Trish McCulloch and Stephen Webb, British Journal of Social Work, 50(4), 2020, pp. 1146 – 1166.  

Review written by Dr David Wilkins

What question does this study focus on?

In relation to social services, there is often expressed the view among social workers that, by and large, the public dislike them – or at least, they dislike the services they represent. But how accurate is this view?

How did they study it?

In this article, the authors report findings from a survey of 2,505 adults in Scotland, selected to represent the wider Scottish population. The survey was undertaken in 2016 / 17, and comprised of 43 questions, organised in relation to six themes – i) impressions and perceptions of social services, ii) understanding of social services, iii) issues associated with social services, iv) experience of social services, v) trust, value and confidence in social workers and vi) influences on perceptions. 

What did they find?

Half of the respondents had a positive view of social services, and one-third had a negative view. Readers of The Guardian newspaper had the most positive views, while readers of The Daily Express had the most negative views (make of that what you will). The most positive overall findings were that ‘social services play an important role in supporting the most vulnerable people’ and that ‘social services provide a valuable service to the people of Scotland’. The majority of respondents also said they had a good knowledge and understanding of social services, and generally felt that social workers support older people and work to keep children safe. Most of the respondents agreed that social work professionals could be trusted to do their jobs well. It is reasonable to ask how many of these respondents would have had personal experience of social services, particularly in relation to children’s services – yet the authors report that although first-hand contact did influence perceptions of social services, in general there was “nothing compelling in the results to suggest that access in itself is a consistent predictor of perceptions” (p. 1159). 

What are the implications?

These findings should help challenge the belief that the public primarily or even uniformly hold negative views of social work. As this survey shows, at least in Scotland, this is not the case. Perceptions can more reasonably be described as mixed, tending towards the positive.  

What a similar survey would find in Wales remains an open question.

Review written by

Dr David Wilkins