chapter  25
7 Pages

Careering through social work: Metaphors of continuing professional development

At some point in most people’s social work career they find themselves asking questions such as ‘how did I get into this?’ and ‘where am I going?’ Existential introspection is not the sole preserve of social work, of course, although there is perhaps something exceptional about the complexities and demands of social work practice that leads to just this kind of selfquestioning on a rather more regular basis than other professions. The responses to these heartfelt questions are often metaphorical, such as ‘I feel trapped’, ‘I’ve lost my way’ or ‘this is a window of opportunity’. This chapter explores continuing professional development (CPD) and careers through an examination of these kinds of questions and seven metaphorical ways of making sense that can be used. For example, over the years I have been struck by how many times social workers have described their postqualification study experiences as ‘jumping through hoops’: an interesting circus metaphor! In an earlier publication on this subject I began by proposing that the attitudes of professional workers to their CPD are a strong indicator of their approach to practice. I ended by asking readers whether professional practice is a ‘minimum-requirements activity’ or ‘an opportunity for lifelong learning, challenge and growth?’ (Cooper 2008c: 235), pointing out that the responsibility for choice lay with the individual. In essence, I think the choice remains the same but this chapter arrives there through a different kind of discussion. The idea of social work as a career is related to its development as a profession which, in the UK, has been largely situated within the organizational structures and cultures of public service local authorities. This is not necessarily the case in other Western industrialized societies or other countries

around the world. In a growing age of globalization this is an important point, as a UK-centric view of social work can lead to comfortable public bureaucracy assumptions such as ‘career ladders’ and ‘promotional pathways’ (more metaphors!). However, it is debatable whether the unique demands of social work lend themselves to these kinds of career certainties. An indication of this is the growing problem of staff retention (Unison 2009) which has given rise to unprecedented multimedia government advertising and recruitment campaigns. In the twenty-first century, changes have been made to strengthen the institutional position of social work through increased regulation and registration through the devolved Care Councils in the nations of the UK. All social workers in the different nations of the UK must register with their regulatory Care Councils and maintain their registration every three years to be able to practise. In England, these arrangements for CPD and a future system of ‘licence to practise’ have come under scrutiny as part of a far more fundamental, root and branch review of social work as a whole (DCSF 2009b). The role of employers continues to be given a high profile by government and any future reforms will have to be shaped through the organizations that employ social workers. Social work in the UK is now delivered by an increasingly diverse range of organizations and it has been argued that the style and character of social work services are strongly influenced by the nature of the organization that delivers them (Warham 1977; Kakabadse 1982; Pithouse 1987). These three authors developed innovative ways of examining the complex, multi-layered relationships of personal, professional and institutional interests that combine to produce social work. A very different, and equally ground-breaking, approach to understanding organizations and the careers that interlink them has been developed through the use of metaphor (Morgan 2006; Inkson 2007). I often recall that a social work tutor on my own social work qualifying course in the 1980s described his view of social work education as a ‘springboard’ to further development. By this metaphor he meant that social work would benefit from people entering and leaving at different times in their life and that qualification should be the start of a process of CPD that might develop in different directions both within and without social work. Whatever the shape of post-qualification CPD in the future, there can be little doubt that it will remain an individual responsibility to initiate, pursue and maintain areas of continued professional learning and competence development. In doing this, the adoption of a ‘strategic approach’ argued by Sobiechowska (2007) is a good start. The self-evaluation checklists on motivation and approaches to learning, drawn from Entwhistle and Peterson (2004), help to focus attention upon the learner-centred aspects of self-managed CPD. However, checklists have their limitations. Much broader considerations are offered through an exploration of ‘career as metaphor’ that link the individual and their CPD in the contexts of their personal history, family circumstances, current employment and future

aspirations. Morgan’s (2006) concept of ‘multiple metaphors’ is particularly useful in recognizing the many different interests and perspectives in social work that range from public policy through to private lives. Inkson (2007) develops this approach in understanding careers generally and I have drawn upon this to provide different illustrations of the relationship between social work careers and attitudes towards CPD. The seven metaphors I consider are: craft (constructing your career and CPD); seasons and cycles (career and CPD as life course); matching (career and CPD as ‘fit’); journey (career and CPD as pathways); network (career and CPD through relationships); economic (career and CPD as resource); and narrative (career and CPD as stories).