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Social work with children and families:

Towards a radical/critical practice
Steve Rogowski
Published online: 05 Jun 2008.

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Towards a radical/critical practice, Practice: Social Work in Action, 20:1, 17-28, DOI:

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Social Work with Children

and Families: Towards a
Radical/Critical Practice

Steve Rogowski
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Social work continues to be experiencing changes in its organisation and day-to-

day practices. Notions of assessment, monitoring, evaluation and inter-agency
coordination are to the fore rather than social work practice itself. In addition,
we have seen the rise and now domination of managerialism. All this coincides
with ideological changes over the last 35 years leading to the gradual demise of
the welfare state. From a radical/critical perspective these are dispiriting
developments and scope for radical/critical social work practice, though always
limited, has been further reduced. Despite this, I argue that the possibilities for a
radical/critical practice still remain.

Keywords: radical/critical social work; children and families; managerialism


Managerialism now bedevils social work entailing as it does a focus on

bureaucracy, such as with form filling and assessments, leaving little time for
face-to-face work with children and families. Even when such work takes place,
in relation to young offending and child protection/safeguarding for example, it
often involves little more than telling parents to behave in a certain way or face
the consequences of being punished and having their children removed. Is there
then the possibility of a radical/critical practice that involves working alongside
children and families on their problems and difficulties? My answer is in the
affirmative. Such a practice sees the problems and difficulties confronting
children and families not as residing in their inability to cope with adequate
societal arrangements, but rather these arrangements, currently capitalism/free
market economies, are at the root of the problem. This is what a radical/critical
practice has to attempt to address otherwise social work is in danger of simply
being about the regulation and control of the already socially excluded. We must

ISSN 0950-3153 print/1742-4909 online/08/010017–12

ª 2008 British Association of Social Workers
DOI: 10.1080/09503150701872257

ask and continue to ask ourselves ‘whose side are we on?’ (Becker 1967): the
casualties of current societal arrangements, or the state apparatus aimed at
supporting the status quo? For the radical/critical practitioner it is the former,
and resulting practice entails empowering those at the margins of society thereby
leading to an understanding of the real source of the difficulties and problems
they face, the inequalities of wealth and power inherent in present society. This,
rather than being aimed at their adjustment to or acceptance of the status quo, is
a small but vital step towards changing society so as to ensure justice and
equality for all.
I begin with theory by outlining what I mean by radical/critical social work.
This is followed by brief examples of radical/critical social work practice drawn
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from my own experience. Managerialism is then critically discussed including the

remaking of social work and the ‘modernisation’ of social care agenda of New
Labour (Garrett 2003). Finally, notwithstanding difficulties, I consider elements
of radical/critical practice in these ever changing ‘managerialist times’.

On Theory

Payne (2005) provides a useful summary of social work theory, noting that
socialist-collectivist views, in essence radical/critical theory, see social work as
seeking cooperation and mutual support so that oppression and disadvantage, as
a result of ruling-class accumulation of wealth and power, are supplanted by more
egalitarian relationships in society. Radical/critical theory itself is linked to two
other strands of theory namely anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive perspec-
tives, and empowerment and advocacy.

Radical/Critical Theory

Radical/critical theory draws on Marxist thought with problems confronting

children and families defined as social and structural rather than individual.
Furthermore, inequality and injustice in society arise from people’s working-class
position (Bailey and Brake 1975; Brake and Bailey 1980; Corrigan and Leonard
1980) together with oppressions based on race and gender (Langan and Lee 1989).
From all of this the focus of practice is political action and social change while at
the same time attempting to address the immediate needs of clients/service
Radical/critical social work also criticises traditional social work because
complex social problems are reduced to individual psychological ones and
peoples’ problems are privatised cutting them off from others who share their
experience and who could jointly deal with it. Radical/critical practice,
therefore, often takes the form of group and community approaches with
conscientisation, raising the consciousness of the oppressed so they becoming
aware of, and resist, the process of oppression rather than accepting it as

inevitable, being important (Friere 1972). It is about politicisation and learning to

perceive economic, political and social situations and contradictions, and taking
action against the oppressive elements of reality (Leonard 1984).
Other work on radical social work includes that of Mullaly (1993) and Fook
(1993). As an example, Fook develops a radical casework; instead of helping
individuals to adjust and cope with their social situation the focus is on helping
individuals change and control structures by advocacy and empowerment. Such
radical/critical social workers also continually press a case, arranging it to be
brought up in a variety of ways — senior management, local councillors and MPs,
for example. They accept the ‘unfinished’; small steps forward, provided the issue
is left open for further action and progress. They are also keen to develop a critical
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awareness with people, linked to conscientisation. Resources and information are

