Last week’s launch of The College of Social Work has posed each of England’s approximately 85,000 social workers with a simple question: to join or not to join? Check out our comparison table to help you decide.
The economic downturn is squeezing living standards, social worker registration fees are to double from £30 to about £60 for basic rate taxpayers this year, as the non-subsidised Health Professions Council succeeds the government-funded General Social Care Council. And The College is an unknown quantity.
Moreover, many thousands of social workers already pay hundreds of pounds a year in membership fees to a professional association, the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), a trade union, such as Unison, or both. To complicate matters further, BASW launched its own trade union, The Social Workers Union (SWU), last year, with membership at no extra cost.
So how tempting will the College’s offer be of £60 membership for employed practitioners and £90 for independent social workers?
The College has deliberately styled itself as a low-cost option with a view to rapidly building membership. Its target is to sign up 6,000 people by April – when membership fees kick in with the removal of its government subsidy – and “many more” by the end of the year.
It is also actively encouraging people to combine College membership with membership of BASW or a union, to obtain advice and representation services.
Unlike BASW/SWU or Unison, The College offers no representation at conduct hearings, in workplace grievance or disciplinary cases or employment tribunals. Unlike Unison across the country, and the SWU, in a few local authorities, The College will not be party to negotiations over pay and conditions for council staff.
What you do get for your money is two things: a series of professional support and advice services, geared towards helping social workers enhance their practice and meet standards; and a “voice” for the profession and a say, for members, in shaping it.
The former include face-to-face mentoring, an online professional helpdesk, and, from June 2012, an online portfolio where practitioners can record their continuing professional development, linked to registration requirements.
Practitioners can also be insured against claims by clients for negligence or mistakes (professional indemnity insurance) or, in the case of independent social workers, for injury or damage to property (public liability insurance).
The College’s planned joint membership deal with Unison – now on hold after BASW and MPs raised concerns about the union securing a “closed shop” – reflects the lack of overlap between the functions of the two organisations (see table).
However, The College’s array of professional support services is matched by BASW, while in some respects, BASW’s offer is currently more extensive, notably its wide range of social work news, practice and research publications, as compared with The College’s monthly digital magazine, and its network of full-time professional officers.
However, The College believes it has something distinctive to offer practitioners – namely an opportunity, through membership, to influence the development of the standards that govern the profession.
It has inherited responsibility for the professional capabilities framework (PCF) from the Social Work Reform Board and will be responsible for further developing it.
“The PCF sets out the profession’s expectations of social workers at every stage of their careers and provides professional standards which are recognised by employers and endorsed by the sector through the reform board,” says a spokesperson.
Since 1975, BASW has had its own code of ethics, setting standards for members, which chief executive Hilton Dawson says is the “seminal document for social workers”, reflecting “international standards”.
However, the PCF will carry currency with employers, which The College sees as its crucial selling point.
But Dawson sees the PCF itself as a more collaborative project. “We are working with the College on those sorts of issues,” he says. “It’s a bit much for them to claim ownership of the work which has been contributed to by many associations including Unison and BASW.”
Practitioners’ ability to influence the PCF standards is also dependent on the internal democratic mechanisms of the College.
The College’s £5m start-up funding from government, the fact that its current transitional board is appointed and its strong endorsement by employers have led some to see it as an establishment creature.
However, The College insists it will be “member-led”. Its current appointed board will be replaced by an elected one in the spring, while the College says that an elected professional assembly will “steer the professional leadership function”, including the PCF.
And despite being an arch critic of much that the College has done, Dawson wrote in a blog last month that it should provide a “democratic opportunity”; so much so, that he has joined himself.
Independent social workers
One group for whom the College may prove an attractive option are independent social workers. Their £90 membership fee includes £5m in public liability insurance to cover claims for injury or damage to property from members of the public that they come into contact with.
BASW, which has a significant level of independent membership, provides the same service optionally at an additional cost of £120 for independent members.
However, Dawson is clear that he does not see The College as a competitor for membership.
“I don’t see The College as an alternative to BASW,” he says, saying that the majority of people join BASW for its advice and representation service. “For a price of a bar of chocolate a day I think [BASW membership is] the best deal in town and I strongly recommend that to social workers. I know times are tough but social workers need to protect themselves.”
The relatively low cost of College membership has already provoked questions on Community Care’s CareSpace forum about the sustainability of its services, particularly given that it is currently based at the Social Care Institute for Excellence’s offices on Pall Mall.
However, a College spokesperson says: “There has been considerable speculation about how many staff the College will employ, and about its office and board costs, none of which is realistic.”
He points out that its fixed costs are relatively low: most of its services are online, meaning “the costs of services for thousands of members is the same for one”, and their development and testing have been funded by its start-up costs; all staff are on short-term contracts and none is employed beyond August; and no decision has been taken about the College’s office location.
Over the next three months, it will become clear how far social workers consider that The College offers value for money and evidence may emerge of whether membership levels at other organisations have been hit.
“It’s a decision for social workers to take,” says Dawson. “It’s a matter of choice.”
Over the longer-term, the nature of the choice may change. The planned Unison-College is deal still under consideration as is, despite months of acrimony, a College-BASW merger.
“There’s work going on at the moment,” says Dawson. “I just hope that we can join together with the College.”
The College of Social Work, BASW and Unison: The costs and benefits for social workers in 2012