Time to put myths about the College of Social Work closure to bed

Social workers have plenty of good reasons to feel under attack from the government. The College's closure isn't one of them.

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A lot of social workers in England feel under attack from the government, and with good reason.

You have not been meaningfully consulted on an overhaul of how your profession operates. You face the prospect of ministers controlling the way you are regulated and having the final say on your professional standards. You face tests of your skills, without being asked what those should look like.

A lot of these changes wouldn’t even be suggested, let alone tolerated, in other health and care professions such as medicine and nursing. You have every right to be angry about it.

Why is this happening? In a large part, it is down to a breakdown in government’s trust in the profession’s ability to shape its own future. And a large part of that mistrust stems from the factors that forced the College of Social Work to close last year, just two years after opening its doors and having received £8m in public funding.

In the wake of the shocking news of The College’s closure, many in the profession clutched at a tempting narrative – this was the government’s fault, ministers had pulled funding to seize another chance to attack social work and rob it of a professional body standing up for professionals’ interests.

It was a story the College’s leadership did little to discourage. It was also untrue and if social workers are to respond to the current government agenda it’s important to learn from what actually happened.

No sinister plot

The roots of the College’s demise lie not in government plots to undermine social workers. Instead errors in the organisation’s strategy, accountancy and financial governance had the biggest impact.

Ministers’ decision to withdraw backing was made after the College’s leaders presented the findings of a warts-and-all review of the organisation in May 2015. The review, which remains unpublished but a copy of which has been seen by Community Care, made grim reading. One part contains the paragraphs that effectively sealed the College’s fate. Here’s a summary:

  • The College had racked up an annual deficit of more than £240,000 by 2014-15.
  • This was largely the result of a flawed corporate membership offer, which made a “very significant loss” – almost equal to the deficit itself.
  • The scale of financial trouble had been masked by accounting errors that had treated corporate member payments covering multiple years, as recurrent yearly cash flow.
  • The corporate membership offer had offered heavy discounts on member fees to local authorities in return for them signing up their social workers to the College.
  • The College’s accommodation costs were high and placed an “undue burden” on its finances (a decision by TCSW to lease offices in the Royal College of General Practitioners’ plush central London HQ cost £200,000).
  • The organisation also faced bills for expensive IT systems that “were not fit for purpose”.
  • The College website crashed if more than 50 of its 17,000 members logged in at the same time, described in the report as a “worryingly low” number.
  • The standard of the College’s outputs varied in quality “with some not being the highest quality that they can and need to be”.

On the brink

So when The College came asking ministers to make an “unambiguous” gesture of support by giving TCSW more functions, including responsibility for accreditation of social workers, they wanted government to put faith in an organisation on the brink of insolvency. On the brink of insolvency despite having had £5m of public funds to set up and more than £1m in annual support since.

Not only this, but civil servants were unconvinced by the quality of the College’s work and had doubts about the level of backing the organisation had from professionals.

Despite charging social workers just £5 a month to join, too few did (many social workers currently lobbying for an independent social work body, rather than the government-controlled one on the table, must ask themselves why they didn’t join the College?).

So the College missed its own early membership targets. Boosting numbers became the priority. Hence the introduction of the financially ruinous corporate membership offer. Corporate deals inflated membership to 17,000 but the DfE, rightly or wrongly, estimated only around 1,000 of these were really engaged with The College’s mission.

The College’s leaders claimed awarding TCSW new functions would make its membership offer far more compelling. It was an argument with some merit but came too late, given the scale of the financial mess facing the organisation. It also negated the fact the College’s previous strategy was based on building a membership without those functions. Not only had that strategy failed, but huge errors in delivering it had put the entire financial viability of the organisation at risk.

So the organisation closed and the government and TCSW’s leaders turned to damage limitation. A £250,000 bail out, allowing the College to wind down rather than go bust, was agreed.

A tragic end to a promising project

The damning report was kept secret. The thousands of social workers, and scores of councils, who’d paid fees to the College, sought answers. They were largely met with spin from the government and the College leaders, each trying to subtly blame the other for the closure while steering away from the damaging truth for fear of mutual embarrassment.

It was a tragic end to a promising project – social work’s first professional college. The sterling work, and there was a lot of it, of the staff and social workers who contributed to the organisation and its faculties should not be forgotten. But nor should the uncomfortable realities at the root of the College’s demise be ignored.

This was not a sinister government plot. It was a failure in financial governance and strategy at a social work organisation that had been backed to set up as independent and professionally-owned but ended up reliant on government cash to survive because too few social workers forked out to back it.

Social workers will be tempted to write this episode off as history and irrelevant to current pressures facing the profession. It is not. The College’s demise has had a direct impact on the government’s approach to current reforms and its distrust of funding sector-led, independent approaches. The profession must acknowledge the problem if it is to respond effectively.

