By Gerry Nosowska and Robert Templeton
The sudden and unexpected announcement of the closure of the College of Social Work (TCSW) in June 2015 was one of those ‘where were you when…?’ moments for those steeped in social work. Jo Cleary, the then chair of the TCSW’s board, described the closure as ‘a very dark day for social work’. It certainly felt like that to us as members of the College. It was a shock and, given that the college was only four years old, felt like a premature verdict on what it could achieve.
Securing College’s legacy
The first concern of active members and the board was to secure the college’s legacy. Faculties worked with the board and the College’s professional assembly to identify how important documents including the professional capabilities framework (PCF) could be preserved. We were delighted that, after an expression of interest process, the British Association of Social Workers took on this body of work. This reflected members’ hope that it would remain in the hands of a social-work led organisation.
More importantly, we worked hard to keep the people together. The three faculties (adults, children and mental health) have kept in touch and continued to meet. This has partly been about preserving people’s commitment to social work, and also about finishing work that was already started. This group of people, with support from others – including BASW and the Chief Social Worker for adults – has completed a resource on end of life care, held an event on humane social work with families, and been instrumental in producing the Social Work for Better Mental Health resources and more besides.
A clear voice
Our concern in the last year has been to ensure that social work did not lose any of its voice or its role in promoting excellence.
TCSW had been established following the Social Work Reform Board’s recommendation that the profession needed a national college to articulate and promote social work interests, and to provide strong independent leadership, a clear voice, and ownership of standards. At the time many people felt that this could and should be done by BASW. For a range of reasons that was not possible. However, the closure of the college did not leave social work without a professional body.
In fact, shortly before the college closed, BASW had published its 2020 Vision – to be the strong, independent voice for social work and social workers. This vision encompasses the mission of the college and has the potential to go beyond it, not least in that it is UK wide. Many former TCSW members were also members of BASW. For all of us, the 2020 Vision was a potential platform for joint work, had the College continued.
Former faculty chairs and members have been talking with BASW regularly since the college formally closed in October last year. Next month BASW is holding a workshop for members of former faculties and BASW’s own reference groups (covering areas including children’s social work, adult social work and mental health). This will agree terms of reference for stronger groups within BASW that can better represent social work practice nationally.
Ironically, the closure of TCSW has given us an opportunity to do what the Social Work Reform Board arguably wanted in the first place and have one professional body that champions excellence in social work.
No leadership vacuum
We regularly hear that social work doesn’t have leadership. We don’t agree. BASW can and does provide leadership. BASW leads on ethics and professional identity – holding the code of ethics and hosting the International Federation of Social Workers European Conference last year in 2015. It leads practice – holding the PCF and creating position papers and guidance. Social workers know about and use the code of ethics. The PCF is embedded in social work courses and in practice around the country. These provide a framework for what social work is and what it does, which acts as a profession-led alternative to simply following government policy.
BASW can and does influence social work and its context. It campaigns for resources and better working conditions. It is speaking out on social work reform – giving evidence to the education select committee’s current inquiry and setting out how good reform can happen. As the chief social worker for children, Isabelle Trowler, said when giving her evidence to the select committee, social work needs an independent and sustainable professional body – and “all eyes are on British Association of Social Workers” to provide it.
It is great to see that BASW’s membership is growing (from 15,000 in Feb 2013 to 20,500 June 2016). However, the main lesson that we have taken from the college closure is this: don’t waste an opportunity. If you don’t use an opportunity for voice and excellence, then you will lose it. Recent policy announcements have had very little emphasis on social worker voice; instead the emphasis has shifted to raising quality through central government policy. This has led to a fear from many social workers and sector commentators that social work, through the new regulator, will become a creature of government.
The need to have an independent and sustainable professional body has never been greater. Both our challenge and ambition is for BASW to be seen by all as the authoritative voice for the profession, able to protect and uphold social work in this increasingly turbulent political arena.
The government has to consult on the regulation of social work. We all have a responsibility to get involved and add our voice. We believe that social workers will always have real influence if we join together and use our expertise – particularly, if we do this in partnership with people who use social work, as BASW did in its recent summit.
There is a danger that policies designed to improve standards in children and families social work will see the whole profession sucked through this narrow hole. Social workers need to understand this landscape and support BASW to offer challenge when needed and to take opportunities where they exist. Good examples that BASW can learn from are the Think Local Act Personal (TLAP) partnership which has had great influence in social work practice with adults; its principles of person-centred support are now embedded into legislation through the Care Act.
If we join together we can ensure that social work is understood by government and the public as the cornerstone of improving health and social care across the four countries of the UK and beyond. If you want to influence what happens, get involved and make a difference.
Gerry Nosowska and Robert Templeton are social workers and members of the former College of Social Work’s adults faculty