Social Work Reform Board: the contexts and organisations capability

The Social Work Reform Board has set out what is expected of social workers at every stage of their careers. Kirsty McGregor explores how reform could see practitioners gaining the power to shape the changes that affect them and service users

Jenna Akuchie

The Social Work Reform Board has set out what is expected of social workers at every stage of their careers. Kirsty McGregor explores how reform could see practitioners gaining the power to shape the changes that affect them and service users

As a senior practitioner managing Whipps Cross University Hospital NHS Trust’s social work team as well as the rehabilitation team for strokes and falls, Jenna Akuchie plays a key role in shaping the way services are delivered.

Akuchie has been on secondment to the hospital from Redbridge Council, London, for the past two years and has to juggle the sometimes competing demands of the local authority and the NHS.

As well as supervising eight social workers, it is also her responsibility to make sure service users receive the best support available by liaising with local community groups and voluntary organisations and feeding back to the council.

One of the nine core values in the Social Work Reform Board’s professional capabilities framework encourages all social workers to take on a similar role.

The framework sets out how social workers’ knowledge and skills should develop as they move through their careers.

The “contexts and organisations” capability stipulates that social workers should be able to operate increasingly effectively within their own organisation and contribute to the development of services, as well as work within multi-agency settings.

“Managers and frontline social workers have a professional responsibility to comment on and shape how the organisation works best,” says Patricia Kearney, head of family and children’s services at the Social Care Institute for Excellence.

“We’re trying to get away from the manager-worker split in terms of responsibility for providing the best services possible.”

The contexts and organisations capability acknowledges that social workers operate in a wide range of settings, from local authorities to NHS bodies, voluntary organisations, service user-led organisations and independent GP-style practices.

“To be effective in helping service users, social workers need to understand the role, the duties, and the powers of the organisation that employs or commissions them,” says Maurice Bates, interim co-chair of the College of Social Work. The Reform Board expects the college to take on responsibility for developing the professional capabilities framework in the future.

On top of this, Skills for Care’s recently published social care workforce development strategy noted that the government’s Big Society agenda requires greater partnership working. The report found social care workers would need to develop new skills, including community organising and the ability to work across service boundaries.

Bates says: “We have always aimed to mobilise local resources as part of the support that people need to change their behaviour or to develop the network of support to ensure their well-being.

“As the Big Society idea develops, social workers will expect to have a chance to influence it and ensure that service users influence and benefit from it.”

Akuchie and her colleagues already work with the community: “When we do support plans, we look at the support network available within the community; we use that as a resource.”

She takes her responsibility to deliver person-centred services very seriously, and tries to ensure her employer does the same.

As personalisation has spread she has started attending a continuing practice development group every month, where she feeds back to colleagues and senior staff on what is and isn’t working.

The College of Social Work champions this approach. In addition, Bates says social workers need to be alert to the changing policy context, which is particularly relevant now that more and more social workers work in multi-disciplinary settings.

Ruth Cartwright, England manager of BASW – The College of Social Work, agrees: “Social workers need to have their heads above the parapet and know what is going on in the wider world of social work and social care, and keep up to date with new information and practice developments.”

Akuchie works with nurses, occupational therapists, physiotherapists and speech and language therapists. Keeping on top of policy changes is a challenge, particularly at a time of financial constraints, but she works round this by seeking out free seminars.

“If there’s anything happening in and around London, I put my name and the names of my social workers forward,” she says. “I also share articles with my team.”

Arguably, Akuchie finds this easier because of her experience. Before joining Whipps Cross, she was a hospital social worker and an approved mental health professional for several years, and understands how to adapt to changing contexts.

Under the professional capabilities framework, a practitioner of Akuchie’s experience would be expected to have a higher level of understanding of the organisational context than, say, a newly qualified social worker.

Bates says: “Just as we expect senior doctors to take a leading role in developing policy and practice in the NHS, the College will expect senior social workers to have an influential voice in developing the various services in which social work is delivered.”

Cartwright echoes this, but argues that newly qualified practitioners should also be able to share the latest practice developments and knowledge from their courses.

Implementation challenges

Clearly with fewer social workers on the ground and some workloads increasing, there are challenges to implementing the contexts and organisations capability effectively, which is partly the fault of employers.

“Many social workers feel they do not have time for this as their work is all-engaging and, although it is important for professionals to have time for this sort of work, that does not tend to be something all employers recognise,” says Cartwright.

“Practitioners need opportunities to contribute to the way their organisation functions and to get to know colleagues and working styles in organisations they work alongside, but often don’t seem to be given, or assertively take, these opportunities.”

Kearney accepts there will be difficulties and says it will be the College’s responsibility for making sure the framework becomes part of daily social work practice across the country, by linking it to education and training, continuing professional development and registration requirements.

Bates adds: “Good learning organisations want to learn from the experiences of their staff and will want to make it easy for social workers to play a constructive role in these areas, regardless of the financial circumstances of the time.”

Adapt to your surroundings

The contexts and organisations capability stipulates that social workers should be capable of engaging with, informing and adapting to the changing contexts that shape practice. They should be able to:

● Understand their roles and responsibilities within an organisation.

● Ensure they are informed about and pro-actively respond to challenges and opportunities that come from changing contexts.

● Contribute to organisational policy and practice.

● Work with and be informed by other professionals and organisations.

● Work within a team.

● Maintain professional values and ethics, both as an individual and as a member of the organisation.

Source: Working Paper on the Professional Capabilities Framework, Social Work Reform Board, January 2011

(pic: Jenna Akuchie (left) taken by Tom Parkes)

Find more on the Reform Board’s professional capabilities framework on our special report page at

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