Crossing the border: moving between social work in Scotland and England

England and Scotland may have been united since 1707, but social workers who move between the two could find it as different as traversing the channel to work in France, finds Craig Kenny.

Social work in Scotland is governed by a different regulator and inspectorate, a separate legal system with its own legislation, different care entitlements and different proceedings concerning children. On top of this are the linguistic and cultural differences that can trip the unwary and lead to crucial misunderstandings. “Language – the turn of phrase – can take some time to get used to,” says Ruth Stark of the Scottish Association of Social Workers, who trained in England but moved to Scotland. “‘I’m going for my messages’ means ‘I am going for my groceries’. If you ‘stay’ somewhere, it is a permanent home not a temporary one.”

Liane McGovern, a social work student in Scotland who had placements both sides of the border, is now applying for jobs in both countries. “The biggest thing for me was the difference in legislation and guidance between the two countries,” she says. “All the assessment frameworks are called something different. I found it quite frustrating having to come to terms with different names and jargon when the principles are so similar.”

Separate legislation in Scotland means the day-to-day jargon used is different. Jon Bolton, a lecturer in social work at Dundee University, who works both sides of the border, explains: “In Scotland we have significant case reviews, in England they are serious case reviews. Much of the legislation that applies in England does not apply in Scotland, and vice versa, and there is often no direct equivalent between sections of acts.” Stark also found herself on a steep learning curve at first. “I trained in the 1970s and all the law I learned in England was useless. The only things they have in common are issues around asylum, immigration and welfare benefits.”

Some who have worked both sides of the border argue that Scots legislation is more progressive in several key areas, such as mental incapacity, free personal care for the over-65s, children’s justice and probation. Instead of a separate probation service, as in England, Scottish criminal justice teams are part of local authority social services departments. Ed Lowe, a team leader on the Isle of Barra in the Western Isles, who previously worked in west London, argues that this makes more sense “ethically and pragmatically”, since several members of the same family are often involved in cases. “As a standalone service, probation starts to get more criminal justice focused. You also get duplicate assessments and more is potentially missed.”

There is also a marked contrast between the two nations’ approach to sectioning under mental health legislation. In Scotland, the approved person under the act has to be a social worker, whereas in England, the approved person can now be from a variety of professions, including social work, community psychiatric nursing, occupational therapy and psychology.

Children’s hearings and adult care

Another key difference is in the treatment of children who commit crimes. While in England, they are dealt with in youth courts, in Scotland they are referred to children’s hearings, tribunals of lay people with an interest in child protection and welfare. “Although serious crimes are dealt with in the courts, children’s hearings act as a tribunal for minor prosecutions, such as ASBOs, truanting or burglary,” says Bolton.

“After a major inquiry in the 1960s, several politicians and senior law officers felt that the court system was not the right place to deal with children. Since then we have seen a huge shift from children’s hearings being a court system for prosecution to one concerned with care, welfare and child protection. The idea is that offending behaviour is as a result of some underlying issues and, if we address these, the offending behaviour will cease.” Lowe agrees: “There’s a non-adversarial approach to children who commit crime and children at risk in Scotland.”

For older adults, personal care is free in Scotland but not in England. Chris Russell, media spokesman for The College of Social Work (TCSW) and a researcher at the University of Worcester’s association for dementia studies, says: “Free personal care enables you as a social worker to do more. You can prioritise other areas then, such as leisure activities, arts, or enhanced levels of care.”

Another difference to emerge is in the two nations’ approach to protecting vulnerable groups. Scotland has now established a register of people who are cleared to work with vulnerable adults, as the Bichard Inquiry recommended, whereas England has opted for a barring system.

Regulation and inspections

As well as legal differences, regulatory and inspection regimes are quite different in Scotland. Registration with the Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC) costs £30 a year, compared to the £76 annual cost of registering with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) in England. Scottish social work students have to register, but the HCPC is phasing out the student register in England. As well as being a regulator, the SSSC is also responsible for workforce development; in England that function is now mostly undertaken by TCSW.

When it comes to service inspection, in Scotland, all social care services are overseen by the Care Inspectorate, whereas in England responsibilities are divided between the Care Quality Commission and Ofsted. Despite this divide, inspection regimes seem to be moving in similar directions. “This April we implemented move towards specialist rather than geographical teams,” said a spokesman for the Care Inspectorate. “So specialists in drug and alcohol services will inspect those services, for instance.” The CQC recently announced a similar move.

Despite these differences, no conversion course is necessary for social workers wishing to cross the border. “They just have to satisfy an employer that they have an understanding of the differences and how they would adapt,” says Bolton. However, since Scottish devolution, the gap between English and Scots practice seems to be widening. “I think that differences between England and Scotland will increase as more legislation is passed,” says Russell. “As time passes, conversion courses may become more formalised.”

McGovern is one student who would welcome help with the transition: “I will quite happily work in either country, but if I had done my final degree in Scotland and not had a placement in England I would have been quite apprehensive about applying for jobs in England.”

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