Assessment in social work: a guide for learning and teaching

Service users and carers: Values and ethics

Values are statements of belief about morally good or bad conduct (Clark, 2000). In social care and social work, ethics are typically expressed as descriptions or codes of required professional conduct, representing the active form of values (Whittington and Whittington, 2006). Section 24 is a broad but brief review of some of the values and ethics that relate to assessment. Section 25 looks at a particular set of values that were highlighted in the review by Crisp and colleagues (2005).

Traditional, emancipatory and governance values

Three streams of values may be identified in social work (Whittington and Whittington, 2006).

Values and ethics in UK social work are contained and codified in three main sources:

Examples of traditional, emancipatory and governance streams of values may be found in all three codes. Commonly the streams of values co-exist, flowing concurrently through daily practice but, occasionally, they mix with turbulent results, for example when governance values define risk assessment in terms that conflict with practice led by person-centred or emancipatory values.

The study of values and ethics is a central feature of social work education. Social work, as the Quallity Assurance Agency academic benchmarks point out, is a moral activity in which practitioners make and implement difficult decisions about human situations that involve the potential for benefit or harm (QAA, 2000, 2.4). There are also strong arguments for linking the study of values and ethics with teaching and learning of assessment in social work. One reason, to borrow from the experience gained in law teaching, is because ethics can be used as a lens through which to examine assessment models and their underlying assumptions (Braye and Preston-Shoot, 1997).

More directly, a consciously ethical approach to practice is a professional obligation for social workers and supported by the national care councils’ code of practice for social care workers cited above. Values and ethics provide social workers with leverage in promoting the interests of service users and carers and offer a counterbalance to trends that might reduce assessment to form-led routines. Additional leverage is provided by employer codes (also cited above), which specify employer obligations to have written policies and processes on confidentiality, equal opportunities and discrimination.

The argument for ethically informed, values-based assessment is endorsed in the findings of the Salford CSWR study of higher education institutions:

Participants were clear that the development of values appropriate to social work was central to the application of assessment and there were examples of exercises engaging with notions of difference and diversity, focused on the use of the self. This allowed for the recognition that assessments are rarely value-free, are influenced by what social workers bring to the process and informed later critical analysis of specific assessment technologies. (Shardlow et al, 2005, pp 23–4)

Question for educators

  • What materials and opportunities are available to help students explore the links between values and ethics, on the one hand, and the models, methods and goals of assessment, on the other?

Anti-racist, anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive practice

Anti-racist, anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive practices have different histories but overlapping meanings (Tomlinson and Trew, 2002). As values, they represent a significant dimension of the emancipatory stream described above and have been translated into practices that form an integral part of the education and work of social workers.

Crisp and colleagues found that the terms are distinctive to the UK textbooks reviewed. In the non-UK examples, terms like ‘difference’ or ‘social division’ are applied to race and gender. Most of the books referred to issues of discrimination and disadvantage. However, it is notable that few of the books gave detailed attention to anti-discriminatory practice in assessment (Crisp et al, 2005, pp 25–6). The terms anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive practice are not specifically used in any of the assessment frameworks but all the frameworks embody the objective of overcoming discrimination.

The NOS for social work expect anti-discriminatory and inclusive practice in the assessment phase of work as well as at other stages (TOPSS UK Partnership, 2004, Key role 1). The academic benchmarks also spell out expectations in this area. Social work degree students should understand the nature of social work in a diverse society with particular reference to prejudice, types of discrimination, empowerment and the constructive challenge of individual, institutional and structural discrimination (QAA, 2000, paras 2.4 and 3.1).

Questions for educators

  • Are there specific opportunities for students to engage with anti-racist, anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive principles and practice in assessment?