When merger talks between the College of Social Work and British Association of Social Workers broke down last month, BASW accused the College of setting itself up with a “quasi-regulatory role” rather than as a membership organisation. “The membership subscriptions social workers are asked to pay to the College of Social Work will never give them a strong voice in an organisation in which the main funding will always come from other sources,” said BASW chair Fran Fuller, who vowed to compete head on with the College for members.
From the beginning, the College’s transition board has vowed to establish a fully independent, social worker-led organisation. “We will live or die on the quality and the volume of membership that we can attract from the profession,” said Maurice Bates, co-chair of the board, giving evidence to the education committee on 8 November 2011. Almost all of the College’s income in the early years would come from fee-paying members, he added.
But several bumps in the road over the past two years – including the collapse of the Unison deal, the dispute with BASW and the challenge of recruiting members when registration fees have just doubled – have cast doubt on whether the College can achieve this self-funding membership model. And if it fails to do that, can it truly be said to represent the profession?
Attracting a “critical mass” of members
The College’s original business plan, published in December 2010, proposed charging members £270 a year for a joint College-Unison membership. Existing members of Unison could have joined the College for a heavily discounted price of around £50. It was hoped many of Unison’s social workers – it has around 40,000 in membership across the UK, but this deal would have applied to England only – would have singed up, giving the College a critical mass of members from day one. “This agreement is crucial to securing an independently financed College and indeed to its future existence,” said the College in September 2011.
But BASW put the kibosh on the deal by accusing the College of using its £5m government seed funding to create a closed shop for Unison. MPs intervened and the College had to suspend the deal, leaving it back at square one with no guarantee that individual social workers would join.
The College then decided to radically reduce its fees in order to attract members. Although it may not seem like it to many social workers, the College’s annual fees are relatively low: it charges £60 per employed social worker, compared to BASW’s £171 (for those with less than five years’ experience) and Unison’s £207 (for those earning between £25,001 and £30,000). However, the College opened its doors to fee-paying members in April this year – a year in which local authority social workers in England are facing a third consecutive pay freeze, as well as the sudden hike in their registration fees.
The College had an early and unofficial target of signing up 6,000 fee-paying members by April, after more than 9,000 social workers expressed an interest by signing up as prospective members. In the end, just over 1,000 social workers had formally signed up to the College by 4 May. The College reiterated the fact that the early target had been unofficial and said 1,000 members put it on track to reach its target of 12,000 paying members by April 2013.
But as of 3 October, the College had only 2,456 fee-paying members; it would have to recruit 1,590 members per month for the next six months in order to meet its target – almost three times its current rate of recruitment.
When this was put to the College, a spokesperson responded: “We’re working very hard to achieve our targets and we have recently introduced our corporate membership offer as an additional route for social workers to join us individually. […]As we continue to establish ourselves, we are confident that practitioners will come to see us as the centre of excellence for social work, not least because we are, and will continue to be, represented by our members to the public and to policy makers.” The College admitted its ambitions were “huge” and it had a “challenging task ahead”. But the question remains, will the College be able to attract enough members to survive?
COLLEGE FUNDING IN 2012-13 TO DATE:Membership fees and government grants
Finding a funding model
The government provided £5m to set up the College over the two years to 31 March 2012. From April, the College was to be “self-funding, accountable to its members with no core funding from government,” a spokesperson for the Department for Education said in October 2011. The rest of the College’s income was to come from membership, management fees to undertake a range of assignments including distribution of the Social Work Education Grant, consultancy fees, grants and income from advertising, sponsorship and events.
The College says it cannot provide a statement on its income and expenditure in 2012-13 until its annual accounts are formally published next year. However, it is possible to roughly estimate its income from membership subscriptions and government grants so far.
The College could not provide a breakdown of how many of its 2,456 members are employed or independent social workers (fees are £60 and £90 respectively) and how many are students (£10). However, if we assume that the majority of members are employed social workers and so the average income per member works out at a maximum of £60, the total would be around £147,360. Some social workers will have signed up more recently than others and therefore will pay their fees beyond April 2013, but it is impossible to work out their pro rata contribution without knowing exactly when each individual joined. This estimate is therefore likely to be higher than the actual figure.
The College has also launched a corporate membership deal, whereby social work employers can bulk purchase memberships for their social workers at a variable discounted rate. It has so far signed up two councils, Essex (children’s and adult services) and Cornwall (just children’s).
Although the employers pay the fees, is up to individual social workers whether they want to become members, so it is difficult to predict how much income these deals will generate. However, according to a freedom of information request from Community Care in August, Essex has 912 posts in its adult and children’s services, 267 of which are vacant. If it filled those vacancies and everyone signed up to the College at the discounted rate of £30 per member, Essex would have to pay £27,360 for the year. Again, this is based on full year fees.
Cornwall has signed up for its children’s services department, which has 217 posts, 21 of which are vacant. At the rate of £40 per member, these fees could generate a maximum income of £8,680 for the year. The combined total from these deals would be £36,040, notwithstanding any admin or other costs. Based on these rough calculations, we can estimate that the College has lined up a maximum of £183,400 so far this financial year from membership fees.
Reforming the profession
What we also know from freedom of information requests is that the Department for Education has granted £800,000 to the College in 2012-13 “for the purpose of securing a sustainable business model and membership base that ensures the successful implementation of the national social work reform programme”. The College had received £333,332 of that by 20 September. To secure the grant, the College must:
- Oversee the professional capabilities framework (PCF)
- Provide support for practitioners, educators and employers to improve the knowledge base and skills of social workers in specialist areas
- Improve arrangements for continuing professional development (CPD)
- Develop the implementation of teaching organisation status for employers
- Promote partnership models for joint arrangements between employers and higher education institutions (HEIs), so that they are better able to deliver initial qualifying training and CPD support
- Support HEIs and employers to improve the calibre of social work students, content of the degree and standards of practice placements
The Department of Health has also granted £250,000 to the College in 2012-13 to enable it to undertake five specific projects. Of this, £170,000 had been paid by 14 September. The funding will enable to the College to:
- Support the NHS Business Services Authority’s management of the Education Support Grant by providing advice on how to achieve better outcomes for students in practice placements
- Work with the Centre for Workforce Intelligence to improve information on social worker supply and demand
- Support partnership development to underpin implementation of social work reforms
- Support the roll out of the CPD framework
- Co-ordinate the dissemination of Social Work Reform Board-agreed products and tools to support the improvement of professional practice
It is not known how much of the College’s income from 2011-12 carried over into this financial year. Now that it has been established as a legal entity, the College’s fixed costs are relatively low; most of its services are online, meaning the cost of services for thousands of members is the same for one. More information on the College’s income and expenditure in 2011-12 is expected to be included in the Social Care Institute for Excellence’s annual report, due in September but now expected at the end of this month.
But from what we know now, it appears much of the College’s income in 2012-13 is likely to come from central government. This, along with the College’s strong endorsement by employers, has led some to question its independence. But the College says: “We are an independent organisation; government and employers desperately need organisations acting as critical friends to make them aware of problems with policies they are considering and make them aware of problems that they have not yet considered.”
The College also insists social workers have a strong voice in the organisation, despite its relatively low membership figures: “We are led by social workers, our members are active in the life of the College and we will have elections to the board and professional assembly in early 2013.” However, at the moment, it is the government-funded projects listed above that are allowing the College to have a direct impact on the daily working lives of every social worker and social work student in England.