The coming of age of Scottish social services?

Dumbleton, Sue and McPhail, Mo (2012). The coming of age of Scottish social services? In: Mooney, Gerry and Scott, Gill eds. Social Justice and Social Welfare in Contemporary Scotland, Volume 2. Bristol: Policy Press, pp. 131–146.



The ‘coming of age of social work’ was the lofty claim made by a devolved Scottish government in response to the report of the 21st century review of social work, Changing Lives:

It will mark social work’s coming of age as a mature profession, focusing services on promoting wellbeing, rather than the more paternalistic welfare model underpinning current legislation. (Scottish Executive, 2006b:14).

What do mature (‘come of age’) social services look like? What do they do and how can we recognise them? The Scottish Government (2006b:14) defines a mature social work profession as one which: embraces more personalised services, is focussed on outcomes subject to performance management, manages risk and promotes ‘excellence’, enshrines the position of service users and carers in service design and delivery and is subject to public service reforms. The Scottish Government’s definition of ‘come of age’ and ‘mature’ is contentious and open to debate because the profession itself has not agreed the definition. For example the international definition of social work (IFSW 2004), based on ethical principles of human rights and social justice, provides an alternative perspective on ‘maturity’ in social services.

The Scottish Government’s definition, however, does propose indicators which focus upon concrete actions and it is these which we examine here, particularly in relation to services for children and young people and services for people who have a learning disability. Social work is, of course, far wider than these two service domains. These are referred to here as illustrative and representative examples of the broader profession. The idea that devolution in 1999 strengthened Scotland’s autonomy in social work and social care in the context of UK pressures which continue to shape social policy is also discussed. The authors argue that the overall picture of social services in Scotland at the end of the first decade of the 21st century falls short of what can be seen as a ‘coming of age’. Amidst severe economic and political threats, which echo UK-wide welfare and public sector reforms, the distinctively Scottish approach to social welfare and the aspirations of the social services profession to promote its core values and social justice are under threat.

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