In the shock and professional soul searching that has gone on following the announced closure of The College of Social Work (TCSW) the most inspiring element to come out of it is the TCSW Phoenix social media page and the newly formed Social Workers Assembly.
This is grassroots social workers coming together with no agenda other than a desire not to lose what the college, with all its faults, stood for – a profession in charge of its own destiny.
You might argue the current college of social work (until September) never lived up to its symbolism.Some have argued that it never could – born out of a government review, largely funded by government and without any real teeth or claim on any of the fundamental stages or processes necessary to become a social worker.
Money was spent
This, it appears, was realised too late by the leadership of TCSW. By the time plans were made to turn it around the money had been spent and the government had lost interest.
Perhaps sharing offices with the Royal College of GPs (RCGP) bred this realisation.
GPs are not a bad profession to emulate. Nobody would argue that GPs are not in charge of their own destiny. In fact, some of the problems currently besetting them are because they’ve becometoo powerful for their own good – having convinced former health secretary Andrew Lansley they should be put in charge of the NHS.
Power of the medical colleges
But the point is that GPs have a very successful representative system. The British Medical Association is a dominant union that is very clear its remit is to keep a careful watch over doctors’ interests wherever money or conditions of work are concerned. But it leaves the professional standards of the profession to the medical colleges.
The Royal College of GPs (RCGP) is so embedded into what it is to be a GP, and the delivery of high quality practice, that it is almost unthinkable not to be a member. It’s iron hold over the post-graduate training of GPs and research into professional standards is such that prospective members must sit an exam before they are allowed to hand over their money to it.
Government influence kept to a minimum
When it was decided that all doctors should be revalidated, the regulator, the General Medical Council (GMC), developed the process in partnership with the Royal Colleges, aware that it was the only way to make it happen without mass rebellions and protests.
What makes the medical system of representation work is that all GPs believe that all these bodies have an essential role and government involvement and influence should be kept to a minimum wherever possible.
You could say this is the result of GPs being a confident profession. GPs have a sense of entitlement about their worth to society, aware they have an essential role in the lives of every person in society.
Social worker’s role in society equally fundamental
Yet social workers should have an equal sense of entitlement. A social worker’s role in society is equally fundamental. Social workers are the defenders of social justice, the protectors of the vulnerable, the hand that helps people to help themselves.
Without social workers the liberal and just society that Britain and so many western countries pride themselves on simply would not exist.
The decisions social workers have to make demand an equal level of intellect and awareness of risk as GPs. Social workers also need considerably greater reserves of courage and empathy than most doctors.
Colleges can be born from very small beginnings
Therefore, it is equally important that social workers feel independent and able to voice their feelings without fear or favour.
Such a college as the RCGP is not born overnight, but it can be born from very small beginnings. The RCGP emerged from a meeting of just seven GPs and five sympathetic hospital consultants who met only eight times before a college was legally constituted.
It too had an abortive attempt to create a college 50 years before. Part of its swift success was because it learned from those mistakes and set about creating an organisation that would be financially self-sustaining with a regional structure that tied it closely to individual doctors.
Parallels with current state of social work
It was welcomed by the BMA and the medical press, but what really made the difference was that it was welcomed by individual GPs who, at the time, were thoroughly demoralised, drastically overworked and uncomfortably aware that standards were dropping badly.
There are definitely parallels here with the current state of social work.
Now is the time for social workers to similarly seize their own destiny. Now is the time for every social worker to stand up for social work. Because if social workers do not, government feels obliged by media pressure over high profile scandals, to step in.
Already the government’s chief social workers have taken control of the accreditation process and standards which newly qualified social workers should meet. Already David Cameron is assembling a task force of ministers to decide the future direction of child protection. Already powerful, non-social worker advisers are arguing that social work should be split into two areas with separate education requirements.
Now is the time
Now is the time to own your working lives; to own your professional identity and your standards of education and practice. Now is the time to be proud of being a social worker and have a direct say in what the role should stand for.
There’s no doubt a college needs infrastructure, money and a clear vision. It needs financial acumen and a strong nerve. But it also needs to inspire a profession and be that profession’s identity and voice. It needs to be beholden to nobody but members of the profession itself and service users.
Mostly, it needs every social worker in this country to care about their future and their voice. It needs every social worker to feel that they are the college of social work and the college of social work is them.
Have your say on the future of your profession
The very first seedlings of this brave new world may have been sowed by TCSW’s downfall. Let’s nourish and protect it so it grows into a sturdy and immovable oak tree. Do one thing to stand up for social work – have your say on the future. Make sure every social worker you know has their say on the future.
Whether the Social Workers Assembly transforms into a legal entity of its own; whether it ends up throwing its weight behind the British Association of Social Workers or whether it fades away into the sunset allowing government to impose its vision of social work is now entirely up to you.
Stand up for social work and get involved
Make sure social workers have a say in what is going to happen in their profession instead of having it done to them.
As John Hurt, one of the founding members of the RCGP, said at the time: “I had rather start with a big idea in a small way than a small idea in a big way.”