NUMBER 1091 • 22 NOVEMBER • defInitions


‘In the U.K., the term social care is used more generically than is the case in Ireland. Indeed, the norm in Europe is to refer to social pedagogues rather than social care workers and there are seven designated titles regularly in use throughout Europe (see McElwee, 1998). At a European conference in 1992, Marcon provided a definition of a social care worker as an individual who,

"Following a specific professional training, encourages through the practice of pedagogical, psychological and social methods and techniques the personal development, the social maturation and the autonomy of persons (children or adults) who are in difficulty, are handicapped, are maladapted or are at risk of becoming so. He shares with them various situations, spontaneous or planned, of daily life, either in a residential institution or a service, or in the setting of normal living through continuous interaction with that person and his environment”.

In an Irish context, social care has been defined more recently by Courtney (1998)10 as ‘the generic term used, ‘to describe services provided for children, adolescents, the elderly, for disabled persons and others in residential care, in day care and in the community’. McElwee (1999) defines social care as ‘a generic term used to identify a range of people-oriented tasks, in a variety of settings, with a diversity of people. In the main, social care staff work with what may be termed vulnerable populations. The work is undertaken by persons qualified in the third-level sector, or by persons with significant clinical/practice experience as agreed by the representative organisations’.

There is an implicit understanding amongst social care professionals and academics writing about this area that sharing significant time in a ‘client’s’ own environment is part of one’s role as a social care worker. This may include a residential setting, a community setting, a day setting or the home of a ‘client’. The reflective abilities of the social care worker are seen as their greatest tools (Lorenz, 1994, p. 87) and this is taken into account in the restructuring of social care courses.

A considerable degree of confusion currently exists in Ireland as to the difference between a child care worker and a social care worker, even within social care itself. This is partly because the terms are used interchangeably and partly because many people are unclear as to the changes in education, training and practice. Perhaps the best way to approach this sensitive area is to suggest that a child care worker usually works with non problematic children in environments such as crèches, day care centres and nurseries whilst a social care worker usually works with ‘marginalised’, ‘vulnerable’ or ‘hidden’ populations. The age of these client groups ranges from infants right the way through the life spectrum to older adults. A central underlying principal in social care practice as Kennedy and Gallagher (1997) point out is an emphasis on one-to-one therapeutic work encompassing a variety of roles.

There was, and still is, considerable variation in the programmes on offer between colleges. For example, one Institute of Technology currently has a 12,000 word academic dissertation as mandatory in year three of the diploma whilst another Institute has none. Waterford Institute of Technology, for example, is unique in that it has a pre-entry year where prospective students have to complete a twelve-month practice placement in a supervised environment prior to entering the diploma programme. Recent research by McElwee (1999) identifies a clear desire amongst social care students and practitioners to engage in third level training programmes that have a greater skills focus. with more social care workers (at all levels) tutoring to their peers on these programmes. 11

In 1992 Lorenz (1992, p. 93) suggests that social care workers were ‘adequately qualified for core tasks, but not for advanced managerial, developmental or therapeutic tasks’. It was the case in the past that very few social care workers held degrees and were, therefore, debarred from taking up academic appointments in the third level colleges. The introduction of BA programmes in applied social studies across several of the Institutes of Technology in the mid 1990s has rectified this situation.

Social care students regularly supplement staffing levels and provide managers ‘double cover’ in practice. Yet these students are (rightly) allowed only limited access to ‘clients’ and case files. 12Managers accept that if it were not for third level students undertaking practice placements, the Irish child care system would be in serious danger of collapse (McElwee, 1999). Yet, it is not the norm for social care students to receive any payment from either their practice placements or their respective training institutes.



Wells. J. S. G., Ryan, D.C., McElwee. N., Boyce. M., and Forkan, C., J. (2000). Worthy Not Worthwhile? Choosing Careers in Caring Occupations.  Ireland: e print Limited Dublin. pp. 31 – 32.





































10. Courtney, D. (1998). personal correspondence to author. Waterford: CSCR

11. This material is developed in McElwee’s (1998) analysis of social care practice amongst students in Ireland (n=100) and is available at the Centre for Social Care Research, Waterford Institute of Technology.

12 This is, of course, a double-edged sword as it has been argued in the past that this creates for an unsound working environment, as staff do not have full details available to them.

Kennedy, K. & Gallagher, C. (1997). ‘Social pedagogy in Europe’ Irish Social Worker, 15,(1)

Lorenz, W. (1994) Social Work in a Changing Europe. London and New York: Routledge.

Marcon, P. (1988) Educators in the Europe of 1992. Proceedings of the Seminar on the EC Recognition of Diplomas of Special/Professional/Social Educator/Youth and Community Workers. Rome. Universita ‘La Sapienza’.

McElwee, C. N. (1996, a) ‘Academic training for social care workers: The degree’ Curam, Irish Association of Care Workers Journal. 19

McElwee, C. N. (1996, b) ‘Issues of child care/social care policy and practice in the Republic of Ireland. The NCEA Report on social and caring studies 1992 assessed’. Child Care in Practice. The Northern Ireland Journal of Multi-Disciplinary Child Care Practice. 3(1), 94 – 104.

McElwee, C. N. (1998). ‘The search for the Holy Grail in Ireland: Social care in perspective’. The Irish Journal of Applied Social Studies. 1(1), 79 – 107.

McElwee, C. N. (1999). ‘Residential Care: Out of the Frying Pan and into the Fire. An Irish Perspective’. American Journal of Child Care. Special International Editors Issue.

McElwee, C.N. (1999, a). From legislation to practice: Some observations on the 1991 Child Care Act in relation to the promotion and protection of children Journal of Irish Family Law. September,. 7 – 11.

McElwee, C. N. (1999, b). ‘Mental Health, Social Care and Adolescence: Two Disciplines Divided by a Common Language’, In D. Ryan, A. Jacob & M. Kirwin (eds.). Reflection and Rejuvenation: Issues for Irish Psychiatric Nursing into the Millennium. Kilkenny. APNM Ch. 5,pp. 95 – 140.

McElwee, C. N., Wells, J.S.G. (1999) ‘Registration of Social Care Workers. An Irish Solution to an Irish Problem’ Irish Youth Work Scene. A Journal for Irish Youth Workers. 26,3 – 4.