The profession is firmly behind a new national college for social work, but the exact model it should adopt is still open to debate. Kirsty McGregor examines the options
The Social Work Task Force is considering a multitude of reforms, but the strongest idea to emerge from the panel of experts so far is its proposal for a new organisation to improve standards, influence policy and provide a national voice for the profession.
In its interim report in July, the taskforce said this would take the form of a national college for social work, based on the royal college model in medicine and related professions.
In addition to speaking on behalf of the profession, the proposed college, which has won the backing of most of the sector, including 99% of social workers surveyed by the taskforce, would play "a key role in driving learning and best practice". The taskforce is also considering how it would "bring coherence" to the professional standards underpinning different aspects of social work training and practice, and how it might regulate professional practice, training and education.
Children's minister Baroness Morgan suggested in July that it could play a similar role to the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (see below).
Yet despite the publication of its final report being just weeks away, taskforce members say they are keeping an open mind about which models the national college might draw upon.
"Rather than being tied to something specific, we are committed to working closely with the social work profession," says Bob Reitemeier, deputy chair of the taskforce and chief executive of the Children's Society. "Social workers have told us they need a stronger national voice, so our aim is to work towards a structure which can best achieve this."
The taskforce is examining what relationship the proposed college would have to existing national social work organisations, such as the General Social Care Council, the Social Care Institute for Excellence and the British Association of Social Workers, and is holding talks with all three.
BASW, which has 12,100 members in the UK, supports a national college of social work. Chief executive Hilton Dawson wants to play a leading role in its establishment, despite an apparent overlap between BASW's roles and those being considered for the college.
Dawson says a new body "would be better resourced" because it would have the backing of the whole profession, and some of BASW's functions, such as speaking out for the profession, might be handed over.
"It will be a time of difficulty and upheaval as some parts of BASW split off," he says. "But there are some things the college won't be able to do, such as offer an advice and representation service."
BASW has commissioned its own research into 20 medical colleges to explore their key responsibilities. Early findings show that these include supporting their members, promoting good practice and training, and speaking for the profession nationally.
Baby Peter case
During the public outcry over the baby Peter case, it was noted how social work lacked a strong, national voice. As a result, as many commentators said, its reputation was damaged.
Andy Sawford, chief executive of the Local Government Information Unit, says this explains why social work does not enjoy the same public support as, say, nursing.
"Just as the Royal College of Nursing promotes excellence in nursing practice, the college for social work must give social workers a stronger national voice so as to change how the profession is viewed and its ability to represent itself to other professional bodies and with government," he says.
Unison, which represents 40,000 social workers, welcomes the proposals, agreeing that there is a need for stronger national leadership and guidance on good practice.
But Helga Pile, Unison's national officer for social workers, says extensive consultation will be needed. "If social workers are to 'own' the college, it would need to be independent and accountable to its members."
PROFESSIONAL BODIES THAT A SOCIAL WORK COLLEGE COULD FOLLOW
Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH)
● Founded in 1996
● 11,898 members
● Registered charity
● Core remit: to set syllabuses for postgraduate training, run courses and examinations, publish professional guidance and conduct research.
The RCPCH is one of the newest royal medical colleges and has a major role in postgraduate medical education and training. On top of this, it strives to "advance the art and science" of paediatrics and raise professional standards, according to Dr David Vickers, its registrar.
Vickers says the focus during the college's first 10 years was on good quality training. It has developed a new curriculum and assessment strategy, and ensures training and examinations are frequently updated.
The RCPCH took a lead role in publicly defending the profession after the eminent paediatrician Roy Meadow, a former president of the college, was struck off the General Medical Council register in 2005 over evidence he gave in the trial of a woman who was then wrongly convicted of murdering her two children.
In the face of a severe media backlash against Meadow, the RCPCH defended him and described the GMC's decision as "saddening".
When Meadows subsequently won his appeal against his removal in 2006, the RCPCH welcomed the result and emphasised the important role paediatricians play in protecting children.
Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP)
● Founded in 1952
● 38,000 members and fellows, representing about two-thirds of the workforce
● Registered charity
● Core remit: to provide a voice for GPs; to publish information on all matters affecting practice; to promote training; and to administer the mandatory postgraduate qualification and registration system.
A major project for the college this year has been the establishment of a foundation to provide support for other members of general practice teams, such as nurses and managers, who are not GPs but play a role in raising standards of care for patients. This is due to be launched this month.
Previously, many of the college's achievements were in education. Before 2007 there was no national curriculum for GPs. RCGP officers made this one of the organisation's top priorities, and it was approved by the Postgraduate Medical Education Training Board in 2006.
In addition, until a couple of years ago the Member of the Royal College of General Practitioners assessment, which is a "gold standard" for GPs, was voluntary - but now every doctor training as a GP needs to take it.
By 2011, all GPs will have to undergo a process of "revalidation" every five years in order to remain on the GPs' register. Although the General Medical Council will be responsible for managing the process, the college will recommend the standards for revalidation.
College of Occupational Therapists (COT)
● Founded in 1974
● 28,500 members - about 75% of the registered workforce
● Registered charity and subsidiary of the British Association of Occupational Therapists, which acts as a trade union
● Core remit: to provide leadership and a public profile, evidence-based guidance, and to promote excellence in practice.
Every person on the organisation's council is a practising occupational therapist. This leads to more understanding of its members and informs its work as a professional body, says Julia Scott, chief executive of the COT.
For example, this year the COT produced a toolkit to help its members implement National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence guidelines on promoting older people's mental health. Scott says the council was able to pre-empt members' queries about the guidelines.
The COT also distributes leaflets to GP surgeries, nurseries and other settings in order to increase public understanding of the occupational therapy role and show how its members make a difference to people's lives.
Scott says being a charity has its advantages; namely, financial gains and the capacity to be a research foundation as well as a professional body. "But it can be a challenge because, under the Charities Act 2006, the college must demonstrate a direct benefit to the public," she says.
This article is published in the 5 November 2009 edition of Community Care under the headline "Social work signs up for college"