The professionalization of Social Work in Ireland


The current global development of the profession of social work provides an opportune moment for the evaluation of the issue of professionalization of social care in a much broader sense. Arguably, the field of social care has experienced considerable development in recent years. According to Howard & Lyons (2014), the development has been manifested in common occurrences such as the increase of students enrolling in social care programs. However, the nature of social care still remains an issue of debate. Particularly, as noted by Lloyd (2010), the debate has begun to occur around the development of courses of study, the publication of journal articles within the field of social work, and the legislative activity stimulated by the occurring debate. This paper seeks to critically analyse some of the issues related to the professionalization of social work in the Republic of Ireland. The paper will be organized in sections, beginning with a history of how the Irish social care has professionalized over time. Secondly, the paper will highlight the theoretical frameworks that have informed the professionalization of Irish social work practice, and how systems such as legislations have informed the social care practice today. The last section will discuss the roles, challenges, and positive aspects of social care practice in Ireland.


The Historical Background of Social Work (Care) in Ireland

History of social care in republic of Ireland, how it started, where we were before and where we are now.

Read Social care and theory e.g (kennedy and Gallagher,1997 ; fanning and rush, 2006,12-13), (Durkheim1858-1917), (Mark(1818-1917), Weber(1864-1920).

History – Reasons to Professionalise Social Care

Discuss the Ryan Report(2009), McCabe(1940)

The Kennedy Report (Department of Education1970)

The Task force Report on child Care Services1980

A Strategy for Equality (commission on the Status of people with disabilities 1996)

Report on caring and Social Studies(NCEA,1992)

Social Care Practice today

The professionalization of the Irish social care landscape has historically been at a slow pace; as evidenced by Farrelly & O’Dohery (2005), who once commented that the process of professional development project had been notoriously slow. Furthermore, from a historical perspective, the prospects of social work professionalization in Ireland were not high in the earlier past. In fact, Gallagehr & O’Toole (1992) noted that whereas there was a need to professionalize the Irish social care practice, the process could encounter various challenges including lack of unity among professional social workers, fragmented professional qualifications among social workers, inadequate policy structures, and bureaucratic professional hierarchy within the Irish social work service delivery.

By 2001, various sectors of social care in Ireland, such as residential childcare, were still poorly professionalized (Williams & Lalor, 2001). However, in 2005, according to Farrell & O’Doherty (2005), the professionalization of Irish social care practice experienced an important advancement, characterized by public and official definition of social work in Ireland.

Besides, in 2005, the idea of professionalizing the Irish social care became stronger when scholars such as Share & McElwee (2005) emphasized the important nature of professionalizing and what it might mean to the Irish social workers — since then, professionalizing social work has been an agenda of discussion among Irish social workers. Such discourses led to an attempt by practitioners and scholars to conceptualize and understand the meaning of professional social work (Ruch et al., 2010). While 2005 onwards saw social care policy-makers include professionalism as an agenda of discussion, the topic was still more teleological – in that there was a widespread assumption that social care will one day become a recognized professional practice and that that professionalization would be a good step towards an improved life and well-being of the Irish society (Share & McElwee, 2005). Concurrently, there emerged discourses of what ‘a profession’ meant as well as the preferred type of profession it could be.

Despite the various challenges experienced as barriers to the professionalization of Irish social care such as poor professional identity, gender issues, resistance to institutional change, and occupational disorganization (O’connor 1992, Farrel & O’Doherty 2005), the professional development of Irish social care practice, historically, has largely been contributed to by three main sets of factors namely the state, academic institution and the social workers themselves. Consequently, various professional bodies such as the Resident Managers’ Association (RMA), the Association of Social Care Educators (AISCE), and the Association of Social Care Workers (IASCW) have emerged as strong pillars for the professionalization of social work practice in Ireland. However, despite the emergence of these professional bodies, observations by McElwee et al. (2003) indicated that these associations did not make any significant contribution to the emergence of the professional discourse because some of them such as the IASCW were fragmented and ineffective organizations. Against this backdrop, the professionalization of Irish social work practice has become more enhanced with the introduction and approval of social work courses in the UK and the Republic of Ireland by the United Kingdom Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work (CCETSW) in 1997.

