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Public Knowledge of and Attitudes to Social Work in Scotland


Chapter Five: Knowledge of Social Workers and Social Work Services

This chapter examines public knowledge of social workers and social work services. Among other things it considers self-assessed knowledge of the role of social workers, and awareness of different social work services.

Knowledge of Social Work in General

In order to gauge basic knowledge about social workers, survey respondents were asked to what extent they agreed or disagreed with the statement, I'm not clear about what social workers actually do. Responses were fairly mixed overall, with 39% agreeing with the statement and 49% disagreeing.

Figure 5.1: Knowledge of social workers

IAS Fig 5-1

Younger age groups were more likely than older people to feel knowledgeable about the role of social workers (53% of 16-24 year olds disagreed with the statement compared with just 39% of those aged 65+). Additionally, and as might be expected, those who have had contact with social work services felt more knowledgeable than those who have had no contact (58% disagree versus 44% respectively).

Knowledge also appeared to be higher among those who held a generally positive impression of social workers than among those whose impressions were negative (61% disagreed with the statement versus 45%). However, this may reflect respondents' relative experience of social work services. People who had used services were among those most likely to hold positive views of social workers.

Varying levels of knowledge about the role of social workers were also evident in the focus groups. While some participants spoke in a fairly informed way about the profession, others admitted that they were unclear what services are provided by social workers and how these can be accessed. Asian participants were keen to point out that older members of their community, and especially those born outwith the UK, tend to know very little about services such as social work, usually because they have not come across them before. This finding is consistent with research conducted by MORI Scotland (2005) among BME residents in Glasgow.

It's a very wide field and unless you are involved or have had to be involved in some way. I think probably we may be fairly ignorant, at least I would say so.
(Female, ABC1, 65+, West Linton)

Some of us don't know what problems you can get in touch with them about, you know what I mean?
(Female, C2DE, 45-64 Stirling)

I don't know much about it. We're assuming that they only deal with people that are either tramps or they don't look after their children or they've got nowhere to live. I suppose they do other things as well.
(Female, 18-24 Edinburgh)

I do but my mum wouldn't know. My mum wouldn't know and some of my aunts probably wouldn't know. Even though they're still young they wouldn't know because they haven't come across it. I probably know it through work or through people that you meet. I think the community as a whole, I think generally they probably don't have a clue. They're probably not aware of what social work is and what they do and what services they can offer.
(Female Asian, Glasgow)

The focus group research also uncovered a degree of confusion over the differences between social work services and 'the social', especially in the C2DE groups. Thus, when asked about their experiences of social work services, a couple of participants complained about occasions on which they had not received benefits they thought they were entitled to. Given this confusion, it may be that negative experiences of social security services contribute to negative perceptions of social work.

Are you talking about social?
(Male, C2D2, 65+ Dundee)

You go for benefits, they don't tell you some of the ones you can claim..
(Male, C2DE, 25-44, Inverness)

Consistent with findings from other similar studies (see for example COI Communications, 2001) There was also some confusion over the differences between social work and social carers, though this was mainly evident among younger participants and in the Chinese group. Most other participants were generally able to distinguish between two roles, typically referring to the fact that social workers have 'qualifications' whereas carers are more 'hands on'.

[Social workers] sometimes come in a Direct Services car or something and they've always got the uniform and their badge on.
(Female, Asian, Glasgow)

I think we can sometimes get confused with carers and social workers. There's a very fine line between the two.
(Female Asian, Glasgow)

[Social workers] have to do with adoption and fostering and things like that, a home help wouldn't.
(Female, C2DE, 65+, Dundee)

Knowledge of Specific Social Work Services

Although 39% of the survey respondents said they weren't clear about what social workers actually do, a majority were able to name (unprompted) specific social work services when invited to do so. The most commonly mentioned services were those relating to the abuse and neglect of children, care of children and care and assistance for elderly people. These were followed by services for people coping with a mental illness, help for parents bringing up children and support for drug and alcohol problems, respectively.

Knowledge of others services was very limited indeed. In particular, fewer than one in ten respondents mentioned services for offenders, respite care, help for people leaving prison and occupational therapy, as table 5.1 illustrates.

Table 5.1: Knowledge of different social work services
Q For which type of issues or problems do you think a person might receive help or advice from social work services?
Base: All respondents, 1,015


Abuse/maltreatment/neglect of children


Care of children


Care/assistance for elderly


Coping with a mental illness


To help parents bring up their children better


Help with drug/alcohol problems


Physical disabilities


Housing issues




Coping with a learning disability




Respite care


Leaving prison


Stop someone re-offending


Legal advice


Occupational therapy




Don't know


Source: MORI

Knowledge OF Social Workers' Qualifications

As mentioned in the introduction to this report, one of the main aims of the 21 st Century Social Work Review is to ensure a 'competent and confident workforce'. It is recognised that due to the changing nature of society, social workers are having to deal with a growing range of problems, with the effect that there is a mismatch between what they feel they are trained to do and what they actually do. The new social work degree course was established in recognition of this challenge, and to attract more people into the profession.

A number of marketing campaigns have been run to publicise the new degree course and results from the survey suggests that these have had some impact. Asked to select from a list of possible options the training and qualifications undertaken by a social worker, just over two in five (44%) correctly chose 'three or four years training, equivalent to a university degree'. Meanwhile, 25%, opted for 'two or three years training, equivalent to a college diploma'. A small minority thought that social workers are required to undertake only a year's training and practical experience.

Figure 5.2: Social workers' qualifications
Fig 5-2

Demand for Information About Social Workers

In most of the focus groups, participants suggested spontaneously that the public should be provided with more information about social work services, and specifically about the range of help available and the means by which this can be accessed. There were various suggestions as to how this information might be provided. Several people, most of whom were older, said they would welcome leaflets through their doors or in public places. Asians, meanwhile, suggested that information might be made available through mosques, temples and on Asian radio.

There's not enough leaflets put through your doors
(Male, C2DE, 65+, Dundee)

It was handy when the social work and the rent office were in the village and people would see these notices were up. If you went in to pay your rent you could see all the social work did, all the leaflets on the board. It was handy because people then would know what they were doing.
(Female, ABC1, 45-54, Aviemore)

The literature has to be in the right place. It has to be in the doctor's surgery or it has to be in the Mosque or in the Temple, wherever people can see it.
(Female Asian, Glasgow)

There was also some suggestion that information on social work services should be provided in schools, not least so that young people experiencing difficulties are made aware of help available to them.

It's very hard but if they went into schools and people were more educated what they actually did and how much they cover.
If you do it through school age because kids are wanting to know and they'd ask hundreds of questions. You can fill them out all the information at a school, a secondary school. It would be fantastic for them because then they'd be on the right track if they were in trouble, before they're in too deep.
(Female, ABC1, 45-54, Aviemore)

Maybe in schools and stuff, because everyone goes to school … a leaflet at school or something that would tell you.
(Female Asian, Glasgow)