Command performance

The General Social Care Council is in the middle of an enormous
workforce registration task, which started in April this year and
could take decades. But it will soon face a potentially far more
challenging task: ensuring that the practice, knowledge and skills
of every qualified social worker are up to date.

The concept of continuous professional development (CPD) being
allied to formal regulation and registration of the workforce is
not new. In fact, the GSCC’s requirements will bring England’s
80,000 qualified social workers belatedly into line with many of
the people they work alongside, including nurses, GPs and teachers.
But what will it involve?

Social care staff, including unqualified staff, will have to
re-register with the GSCC every three years. Post-registration
training and learning will be a key condition for continued
registration, but qualified social workers will have to show they
have completed a stringent regime of CPD. Although the details of
this regime are still being finalised, the broad outline is clear
(see panel, right).

Although everyone welcomes the idea of a qualified and regulated
workforce, within which individuals are expected and encouraged to
keep their skills and training up to date, the reality is that the
mechanisms can take time to bed down and similar introductions
elsewhere have run into trouble.

The GSCC says it has worked closely with the nursing regulatory
body, the Nursing and Midwifery Council, on the shape of the social
care registration regime and there are distinct similarities
between the two regimes. Nurses also have to re-register every
three years. This involves signing a declaration that they intend
to continue practising, and that they are competent to do so – that
is, that they have kept up to date through CPD. But, significantly,
the time commitment expected from nurses is a third of that for
social care staff – just five days over the three-year period,
compared with 15 days (or 90 hours) for social workers.

Tom Bolger, a health consultant and former assistant general
secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, says there were calls
from some quarters for nurses to be given more stringent CPD
targets. But these were overruled because of concerns that onerous
registration criteria would drive more nurses out of the

He says: “One of the big problems in nursing is how to fill the
time when people are off for training. Ideally an agency nurse does
their job, and there is money around to pay for that – in fact,
training budgets are underspent. The availability of staff is the
limiting factor.

“A nurse on an intensive care ward, for instance, can ask to go to
a conference or on training to meet their re-registration criteria,
only to be told by their manager that it is impossible to find
someone to do their shift.” The alternative, he says, is that the
unit closes a bed so that a nurse can take the time off.

This unhappy state of affairs may not be limited to nursing. In
many parts of the country there are similar shortages of social
workers and finding suitable cover can be all but impossible. The
nature of the job may be different, too. Although an inexperienced
agency nurse can change a dressing, child protection workers are
unlikely to hand over their case files to temporary staff while
they go off to do a spot of research.

Worse, while health authorities have specific funding – “backfill”
– to cover nurse absences through training, the GSCC does not
regard funding “backfill” as part of its remit. A spokesperson said
that funding to cover absences (a working week for every social
worker every year) was to be “negotiated locally” and added that
“for good and average employers this will just be firming up what
happens already”.

This may be the case. Employers already have an obligation with
regard to training, set out in point three of the code of practice
which came into force last September. It requires employers “to
provide induction, training and development opportunities, to help
their workers do their jobs effectively and prepare for new and
changing roles and responsibilities”. It also requires them to
“support staff in posts subject to registration to meet the GSCC’s
requirements for continuing professional development”. Local
authorities are also likely to incorporate any extra training or
cover requirement on to their “on costs” for each job.

But this leaves agency staff, the self-employed and anyone taking
an extended career break (such as parents with young children) at a
significant disadvantage. They could lose a week’s salary a year as
well as having to fund training or research (and paying a
re-registration fee into the bargain). But, as the GSCC points out,
“registration is an agreement between the individual social care
worker and the GSCC” rather than between employer and

Perhaps there is little to worry about. Anyone anxious about
failing to meet the GSCC’s training demands may be reassured by the
fact that the Nursing and Midwifery Council aims to check only 1
per cent of nurses applying to re-register each year (from a
workforce of 450,000). As Bolger says: “I don’t know whether they
sample that many, but the system is definitely open to abuse. If
you were one of those sampled, I think you’d be able to get your
portfolio of courses and training up to speed fairly quickly. The
inquisition could swoop and nobody would be any the wiser.”

Key conditions   

To re-register with the General Social Care Council staff must
meet these requirements: 

  • Ninety hours or 15 days of study, training, courses, seminars,
    reading, teaching or other activities over the three-year period of
    registration. These tasks should advance the social worker’s
    professional development or contribute to the development of the
    profession as a whole. 
  • Social workers should choose training and learning activities
    that benefit their current employment, benefit their career
    progression and reflect their preferred learning style. 
  • Social workers may wish to: arrange to shadow the work of a
    colleague in a related team or profession; negotiate protected time
    to research latest policy and good practice developments in their
    field of practice; undertake a piece of research related to their
  • Self-employed social workers will still need to satisfy the
    GSCC that they have taken part in post-registration training and
    learning when they renew their registration.  
  • Every social worker registered with the GSCC must keep a record
    of post-registration training and learning undertaken. Failure to
    meet these conditions may be considered misconduct.

Emphasis on research

In terms of what might constitute “professional development”,
the General Social Care Council has left the goalposts wide

But there is an unmistakeable emphasis on practitioner research,
which some argue may be misplaced.  

Martin Webber, social science fellow in the health services
research department of the Institute of Psychiatry, has undertaken
practitioner research. He says five days a year is “nowhere near
enough” and suggests “a minimum of 30 days” would be needed to
undertake useful research.  

He says: “Five days is a start. It is certainly more than is
routinely given at present, but it is nowhere near enough. I fear
that it could lead to poor quality research which would add little
to the social care evidence base.”

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