offered to increase autonomy along with referral to other services to extend
opportunities including utilising group and community resources. Crucially it can
mean that one has to be economical with the truth if it means people can receive
the benefits and services which they need (Rogowski 2001).
Fook’s (2002) more recent work acknowledges that ‘pure’ radical stances can
lead to oversimplified conceptions of power and identity. She refers, therefore,
to critical theory and practice, drawing on the Frankfurt school of social thought,
going on to argue that critical reflection, linked to conscientisation, can lead to
transformative possibilities (Fook 2004). Such reflection aims to counteract
feelings of fatalism, an adjustment of the mind to the inevitability of, for
example, poverty, disempowerment and lack of agency.
Highlighted in the above is the importance of power which relates to
ideological hegemony and class, race and gender oppression. Drawn into all this
are anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive practice.

Anti-Discriminatory and Anti-Oppressive Perspectives

Anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive perspectives arose largely as a result of

developments in relation to race and gender, but also influenced by work in
relation to, for instance, lesbian and gay rights, disability and aging. It is race and
gender that I concentrate on here as I have found them of most relevance in my
Ely and Denney (1987) note several perspectives in relation to race, not least
multiculturalism which accepts various ethnic and racial groups, wanting them to
be encouraged and valued. But it is the structuralist and black perspectives that
interest me because of their affinity to radical/critical practice. The former sees
capitalist/free market societies affecting groups within them differently, with
ethnic as well as class division recognised as the basis for economic and social
domination of particular groups by the ruling class. The latter emphasises the
requirement to include the point of view of black communities themselves,
moving social work away from controlling to supportive mechanisms, and working
in alliance with black communities (Dominelli 1997).

Concerning gender, there are various feminisms (see Beasley 1999). However,
it is the socialist view of feminist social work (Hanmer and Statham [1988] 1999)
that I comment on here again because of its affinity to a radical/critical practice.
Gender then is the basis of important life experiences for women and a women-
centred practice involves valuing women, ensuring space for them to get away
from caring and being dependent on men, and avoiding using conventional
assumptions that women’s ordinary behaviour (such as offending) is particularly
bad. Additionally, it is against the view that when men are involved in child abuse
the woman is in effect blamed for ‘failing to protect’ her children. More
radically/critically it involves the aforementioned conscientisation and critical
reflection, a dialogue between equals concerned with understanding dehumanis-
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ing social structures and changing social conditions. All this sits well with
Dominelli’s (2002) structural view of feminist theory and practice and hence
radical/critical social work.
During the 1990s approaches developed that included all forms of oppression
as well as race and gender. For example, Thompson (1993) and Dalrymple and
Burke (1995) follow the radical critique of the failings of traditional social work
and argue for working in partnership with clients/service users, using empower-
ment and advocacy to make links between people’s personal positions and
structural inequalities.

Empowerment and Advocacy

Empowerment seeks to help people gain power over decision making and action
in their own lives, while advocacy seeks to represent the interests of the
powerless to powerful individuals and social structures. Empowerment, like
advocacy, does not necessarily relate to radical/critical social work, although
‘Marxist socialist perspectives generally seek empowerment as a means of
promoting contradictions in society, with a view to eventually seeking change’
(Adams 1996, 8). Mullender and Ward (1991) provide a useful self-directed
groupwork approach to empowerment based on people’s problems reflecting
issues of oppression, policy, economy and power.
As for advocacy, it includes acting and arguing for peoples’ interests in the
field of welfare rights (Bateman 2000). In the 1980s and 1990s it also became a
process of increasing the capacity of people with mental health problems and
disabilities to manage their own lives by defining their own needs and having a say
in decision making (Beresford and Croft 1986).

On Practice

I now turn briefly to radical/critical practice drawing on my own experience. This

has included, for example, work with young offenders (Rogowski 1985, 1990,
2003 – 04) and their parents (Rogowski 1992), work with parents who had
children on the child protection register (Rogowski and McGrath 1986; Mullender

