Regulating social work students: the different approaches

To find out why there is such a split in opinion over whether social work students in England should be registered, Jackie Cosh looks at the approach taken by the rest of the UK, as well as further afield in Australia and New Zealand.

A wall of opposition met the Health Professions Council’s (HPC) recent announcement that it has no plans to register social work students in England in the long term. Many criticised the HPC for its perceived “one size fits all” approach, given that the regulator does not register students in any of the 15 professions it currently oversees. Social work employers, professional bodies and practitioners alike expressed concern about the impact on public safety should the student register cease to exist once the HPC takes over from the General Social Care Council (GSCC) on 1 August.

In its response to the Law Commission’s ongoing consultation on the regulation of health and social care professions in England, the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services points out that, through registration, students agree to adhere to the code of practice for social workers, which instils in them a sense of professionalism.

Paula La Cumber, a social work lecturer at South Thames College in London, agrees that registration impacts on how students feel about their role: “It’s really important that students have a sense of professionalism and accountability right from the beginning of their training.” At the nearby London South Back University, first year social work student, Anna Mayer, says: “There is some kind of status when you register with the GSCC. It was quite exciting when we filled out our forms and got our registration number. It was like the first step towards being qualified.”

The regulatory bodies for social workers in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales have been registering students since 2004. The decision to do so was based on the experience of the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work, which was responsible for the regulation of social work education before the three care councils took over. “There had been a number of cases where universities had failed to deal adequately with the fitness to practise of students,” says Brendan Johnston, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Social Care Council, in his response to the Law Commission. He adds: “Requiring social work students to register with the regulatory body at the beginning of their training gives a very clear message about values and about standards of practice and conduct required.”

A number of students have been referred to the devolved care councils for misconduct and some have been removed from the register; thus minimising the risk of them entering another social work course, Johnston argues. Since 2005, the GSCC has found 13 students guilty of misconduct and removed a further 76 from the register, usually because they were no longer on a social work course.

However, the HPC argues that higher education institutions (HEIs) are better placed to monitor the conduct of its students. Writing in the Guardian recently, Anna van der Gaag, chair of the HPC, argued that the onus should be on education providers and, through them, the regulator. “We insist that all training providers quality assure practice placements and monitor and support their students in partnership with placement providers,” she wrote.

On the straight and narrow

In countries such as Australia and New Zealand, where regulation of social workers is not as advanced as it is in the UK, there is no student registration. However, although many institutions there are lobbying for formal registration of qualified social workers, there seems little support for changing the arrangements for those in training.

“University programmes are accredited by the professional association,” explains Natalie Bolzan, professor of social work at the University of Western Sydney. “To get accreditation, universities guarantee their students have had criminal records checks, that they will abide by the code of ethics, and that, should they breach the code, we could exclude them from the programme. …Touch wood, I don’t think there have been any problems [with the system] whatsoever.”

Professor Margaret Alston, head of the department of social work at Monash University, Australia, admits it can be “an arduous task” to monitor students, although, like Bolzan, defends it as a system that works. Monash is about to place its next round of 270 social work students. “That takes quite a heavy team of people,” says Alston.

Listen to Margaret Alston explain the system for monitoring students at Monash University:

Similarly, in New Zealand, the students’ competencies are covered by the universities and polytechnics, which are in turn approved by the Social Workers Registration Board. You can apply for provisional registration before qualifying, but students seldom go down that road, says Jan Duke, the registration board’s deputy registrar. “I don’t necessarily know if being registered is going to keep students on the straight and narrow for the four years of a degree anyway,” she says. “I don’t know what benefit it would give to protecting the public, over and above what the educational institutions do.”

Duke says the board keeps in close contact with the education providers, so they can jointly deal with any issues that arise regarding a student’s conduct. She adds: “Educational institutions have an ethical responsibility to ensure that they don’t take anyone on to the course who may not meet the standards for registration when they complete it.”

Students in New Zealand seem happy enough with the status quo. “I think a type of social work student registration would not make a difference to being a social work student,” says Telesia Moale, a student at the University of Canterbury. “The support through university is parallel to that of the social work registration board once we are in social work practice.”

Back in England, however, most people in the sector stand firm on the benefits of student registration and many have used the Law Commission’s consultation as a platform for expressing those views. The HPC’s council has decided that, long term, there will be no student registration, but short term measures have yet to be agreed. Transitional arrangements will be discussed at a public meeting at the HPC in London on 19 June; it seems some people are hoping there is still time to change the regulator’s mind.

Related articles

Why we need a new approach to regulating students

Social workers want compulsory registration of students

Users will be at risk if social work students are not registered, says GSCC

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