Social care work across the UK’s borders

Devolution has led to increasingly diverse agendas in the social care sector. Is this presenting more obstacles to social care workers hoping to transfer their skills to a new working environment? Gordon Carson reports

Devolution has led to increasingly diverse agendas in the social care sector. Is this presenting more obstacles to social care workers hoping to transfer their skills to a new working environment? Gordon Carson reports

We tend to think of physical borders as the only remaining barriers to movement in our world of myriad professional and social connections. But the divergence in social care policies across the countries of the UK has presented increasing challenges to a mobile workforce.

England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been pursuing their own distinct policies in social care for many years; think of the children’s hearings system or criminal justice social work in Scotland, for example. But devolution has provided fresh encouragement to policymakers hoping to create distinct social policies for their own fiefdoms.

In Scotland, this has meant free personal care for older people, while in Wales a new 10-year social services strategy, published in February, lays the foundations for a national care service.

England has been aggressively pursuing its own agendas, among them the introduction of personal budgets in adults’ services, and children’s services departments combining education and social care.

Ruth Cartwright, manager for England at BASW – The College of Social Work, says some social workers may not realise the extent of the differences that have emerged in practice and law between countries.

This may be a greater factor than they might imagine if they decide to apply for a position in another country. Sarah Pope, manager of Hays’ Health and Social Care recruitment business, says frontline staff in particular have to be able to demonstrate relevant experience in their chosen field when they go for a new job.

This might make it difficult for people moving, for example, from England to Scotland and applying for roles with country-specific legal status and training requirements, such as criminal justice social work.

Pope says moves between England and Wales have been most common because their social care policies and structures have traditionally been relatively closely aligned. But she also thinks more social care workers will be prepared to “move to where the work is”, as public sector funding cuts are implemented.

This would represent a major shift in habits, as figures from the UK’s social care regulators suggest cross-border movement is very rare. In Wales, for example, only 54 people on the country’s register of social workers and social care workers qualified with a social work degree outside of Wales.

Jon Skone, director of social services in Pembrokeshire and county director of health with the Hywel Dda Health Board, says the divergence of policy could place some people at a disadvantage if they wanted to move countries.

His own role includes responsibilities for children’s and adults’ social services, as well as a district hospital, Withybush General in Haverfordwest.

As he points out, in England there are directors of children’s services and directors of adults’ services, meaning senior managers are becoming more specialist. “I would be far more of a generalist compared with them,” he adds. “But if you were a director who just concentrated on adults’ services coming into an environment where you’re a statutory director for children’s services too, that could be a shock.”

The strategic focus of directors means, though, that they are not necessarily wedded to specific procedures and practices, as may be the case for frontline workers.

“Directors tend to be reasonably flexible animals,” says Skone. “If they were not, I wouldn’t have thought they would last very long.”

Though Skone’s social care career has not taken him outside Wales, one director who has switched territories is Neelam Bhardwaja, corporate director at Cardiff Council with responsibility for adults’ and children’s social services, and education and lifelong learning.

She worked for Birmingham, Cambridge-shire and Poole councils before moving to Cardiff in December 2005. “Core competencies and the personal and professional attributes required for the post are the same irrespective of location,” she says.

However, she does caution that cross-border moves can be more difficult for frontline staff due to the impact on daily practice of different legislation and policy.

Setting aside professional factors, though, the main considerations for people thinking of moving countries will probably still be financial and personal. For lower-paid social care workers, this could mean the cost of registering in another country (though regulatory requirements are inconsistent across the UK).

For many, the loss of networks and familiarity with people and places are the most significant challenges immediately after a move, says Bhardwaja.

But as someone who has gone through the process itself, she says moving countries has many positives. “Change does provide fresh challenges and also the opportunity to reassess and to reinvigorate oneself and one’s career,” she adds.

Skone is keen for this sort of mobility to be retained, as people from other countries within the UK can bring with them new ideas.

“If we lose that it would be a problem,” he says. “If we are not careful, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland could shrink the pool of people available to them.”

Students face unique challenges

If practising social care workers face challenges in crossing borders, so too do those just entering the profession.

To begin with, social work students are only eligible to receive bursaries to study in their country of residence, and moving just before their course starts does not count.

Jonathan Parker, professor of social work and social policy at Bournemouth University, highlights the case of a man from Northern Ireland who wanted to study at Bournemouth due to its reputation, and ended up having to fund his own studies because he wasn’t eligible for a bursary.

Then there’s the content of the social work degree. This tends to focus on the policies and practice of the country in which a particular university is located, and rarely looks in depth at other parts of the UK (though curricula across the UK take into account the same national occupational standards, and often include an element of study of international practices).

Parker says that, in the social work degrees in England he is familiar with, there is “very little” reference to policies and practice in Scotland.

“There’s a need for social workers to respond to local situations and also an increased focus on preparing people for the job,” he says. “It’s job-focused and not necessarily learning-focused.”

Parker also feels that social policy is increasingly focused on “micro-level approaches”. And, in higher education, many students are restricted to studying locally due to other commitments, such as caring responsibilities.

He says this localisation is occurring despite moves at the European level towards greater standardisation of learning under the “Bologna process” to enable mobility across borders through a European Higher Education Area, of which the UK is a member.

“While Europe is moving in this direction, the UK is becoming more and more insular,” says Parker.

Ruth Stark, manager of the Scottish Association of Social Work, says newly qualified social workers may also face challenges if they move in the period immediately after they graduate, as they may need to take additional post-registration training to meet PRTL requirements in their new country.

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This article is published in the 31 March 2011 edition of Community Care under the headline “Working across UK borders”

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