1989 – 90), work with glue sniffers (Rogowski, Harrison, and Limmer 1989) and
work involved in developing community social work with children and families on
two deprived estates (Rogowski and Harrison 1992). Many of the practice theories
referred to above are in evidence, so let us look at two examples.
First, conscientisation/politicisation strategies were used. In dealing with
peoples’ problems, intra-/inter-psychic issues were not to the fore; instead, the
structure and functioning of current society, and all the resulting inequalities of
wealth and power involved, were seen as being the root of the problem. Thus,
young offending (including glue sniffing) has to be seen in terms of inadequate
educational and youth provision and access to meaningful employment
opportunities (for example, Rogowski, Harrison, and Limmer 1989; Rogowski
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1992, 2003 – 04). Similarly, child abuse (now child protection/safeguarding), most
obviously in relation to physical abuse and neglect, can be seen as a reaction to
material stresses and strains, in short, poverty (Rogowski and McGrath 1986;
Mullender 1989 – 90) which in turn relates to inequality.
Second, in relation to community social work with children and families, this
involved a move away from a crisis, reactive approach in relation to children
and families to one which was proactive and preventative utilising group
(much of the work just referred to involved groupwork) and community work
methods as well as casework. In brief, colleagues and I were involved in
extensive advocacy with the (then) Department of Social Security and fuel
boards, empowerment strategies, in particular, with a single parent facing
complex difficulties, and work with estate forums which involved representa-
tives of various agencies such as Housing, Health, Police and Education. Instead
of individual or family pathology being the basis of intervention, the patterns of
relationships and power which define the family as problematic were the target
(Smale et al. 1988). Work with neighbours and the various agencies mentioned
attempted to shift the focus of blame from the family to the wider social
context of the street, the estate and society as a whole (Rogowski and Harrison
The reader, while perhaps accepting the radical/critical nature of the above
will perhaps argue that it took place some time ago and such practice is no longer
possible or appropriate. It is certainly true that coinciding with the ideological
changes epitomised by Thatcherism/Majorism and the Blairism of New Labour,
social work has had to cope with organisational change, financial cutbacks and
being forced into a more authoritarian/controlling role, not least in terms of
young offending and child protection/safeguarding. Additionally, social workers
have seen their autonomy and scope for individual initiative eroded. All this can
be related to the growth of managerialism and the changing nature of welfare
organisations (Lymbery 2004).


Managerialism dominates the way social work is now delivered, coinciding with
the economic, political and ideological changes of the last 30 years which

included the reconstruction of managerial power in the 1980s (Clarke 1996,

1998). There was destruction of organisational inhibitions to the exercise of
managerial discretion, including the reduction of trade union rights and power,
and the extension of managerial control over how to use workers. One result is
that rather than social workers having an element of discretion in terms of
services and practice, this discretion has moved to managers.
Change has continued under New Labour’s ‘modernisation’ and reform agenda,
including the acceleration of the mixed economy of welfare in the construction
and delivery of social work, not least in relation to children and families (Garrett
2003). First, we now have a plethora of private and voluntary bodies employing a
variety of care/support/outreach and project workers together with, for
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instance, mentors, advisers and counsellors, all of whom carry out roles and
tasks which were the preserve of social work. Second, social workers themselves,
at the instigation of managers, now have to focus on targets, performance
indicators and filling in forms and questionnaires. Professionally led practice
based on knowledge, skills and experience, occupational identity and collegial
relations, autonomy and discretion have been replaced by a so-called
professionalism based on organisational rather than professional values empha-
sising bureaucratic/managerial controls, including budgetary restrictions and
financial rationalisations, and requires the standardisation of work practices
(Rogowski 2007). Social work, therefore, is in real danger of becoming little more
than a means of rationing services and controlling the working class or, as they are
now more often known, the socially excluded. Social workers also have less
opportunity for the face-to-face work with children and families with such work
as remains left to the aforementioned workers and advisers who, importantly, are
less qualified, cheaper to employ and far easier to control.
In short, New Labour seeks to micro-manage social workers. This entails
extending control over the processes and output of social work. More broadly,
when not simply monitoring and controlling the socially excluded, this
complements a political fixation with ensuring children and young people, and
their carers, are able to ‘fit’ into their allotted roles in a capitalist/free market
economy (Garrett 2003). Briefly, practice has been broken down into a series of
specific, technical form-filling tasks often so that services can be ‘costed’ prior to
being ‘delivered’ so as to be ‘consumed’ by ‘customers’/‘consumers’. Instead of
social work being a relationship-based practice it is being transformed into a
practice based on mere technical competences overseen by managers (Jordan
2007). Such managers, as opposed to the previous lead provided by senior social
workers and team leaders, are often preoccupied simply with whether forms and
questionnaires have been completed. There is little concern about actual social
work practice, even about whether the forms have been used positively, and even
less whether practice is radical/critical or not. Despite this, ‘critical analysis and
creative work need to take place in order to resist proceduralisation and the
imposition of bureaucratic constraints which frequently seek to produce
manageable, docile social technicians and compliant users of services’ (Garrett
2003, 140).