16 Responses to Time to put myths about the College of Social Work closure to bed

  1. Catherine knowles July 14, 2016 at 9:25 pm #

    This government has endorsed and supported the set up of academies, children’s trusts using independent private companies to control/lead delivery of our schools, parts of the national probation service and aspects of social care….yet they fail to see and utilise what is under their noses …BASW who are an independent body for the social work profession, a body that has consistently grown its membership, a body that has its own standards, that provides and offers support around development, an organisation that pays for itself through its membership and so does not need massive injection of public funds, yet despite this well respected organisation the government chose to set up TCSW at an enormous cost to the public purse…set up costs that were not needed in BASW, renting of premises that was not needed in BASW, creating a set of professional standards again not needed in BASW, recruitment of social workers to sign up to ten college …significantly this was already established in BASW….someone please explain to me why the government who has happily got in to bed with frontline and step up to social work to recruit social workers, Serco et al to provide services to children …yet keep ignoring BASW and what they can already bring to the table….get rid of the two chief social workers…revisit Munro and her review, and start talking to the biggest organisation representing social workers as part of any reform of the profession and allow them to help

    • Stuart July 18, 2016 at 5:51 pm #

      Totally excellently expressed and, I have no doubt, valid points.
      I can’t be the only person who saw the demise of TCSW as soon as it started out in competition with existing bodies.
      The government wanted nothing that was ”not invented here”, arrogantly (that’s unusual!) thought it could do better and perhaps worst of all wanted to make political capital out of social work by saying ‘look what [good stuf] we’ve done.’
      Instead they got millions of pound’s worth of well deserved egg on their faces.

  2. Avery Bowser July 15, 2016 at 8:58 am #

    Catherine Knowles hits the nail on the head. BASW at 20,000 members and still growing. We are the legitimate and authentic voice of social work across the UK and not just in statutory services for children and adults. The details in relation to an unseen report are revealing. As many of us said at the time the money would have been better spent investing in BASW becoming a UK College of Social Work. The learning to take forward is to stop the solo runs on social work by England and have a coherent four nations approach to social education, development and registration across the UK – like our colleagues in health. This will raise the status of the profession. Join BASW today and help make this happen

  3. Dave Hill July 15, 2016 at 1:13 pm #

    I was somebody who spent 6 years trying to establish and embed the college, the government ask me to do this. I am afraid the article is nine tenths fantasy, really poor and badly researched and informed. Not what I have come to expect from CC.

    • Andy McNicoll July 15, 2016 at 1:51 pm #

      Hi Dave,

      Thanks for the feedback. I know TCSW involved huge time and commitment from a lot of people, including yourself. I also know the organisation did good work – and I tried to reflect that in the piece.

      You questioned my research. This piece is based largely on a series of stories I ran last year on The College’s closure, most significantly an article reporting on the findings of The College’s functions review – a copy of which I had seen but the report has regrettably never been made public (I wish it was so people could read it for themselves).

      My original story is here: http://www.communitycare.co.uk/2015/06/22/college-social-work-faced-240000-annual-deficit-closure-leaked-report-reveals/

      The information on the cost of the lease is detailed in TCSW’s last set of annual accounts. The information about TCSW almost becoming insolvent, and the concerns the DfE had about TCSW, was included in a tranche of emails released under FOI, which I reported on here: http://www.communitycare.co.uk/2015/07/20/badly-led-rejected-profession-emails-reveal-dfes-damning-verdict-college-social-work/

      The full FOI release is available here: https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/275753/response/680720/attach/3/Annex%20A.pdf

      I think there is a public interest in this information being made available. TCSW for all its good work, received £8m in public funding including £5m in start up money. Social workers would not have known about the deficit, the way the corporate membership model had run, or the DfE’s claims about TCSW without my reporting.

      If you’d like to share specific issues with the piece please do get in touch – I’m at andy.mcnicoll@rbi.co.uk

      Best,

      Andy

    • Michael July 15, 2016 at 2:15 pm #

      @Dave. I thought it’d be inappropriate wading in but I really feel that was unacceptable comment more focused on questioning the journalist’s integrity than accepting responsibility as a trustee. The truth is, were it not for the government bailout trustees would have a charity failure on their hands, a legal responsibility that would sit with the board and the board only. Staff were forthcoming about the financial state of the organisation, and there was genuine frustration that it was not heeded. Cash flow was not managed either in spite of trustees being fully aware of a significant deficit a year ahead of closure.

      The report cited above was also written by staff, and all the words in the article come from it. Trustees signed it off before passing it to Government to make their decision. So if this is 9/10th fiction, then it is the responsibility’s of the board and no one else. There are many reasons why the College found itself in the position it did, and the Government shoulders a lot of blame for not backing the body and the wider profession. But in the end, trustees a solving themselves of responsibility is precisely why the organisation was not better managed, and why things ended as they did.

