Like many of the people social workers help, The College of Social Work has not had the easiest of starts in life. Its origins lie in crisis; in the tragic death of Baby P and the media hysteria that followed.
Its creation was forged amidst the swirling clouds of austerity and bitter rows with the British Association of Social Workers (BASW).
But as the College enters its third year of operation, the mood amidst the cream-and-white walls of 30 Euston Square is upbeat.
Membership is up more than a quarter since this time last year. Today, the college has 16,471 members, including those recruited via the 53 employers who have signed up for corporate membership.
There is a three-year strategy that promises new practice resources and financial independence by the end of 2017. And it has built close ties, and shared office space, with the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP), which has become something of a mentor for its social work equivalent.
“I’m feeling really rather good about the progress in the last year,” says College chair Jo Cleary. “We had the most amazing second annual conference just a few weeks ago and one of the participants came up to me and said, ‘Last year was good, this year it was great’. We had so many positive comments about it.”
Hills to climb
But such optimism cannot hide the fact there remain significant hills to climb for the fledgling organisation.
The College remains dominated by public sector members. There is just one charity among its corporate members and not a single private sector employer. And at least 11 local authorities, including Halton and Gateshead, have cancelled their corporate membership deals they had with the College, although new members have helped make up for the losses.
There is also the difficult and vexed issue of the college’s relationship with the government. Questions over how independent the college can be when it continues to depend on cash from central government and social work employers to stay in business are a constant.
Yet at times the government also seems to sideline its creation. Most recently the government awarded the £2m contract for testing those social workers wanting to become Approved Child and Family Practitioners to multi-national KPMG and Morning Lane Associates.
This was a shock for most in the sector who fully expected the College to take on such work. The College says it will not comment on this until the Department for Education makes an official announcement on the decision.
The College has also declined to comment on how the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat manifestos have ignored the College, despite finding room to highlight their support for the fast-track social work training programme Frontline.
The college will also need to accelerate its recruitment drive if it is to deliver on its goal of having 35,000 social workers signed up as members by the start of 2017.
Given that the college started off hoping to have 31,000 members by 2015, it begs the question of whether the contents of its three-year strategy is more a wish list than collection of promises.
“You have to have an aspiration and a vision for where you want to go,” says Cleary. “But it’s almost very achievable. We’ve got 16,000 members, which is exceeding expectations.”
The College is also gaining members faster than the RCGP did back when it started in the early 1950s, she points out.
Corporate membership has, however, been central to the College’s recruitment strategy.
Most employers who sign up give social workers free membership of the College and – in organisations that ask their employees to opt out of rather than opt into membership – most people accept the offer. For example, Cafcass paid for College membership for 1,349 social work employees and just one of them opted out.
But with employers bringing in and paying for many of the College’s members, it raises the question of whether the organisation is independent enough to speak out on issues like workloads.
“The College had a troublesome gestation, a difficult birth and consequentially has had some developmental delay,” says Ray Jones, professor of social work at Kingston University.
“What’s important now is that the College can secure financial stability, which is independent of government and not dominated by employers.
“The independence issue is a real issue because the college has been dependent on government funding and maybe because of that has sometimes been less strident in the comments it needs to make on behalf of social work.”
Cleary agrees that the primary issue of concern amongst members is workloads but is adamant that corporate members do not silence the College.
“Frankly, as a College it wouldn’t stop us. I might not do it publicly always, but I would speak out and speak to the director if I felt we were hearing from members that things weren’t good enough. We’ve always seen corporate membership as a transition anyway to help social workers appreciate what having a college is all about, but it’s the social workers’ college.”
She says tight budgets are the reason why some corporate members have walked. “It’s unfortunate to be in infancy as a college when we’re going through such a difficult time with the money in local authorities,” she says.
Cleary also rejects the idea the College feels it needs to pander to the government to ensure their continued funding.
“They commission us to do things as they do with any organisation or we bid for specific contracts,” she says. “I don’t feel they are our paymasters and I never have done. Anyone that knows me knows that I’m extremely vocal about stuff.”
Being vocal is a pre-requisite when challenging the negative media and public image of social work is one of the College’s missions and Cleary says some progress is happening.
“Some of them will continue to be negative, it’s just cheap sometimes what they do, but I think our profile is increasing,” she says.
“I did loads of local radio around Coventry and Daniel Pelka and I felt we were getting more understanding. You feel the penny dropping with some that if they keep bashing social workers no one will want to be a social worker and that’s a bit scary.”
“In my speech where I launched our Real Social Work campaign, I said it was time for us to shout about the value we bring as a profession. I think we are fed up with being quiet. We’ve got to demonstrate our stories but also our stories from the perspective of people who have experienced good social work.”
Downtrodden by negativity
This is prime motivation for those social workers who have so far got involved with the work of the College.
Richard Griffiths, a first-year social worker student at Sussex University, recently became a student member of the College’s professional assembly. “Even in our first term it was striking how many students were aware and even a bit downtrodden by the negative attitude society generally has towards social workers,” he says.
“My thinking was let’s not just feel sorry for ourselves, let’s see what we can do about this. Society wasn’t going to come to social work and ask how its image could be improved. It has to start from within social work.”
Tiffany Green, a children’s social work manager in London and recently elected member of the College’s children and families’ faculty, has a similar outlook.
“When they first announced the College I was really excited about it, so I joined when they were doing that and were endeavouring to create a partnership with BASW,” she says.
“BASW does quite a bit, but I think they are quite academic. So having the College be more accessible and be a media face for the profession getting more good stories out there and representing a standard made me want to join.
“I’m from the States, I’ve practised in New York and there you have a number of social workers who are involved in community organising, lobbying and the rest of it. When I came here it was a bit of a shock that we are not that involved in that side of things.
“I would say it’s about representation. All the things you’re tired of seeing in the media all the things you keep hearing about in the mind, this is a really good opportunity to support the people who are trying to change the perception or go in and change it yourself.”
Learning from the RCGP
Cleary hopes that in time the College will become as integrated into the fabric of social work in England as the RCGP is with general practitioners.
“I look at them with envy,” she laughs.
“I look at them having the functions that we need to have to be a really effective college. I look at the way that they have 50,000 members and the fact a GP is part of the college right from when they become a GP. But I’m also very grateful that they want to work with us and we share premises with them so we can share those conversations.”
This article was amended on 24 April 2015 as it incorrectly stated that Newham Council had cancelled its corporate membership of the College of Social Work. Apologies for any confusion.