Radical/Critical Practice in these ‘Managerialist Times’

Although there are now fewer opportunities to engage in the group and
community orientated activities outlined above or indeed radical/critical
practice itself, this does not mean that the politicisation, consciousness raising
and critical reflection strategies cannot be carried out. One has only to recall that
the details and subtleties of the interactions that take place between social
workers and clients/service users are beyond the reach and control of managers.
There is also some scope to influence groupwork strategies on radical/critical
lines. And although child protection/safeguarding dominates much of social work
with children and families, some radical/critical possibilities remain, as they do
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in terms of questioning aspects of dominant ideology and discourses.

Politicisation, Consciousness Raising and Critical Reflection

Opportunities remain in relation to politicisation, consciousness raising and

critical reflection, although this is now more likely to take place on an individual
basis. For example, work with a young offender could focus on their motivation
for offending, rather than simply issues of control and surveillance. It could be
pointed out that issues of boredom and material gain affect many young people
and could be resolved by ensuring that adequate recreational, educational and
employment/training opportunities were available to all young people (Rogowski
2000 – 01). Work with an isolated single parent living in poverty and with children
on the child protection/safeguarding register could start by pointing out that
there are many others in her predicament. It could then be considered that if we
lived in a fairer society this would alleviate the problems and difficulties facing
them all. In both cases, discussions could turn to the need for social justice and
equality (in terms of opportunities and outcome), and resulting redistributive
taxation policies pending fundamental societal transformation, utopian as this all
seems. In the meantime, problems and difficulties as defined by clients/service
users have to be addressed whether this be recreational, employment/training/
education and welfare rights issues for the young offender, or adequate child care
and again welfare rights for the single parent. Both could also be put in touch
with groups and organisations that deal with their particular circumstances. It
surely goes without saying that continued links with/pressure on one’s hierarchy,
along with councillors and MPs, retains its relevance.

Groupwork Possibilities

Group and community work opportunities for social workers are diminished, but it
does not necessarily mean that such aspects of the radical/critical practice
cannot be carried out. For example, one might be faced with parents who are
having problems dealing with their children’s behaviour. It could well be the case

that they would benefit from meeting with other parents in a similar position.
However, rather than simply referring them to ‘blame the victim’-type parenting
classes, one could encourage family or outreach support workers to establish
groups based on the more empowering and potentially radical/critical model of
Mullender and Ward (1991) by focusing on the external pressures that affect
parents’ care of their children. For example, the parents might be living on
benefits or working long hours for poverty-level wages, thus being tired, stressed
out and not being able to give the child the attention he/she needs. They may
even have succumbed to alcohol or drug misuse to alleviate their stress, again
this in turn impinging on the care of the child. In examining ways forward,
without detracting from the necessity of addressing immediate needs, the group
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could look at the fact that a long-term shift in social and economic policy aimed
at tackling social inequalities was required if the problems and difficulties are to
be seriously addressed. In addition, groups on the aforementioned lines could also
be organised for children, young people and parents facing other, but in many
ways similar, problems and difficulties.

Child Protection/Safeguarding: Radical/Critical Possibilities

In a different vein radical/critical practice looks to ensuring that, wherever

possible, children and families are protected from the oppressive aspects of the
state apparatus (Althusser 1971) including aspects of the child protection/
safeguarding system. Sometimes it may be hard to resist those child protectionists
whose philosophy, simply put, is to tell parents what to do otherwise face the
consequences and have their children removed. It must be remembered though
that the most authoritative guide to what works in child protection (Department
of Health 1995) emphasises preventative work and family support. More recent
research also echoes the importance of family support (Ghate and Hazel 2002;
Quinton 2004). For example, social workers can be inundated with concerns about
dirty and ill-clad children arriving late at school, the parent smelling of alcohol
and a chaotic, untidy house. On occasions, almost unthinkingly, child protection/
safeguarding procedures are implemented and even care proceedings are
initiated. This is often more to do with placating the concerns of other
professionals than a genuine attempt to support children and families. Such
practice should be resisted as there is a responsibility to work in partnership and
whenever possible using the family support rather than the child protection/
safeguarding route into accessing social work intervention. Additionally, the
relevance of poverty to child abuse, though long established (Parton 1985),
continues to be shown (Tuck 2000), consequently ensuring that children and
families having access to the resources and services they need is necessary. This
can include welfare rights work where empowerment and advocacy come into play
along with anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive perspectives. Such practice is
not just about change solely in terms of the parent or family, as defects in societal
arrangements are at the core of the problem and have to be addressed.