      • Dave Hill July 15, 2016 at 2:34 pm #

        I know Andy really well, I see him a lot and we talk about many things, there is/are other perspective(s), i do not seek to challenge anybodys integrity Andy in my experience is a good bloke….but there are other perspectives. I was there at the beginning, I was absolutely there at the very grim end. There was not a single meeting in 6 years where the trustees were not trying to find a way of making the financial ends meet. Government asked Jo Cleary and myself to assist, we did, lessons have been learned by DfE, to see this you simply need to read the prospectus for the proposed college for teaching – if the learning had been applied graciously and mistakes acknowledged and there had been a will to fix things, then TCSW would still be alive, there was no such will! Andy’s article simply does not reflect a story that I recognise. One of the things about great social work, is the ability to face up to reality with dignity, that is a daily strugle for those who practice directly with users, denial is the worst place to be. All of the messages coming from govt were constructive and supportive and the decision to cease all funding was brutal and a cliff edge decision- I know I was in the room. So having received the brutal message, with all of its unfairness and upset, we did what social workers do best, we dealt with reality with diginty- we know how to do that in spades!

        • Former staff July 15, 2016 at 3:04 pm #

          When questioned how things had got so bad so quickly at a TCSW all-staff meeting, the Chair said: ‘we were in deficit and we didn’t realise we were in deficit’.

          That is surely a governance failure that can’t reasonably qualify as people trying their best to make financial ends meet?

          • Stuart July 18, 2016 at 6:02 pm #

            Absolutely true. And from what I can see the deficit was caused by TCSW not offering anything common or garden social workers like me felt inclined to pay for.

  4. Old School July 15, 2016 at 2:09 pm #

    The Government are proposing to create another body to regulate Social Work – we had that several years ago with the GSCC and what happenned to that organisation? – It went the same way as many other Quango’s because all of these organisations are inherently bureaucratic and wasteful with public money. The government see the Social Work profession as their enemy and have a need to control us by forcing us to join another regulator – I have a simple solution lets boycott becoming members of any new regulator on the grounds that we have no confidence in the governments ability to implement positive changes for the benefit of the Social Work profession.

    Community care what about a referendum on whether Social Workers believe that this government has the best interests of the profession as their objective.

    • Stuart July 18, 2016 at 6:10 pm #

      I’ll vote for that!! The government thrashes around looking for new ways to scapegoat the social work profession in search of some political kudos and actually does us no good at all.

  5. Hilton Dawson July 18, 2016 at 11:31 am #

    Elizabeth Knowles and Avery Bowser are correct.
    The establishment of TCSW is a text book case of successive governments failing to recognise the quality and integrity of the social work profession with ministers being driven by the civil service ethos that Whitehall knows best.
    TCSW sealed its own fate in September 2012 when despite the best efforts of BASW it adamantly refused to join in a partnership that would have helped create the independent College that social work still needs. From then on it was entirely obvious that its high costs/ low membership organisation would collapse as soon as the government lost interest.
    At times it felt as if BASW was taking on the world – but those of us who were there can be very proud of how we stood up for our profession at this time.
    It is wonderful to see how those running BASW and SWU have continued to ensure that the organisation continues to develop and grow.
    I said it to successive Prime Ministers and Secretaries of State and perhaps someone should say it to Theresa May – BASW can be a wonderful ally and a very good critical friend for any Govt which seriously wants to do social work and support social workers well.

  6. Ruth Cartwright July 18, 2016 at 2:06 pm #

    Part of the reason for the College’s demise was that they were charging an unrealistically low amount for membership and for the services they were offering. My impression at the time (when I was working for BASW) was that TCSW was seeking to undercut and hence eradicate BASW. If they had resolved to work with BASW rather than wage war, things may have been very different. I am no longer in social work but am delighted that BASW and SWU are thriving.

  7. Stuart July 18, 2016 at 6:36 pm #

    Well said Hilton and Ruth, the government and TCSW got what they deserved. They offered nothing to me that wasn’t available already in BASW so I didn’t join and I have no regrets about that. Government should do more listening and less preaching.

  8. Graham July 21, 2016 at 5:41 pm #

    When I read about deficits and low as £250k and IT systems not fit for purpose being reasons to close TCSW I can only marvel that every government department has not been shut down for far greater failings. This is chickenfeed, try cost of NHS failed IT or MOD wasted money. It appears TCSW was set up without much thought as to what social workers wanted or needed and wasn’t resourced to provide it anyway. Professional bodies takes years if not decades to get off the ground. Maybe it is time to join BASW.

  9. Graham July 21, 2016 at 5:46 pm #

    I suppose I should add that TCSW should never have tried to put itself on a par with the RCGPs by renting office space from them. They should have looked for a run down old building in a run down inner city area. That would have been more in keeping with the conditions many social worker have enjoyed over the years!