Theoretical Frameworks ( Theoretical Frameworks in Social care)

The professionalization of social work in Ireland has been based on various aspects of the sociology of professions, especially because it relates to social care practice. In particular, the ‘trait theory’ of the profession has emerged to be one of the most popular theories that have been related to the professionalization of social work in Ireland and the trajectory it has taken since time immemorial. The trait theory, according to Share & McEwee (2005), has been used to analyse how issues of occupational identity, interaction, and discourse can be used to understand the professionalization of the Irish social work practice. Fundamentally, believers in the traits theory hold with high regard, certification of competency, a consistent body of knowledge, and expertise (Share & McEwee, 2005). Furthermore, according to Share & McEwee (2005), the traits theory of professionalism holds that professionalization is only achievable through specialized knowledge, professional associations, codes of ethics, and rules. In this paper, we draw from the trait theory of profession to make an argument the practice of social work in Ireland is informed by various elements such as the formation of professional associations such as CCETSW and AISCE, as well as various professional regulations such as the Health and Social Care Professional Act 2005. The theory’s emphasis on specialized knowledge, professional associations, and prolonged education is especially useful in the analysis of how professional associations such as the IASCW and education programs such as CCETSW have contributed to the professionalization of Irish social care practice.

How Systems Inform Social Care Practice

The practice of social care in Ireland is informed and guided by many factors. In this section, we will briefly explore the role of legislation, reports, Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA), and national standards of empirical evidence; in guiding the practice of social work in Ireland. First, social work is a registered profession in Ireland and is registered by CORU. According to Walsh (2015), CORU is a multi-profession health regulator that protects the public’s welfare by ensuring that social workers maintain high professional standards of education, conduct, competence, and training. The regulation of social work in Ireland is conducted under the Health and Social Care Professionals Act 2005 (HSCPA, 2005). The Act sets the standards that social workers must adhere to in practice, and ensure that the relevant bodies providing training and education programs for social workers offer the best quality of training. The HSCPA, through CORU, requires that every Irish social care worker is registered and undergoes regular professional development that enables an improvement in service delivery (Browne et al., 2010).

Apart from legislation, the HIQA also plays an important role in informing social healthcare practice and principles in Ireland. For instance, according to White (2009), one of the HIQA’s main target areas are standards and quality, whereby it works in collaboration with other stakeholders such as CORU to set quality and safety standards for health and social care practitioners. Therefore, HIQA works to ensure that social workers deliver services that are evidence-based, consistent, and up to date and effective while also ensuring that social workers are able to identify their weaknesses or areas of practices that need improvement. It sets the expectations of what quality social care should look like. To ensure that social workers are well regulated, HIQA engages in global research and collaborates with other stakeholders to maintain effective standards of the regulation (Hamilton, 2012).

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Role of Professional Social care worker in Ireland

Social work is practiced in Ireland as a profession, and as an academic discipline aimed at enhancing development and promoting social change in society (Heenan & Birrell, 2011). Moreover, according to Walsh (2015), social work professionals in Ireland are responsible for enhancing social cohesion, liberating, and liberating the Irish population under their care. As they deliver on their responsibilities, an Irish social worker works under some basic guiding principles such as collective responsibility, human rights, respect for human diversity, and social justice, all of which form the basis for the role of the social care worker (Hamilton, 2012).

With regard to the promotion of social justice, the role of the social care worker is to empower the individual or community service users to take charge of their lives regardless of their living conditions or environments (Hamilton, 2012). According to Howard & Lyons (2014), Irish social workers play a role in enhancing social justice by developing a unique and extensive knowledge base emanating from research and practice of relevant theories of social work. The second role of social workers in Ireland is to promote equality by identifying and addressing issues of social discrimination. According to Ruch et al. (2010), Irish social workers are expected to have a large skill-base necessary for identifying, addressing, and dealing with complex social equality issues.

However, despite these important roles, the reality is that Irish social workers face a variety of challenges that continues to scuttle their efforts to practice their professional roles. For instance, evidence by Ruch et al. (2010) indicates that Irish social workers have to put up with less financial remuneration resulting from cut budgets. Similar remarks are made by Walsh (2015), who asserts that even newly qualified Irish social workers, similar to senior social work managers, receive lower salaries than their peers, have fewer academic training opportunities. The situation is worse for senior social work managers who take more responsibilities in managing other social workers and ensuring that other practitioners adhere to the standards of practice.

To conclude, this paper has performed an overview of professional Irish social work landscape. We had found that the history of social work professionalization dates back to the 1990s when scholars and practitioners began to conceptualize the ‘profession’ of social work and what it could mean to practice and ‘professional’ social care service. Next, we have explored the theoretical frameworks that have informed the practice of professional social work in Ireland. In doing so, we have identified the trait theory’ of a profession as one that can be used to explain how professional associations such as the IASCW and education programs such as CCETSW have contributed to the professionalization of Irish social care practice. The penultimate item explored in this paper how systems inform the practice of social work. Here, the study has found how regulatory authorities (e.g., CORU) and legislations (e.g., Health and Social Care Professionals Act 2005) contribute to the delivery of quality and professional standard social care in Ireland. Lastly, we have identified the role of social workers in enhancing social justice and how budget constraints are hindering their practice of such roles. We recommend further research to look into how the Irish social workers can effectively mobilize resources to facilitate their professional practice.


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