Questioning Dominant Ideology and Discourses

A radical/critical practice has a key role in questioning dominant ideology and

discourses. This is evidenced in much of the above in that the practice examples
highlighted do not adopt a ‘blame the victim’ approach in terms of the problems
and difficulties confronted by individuals. Young offenders are not simply ‘bad’,
hence needing to be punished, nor are parents lazy, hence their dirty house and
needing to be ‘taught’ routines. Material stresses and strains, in short poverty or
as it is now perhaps euphemistically called social exclusion, need to be
considered. These are the issues to be addressed in the short term without
losing sight of the fact that it is the inequalities of wealth and power inherent in
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capitalist/free market economies that lie at the root of the problem.

Another example of questioning dominant ideology and discourses relates to
the current emphasis on adoption in relation to looked after children. There is a
need for looked after children to have stability and a sense of belonging.
Adoption has a part to play, but perhaps this preoccupation with adoption is
simply related to the fact that unmarried single mothers cost the state millions of
pounds in social security, and this cost could be transferred to childless middle-
class couples who will willingly bear the full cost. Put cynically, it involves the
redistribution of children from poor parents facing various problems and
difficulties to the more well off. ‘It [also] reflects aspects of New Labour’s arid
managerialism and the ‘‘target setting’’ orientation that seeks to ‘‘modernize’’
the public sector’ (Garrett 2002, 189). Social workers then are increasingly forced
into placing stringent timetables on to their work with parents and if the latter do
not, for example, sort out financial, housing, domestic violence and alcohol
problems within that period then care proceedings and eventually adoption are
likely to ensue. Radical/critical social workers will be wary of such practice, and
in turn work in genuine partnership with parents on the problems and difficulties
confronting them. It involves far more than simply telling parents to modify their
behaviour otherwise face the prospect of losing their children. Again many of the
strategies referred to above come into play.


In advocating the practice outlined above I do not wish to underestimate the

difficulties and dangers in pursuing what can be seen as a subversive agenda.
Some of the difficulties relate to the move to managerialism whereby social
workers’ use of initiative and discretion is eroded, and the dangers relate to the
risks of being disciplined for what might be seen as ‘unprofessional’ practice. All
is not lost though; a radical/critical practice is still possible.
Much of the above certainly sounds utopian. I acknowledge that social work
will not be at the vanguard of societal change and also that one can easily feel a
sense of powerlessness and despair arising from consumerism, the resurgence of
individualism, the collapse of Left politics and the advance of the Right

(Leonard 1997; Davies and Leonard 2004). For social work, this sense of
powerlessness and despair arises from the increased emphasis on bureaucracy
together with resulting loss of autonomy; in essence, the domination of
managerialism. But such pessimism must be resisted as it fails to take into
account the resurgence of social critique in the newer social movements like the
anti-capitalism/globalisation protests, a long way from social work as they may
seem. Such protests present us with the possibility of resistant solidarity leading
to a politics of hope rather than despair and for social work this leads to the
radical/critical practice outlined above.
Echoing Becker (1967), there is no such thing as a neutral professional and
although social workers are increasingly forced into the role of monitoring and
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regulating the excluded underclass this does not have to be the case (Batsleer
and Humphries 2000). We do not have to be inevitably reactionary and supportive
of the status quo; emancipatory practice is still possible (Davies and Leonard
2004), entailing social workers practicing in the genuine interests of clients/
service users and to some extent challenging the hegemony of capitalism/free
markets. Alternatives can be sought to their technicist and instrumental role,
what to do and how; simply filling in the forms within a specific time scale. In
short, by engaging with theory radical/critical social workers can aid engagement
in collective action contributing towards a common good of ending inequality and


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————. 2007. Our eroding profession. Professional Social Work March: 14–15.
Rogowski, S., and L. Harrison. 1992. Community social work with children and families: A
positive step forward. Applied Community Studies 1(3): 4–20.
Rogowski, S., and M. McGrath. 1986. United we stand up to pressures that lead to child
abuse. Social Work Today 17(37): 13–14.
Rogowski, S., L. Harrison, and M. Limmer. 1989. Success with glue sniffers. Social Work
Today 21(9): 12–13.

Smale, G., G. Tuson, M. Cooper, M. Wardle, and D. Crosbie. 1988. Community social work:
A paradigm for change. London: NISW.
Thompson, N. 1993. Anti-discriminatory practice. London: Macmillan.
Tuck, V. 2000. Socio-economic factors: A neglected dimension in harm to children. In
Welfare, exclusion and political agency, edited by J. Batsleer and B. Humphries.
London: Routledge.

Dr Steve Rogowski is a social worker (children and families) with 32 years

experience and has published work relating to children and young people in social
work and youth work journals. Correspondence to Dr Steve Rogowski. email:
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