An empty promise?

When the General Social Care Council was launched in 2001 it had a clear mission – to ensure the social care workforce was made up of people who were competent, skilled and well-trained.

At the heart of its function was the creation of a register, to which the workforce had to sign up. First to join were social workers. Their job title is now protected and it is illegal for people to call themselves social workers unless they are registered with the GSCC. But nearly a year after the deadline for compulsory registration passed, what impact has registering had on social workers’practice?

None, according to Glen Williams, a social worker within Sefton Council’s emergency duty team. He says: “It’s made a dent in my bank account and increased the amount of paperwork I do. Apart from that it hasn’t changed anything.

“It gives us no more credibility whatsoever. I have never been asked to provide proof that I am registered. It is just an artificial standard that needs to be achieved. If it was that important then local authorities, not individuals, would have paid for it.”

One of 75,000 social workers now registered, Williams, the Unison branch convener, adds that it has not altered his relationship with service users or other professionals.

And he is not alone. Julie Heath, a manager in a multidisciplinary team at Derbyshire Council, describes the process as a “non-event,” adding that service users have not picked up on registration and would not be interested anyway. She imagines that given time it may have an influence on areas such as training.

Others, such as Giles Gardner, a Devon Council social worker, notice small changes. In the back of his mind he has a reinforced sense of his accountability for practice. “Being registered makes you more mindful of your accountability. But I couldn’t say it has changed me overnight. I don’t feel differently about work.”

In Gardner’s experience registration has not affected social workers’ sense of professionalism in relation to colleagues from other sectors. He works increasingly in partnership with other agencies but says he has always felt his contribution was valued.

Improving public confidence in people working in social care is an essential part of regulation.But arguably, public awareness of the GSCC’s existence is only likely to come about when somebody is barred from working in the sector as a result of a high-profile case.

“A lot more needs to be done than applying what is a medical model of professional credibility to social work before we have credibility in the public’s eyes,” argues Williams.

He says the public’s perception of social care was undermined by the government’s recruitment drive to boost the numbers of people entering the workforce, which featured “disgraceful” adverts that portrayed social care work as unskilled.

Even for people such as Ian Johnston, director of the British Association of Social Workers and a campaigner for registration for over 20 years, the GSCC could have done more to raise the status of social work. He says it  made “heavy weather” of the process of registration, which should have been simple. He also believes that workers should be registered according to the area of work they specialise in.

In practice he has found that the codes of practice devised by the GSCC lack clarity. He was recently involved in the first judicial review of the application of section nine of the Asylum and Immigration Act, which says that the children of failed asylum seekers can be taken into care. When he looked to the codes to support his argument that social workers should not be expected to do that he found the duties of the job too “vague and general”  to be of much help.

Similarly the requirement of 90 hours’ training over three years, needed for continued registration with the GSCC, is, he says, “woefully inadequate”. Uncertainty about the training requirements is shared by others.

Roy Smith is learning and development adviser at Devon Council. While he agrees that being registered and having to retain competency is a good thing, the GSCC has not been clear about how you prove continued learning.

“We need more concise guidance about what the expectations are in order to maintain your registration,” he says. “What we need is some sort of evidencing sheet where you say ‘I have been on this course and this is what I have learned’. There should also be a supervision and appraisal process whereby workers can say how they will apply what they have learned in practice.”

Interestingly, Smith has received no extra money to deliver training for social workers. Williams says there is a dearth of training for emergency duty team workers but one small change is that those who do undertake training now receive a certificate as proof which they can use to count towards continued learning.

But he says: “I’m not sure how seriously people take the 90 hours’ training and we do not yet know what will happen if we don’t fulfil that. Are they going to deregister us?”

The answers to that and other questions will inevitably be answered as the GSCC, still an organisation in infancy, becomes better established. For now it seems that while many social workers are supportive of the theory behind registration, they talk about its benefits in the future tense because they have yet to experience them in current practice.

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