social change.

The purpose of the social work ­profession – to promote social change, solve problems in human relationships, and to empower and liberate people to enhance wellbeing – has always been influenced by the socio-political climate.

While Margaret Thatcher’s ­government in the 1980s put a focus on individualism and self-reliance over state involvement, post-devolution Scotland introduced a raft of ­legislation to make public ­services work for people. ­Notably, the Changing Lives Report (2006) would go on to conclude that radical changes were needed to improve integration, consistency and standards in the face of public services cuts.

While the social work landscape constantly modernises, this leaves the sector and profession with a number of questions, particularly when it comes to the push for integration between services. For example, where services for adults and ­children are separate, how will ­associated risks for either adults or children in the same family be ­managed by social workers?

Likewise, within integration, what are the boundaries of health care, social care and social work and how do these professional disciplines work together in an integrated way?

These challenges face the social work and allied health professions amidst the backdrop of increased pressures brought by an ageing ­population, deeply entrenched social inequalities, significant public service funding cuts, market-orientated and risk-averse public sector regimes and practices, and increasing demand for and expectations of social and healthcare services. The potential for pessimism around the future of social work is understandable, and there has been a renewed emphasis for educators to prepare students for this ­constantly evolving environment.

Let us look back to 1968. Whilst the country’s social work landscape was being shaped, Robert Gordon ­University (RGU) took its own ­significant step and began providing social work education to prospective professionals across the region.

That initial Certificate in Social Work, a two-year course established by the Ministry of Health, enrolled just 14 students. From certificates to diplomas, honours degrees and ­master’s, RGU has become Scotland’s largest provider of qualified social workers, with our graduates now practising in different fields across the UK and around the world.

Social work education has undergone a major transformation since the beginning of the 21st century, let alone over the past 50 years since teaching started at RGU. Decisions made by successive governments have affected the length of training, curriculum content and the academic level at which social work is taught.

It is our job as academics and ­practitioners to ensure that the next generation of social workers are educated to honours degree level, with the essential knowledge, skills and values which are common and shared across the practice.

Educating social workers is a ­complicated process, given the need to equip them to support and ­advocate on behalf of marginalised individuals, whilst being employed by the social, economic and political environment that may have contributed to that marginalisation.

There are a number of issues ­currently facing social work education, as we equip our graduates for professional practice. In addition to the challenges facing the profession as a whole, a recent review of social work education has identified the need for increased levels of digital literacy, social media professionalism, leadership skills and the further development of innovation, creativity and entrepreneurial skills to meet the expectations of employers.

At RGU, we have ensured that these traits, in addition to interprofessional working, are embedded in teaching from day one. The university works in close collaboration with agencies, service users and other academic disciplines to develop a portfolio of teaching that addresses the perceived and actual skills deficit for social work students. This ensures that our graduating students have the necessary skills and knowledge to thrive in a forward-looking profession open to innovation and change.

All of this is done with the aim of having an impact on the lives of service users, and that must not be forgotten in the rush towards modernisation. What appears increasingly necessary is for person-centred and humanistic practice, with a focus on social change, to be placed again at the top of the social work agenda.

No matter the changes that society or governments may bring our way, that goal ensures that service users receive the best care possible, no matter their ­circumstances. That was true in the 50 years since the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968, and will remain so for the next 50 years following next month’s Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018.

Janine Bolger, head of social work and associate head of the School of Applied Social Studies, Robert Gordon University.