By Robert Templeton
In 2015-16, social workers made up 27% of the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) register, but accounted for 55% of all fitness to practise cases we received.
In 2016, we commissioned a team at the University of Surrey to research why we appear to receive disproportionately more fitness to practise concerns about social workers than for other professions we regulate, and what we might be able to do about this trend, and their report has now been published. Among the different regulators of health and social care professions in the UK there is an increasing recognition that we need to try to rebalance our energies, away from reactively dealing with instances of poor practice and conduct towards an approach which focuses more on prevention.
The research included a review of the published literature; interviews and focus groups with social workers, employers and service users; and a review of 10% of fitness to practise cases over two years at all stages of the process.
Overall, the research found a number of themes that appear to be behind fitness to practise concerns, which I’m sure will resonate with social workers. Changing public and societal expectations was one theme – the case analysis revealing a cohort of concerns from members of the public, many of whom complained about multiple social workers, raising issues which at their heart were about disagreements with decisions and a desire to see them changed. Other themes included the challenging nature of social work practice, including the sometimes conflicting values of ‘care’ and ‘control’, and the challenges of pressurised work environments in meeting service users’ needs.
Our task when we first receive a concern about a social worker is to decide whether it is sufficiently serious and requires further investigation. There can sometimes be a perception that we pursue every matter referred to us, but in 2015-16 we closed 1,006 cases which did not require further consideration at that stage. One interesting finding from the case review was that many of these cases came from members of the public and concerned disputes between family members over place of residence and access to children. Overall, the case review found that while the number of concerns received about social workers is relatively high, the number of cases where we need to take action is not.
The above can only be an incomplete discussion of the research. We are at a very early stage of thinking about how we might respond to and take forward the findings. Some initial actions are likely to include using the insights from the research to further engage with the public and with employers on when to refer a fitness to practise concern. We will also want to consider how we might use fitness to practise case studies developed as part of the research to develop teaching and learning materials for social work educators.
The research is an interesting read and is now available on our website. I think it’s important that we (professionals, employers and regulators alike) constantly strive to learn from the concerns we receive and use the learning positively to improve. However, whenever we talk about this area we always need to remind ourselves that the fitness to practise process affects only a minority of social workers in any one year (around 1%). The vast majority of social workers are hardworking, dedicated professionals doing their best day-in-day out for service users.
Robert Templeton is a social worker and member of the HCPC Council