“It’s a big milestone for us – a coming of age,” says The College of Social Work’s chair Jo Cleary of the organisation’s inaugural annual general meeting, which took place in London yesterday. In many ways, the event marked the end of the college’s formative days. It came two years on from when the college started enrolling members and four and a half years since the Social Work Task Force recommended its creation to give the profession in England an equivalent to the royal colleges of the health sector.
In October 2013, the college’s membership reached the 10,000 mark and now the figure is heading towards 13,000. Services such as its e-portfolio, where members can record their continuing professional development, are now in place and the college is proud of how it has recruited 50 members to act as media spokespeople for the profession and 70 trained mentors to dole out advice to less experienced social workers.
“As with the birth of anything it’s not as easy as you’d hope, but I feel really, really positive about where we are now,” says Cleary. “With our membership being near 13,000, I think that demonstrates the way that social workers are receiving the college. I was speaking with the Royal College of General Practitioners’ new chair the other day and she was telling me that she thought that where we were in establishing ourselves and getting members was actually faster than they had achieved, which was good to hear.”
Nonetheless, 13,000 members is a long way off the 31,000 target the college intended to recruit by 2015 back in April 2012. “Er, that’s a lot,” Cleary laughs when asked if she thinks that target is still achievable. “I think we can do it actually,” she adds. “It really depends on social workers becoming used to having a professional college. With other professions you automatically become members of your professional body, but there isn’t that culture with social workers, so we are going to have to keep on pushing on it.”
Cleary suggests that the upcoming period of re-registration with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) could result in a big membership boost. “Social workers have to keep account of their continuing professional development (CPD) [in order to renew their registration] and we have the e-portfolio for that purpose,” she says. “I think people will start seeing some of the benefits of joining.”
Certainly the e-portfolio has gone down well with some college members, such as Jill Seeney, a senior supervisor social worker in Surrey council’s fostering team. Seeney joined the college as an individual member back in December 2011, but has since signed up via Surrey’s corporate membership scheme. She has been taking part in information days about the college since becoming a member and says services such as the e-portfolio and Knowledge @ The College, where members can get expert advice on practice problems, are helping to make the college more appealing to social workers. “Awareness among social workers has definitely increased a lot since I started doing the information days,” she says. “I think, with the changes in CPD, people have to keep up to date with learning and training – and there’s a lot more interest in the college in relation to that.”
While the latest figure of nearly 13,000 members suggests the growth in college membership is accelerating, a good proportion have joined via the organisation’s corporate membership programme, which local authorities and higher education institutions sign up for; a fact that makes some doubt the college’s independence.
“The primary problem with the college for us is that they’ve been set up by government as a professional association, but they are funded primarily by government and by corporate membership from local authorities and universities,” says Bridget Robb, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), which has been one of the college’s more vocal critics.
Robb says some local authorities are now including in job descriptions for social work posts the requirement that applicants must be members of the college, while some universities are apparently urging students to join if they want to keep their jobs. “That feels a very uncomfortable model of professional membership, when people don’t have an option but to join,” says Robb.
Another concern is that the college is being part-funded by the government. “The very close relationship the college has with government clearly makes it a very different sort of college than those of other professions,” says Robb. “It feels like they are more like a traditional government-funded non-departmental public body, rather than an independent professional association.”
Others share those concerns. In a snap online poll of 188 Community Care readers carried out last week, a number of social workers expressed doubts about the college’s independence, particularly because of its ongoing reliance on government money. One respondent, a non-member, felt the college shies away from controversy as a result, commenting: “I don’t see how the college can speak out against government funding cuts when it is itself being funded by government.”
Cleary says the college is looking at how it can end its reliance on central government support. “Increasingly I see our sustainability being around our members, because it’s really important that we remain a member organisation,” she says. “In this current climate, one could not feel that one could rely on government funding for the future – even though they have been very supportive.
“At the moment we’ve made membership very reasonable for people, hoping that they will see the value of joining and accepting that social workers aren’t hugely paid for what they do. It’s a balance and an issue that any board looks at constantly. I also chair the National Skills Academy for Social Care and, again, it’s something the academy is constantly looking at.”
When asked whether the college will speak up about the social work proposals of the different political parties in the run up to the 2015 general election, Cleary says they will. “We will always be outspoken about what we think is right in terms of social work because, after all, we are social workers,” she says.
“What we have seen through the taskforce and Social Work Reform Board is some continuity, because all parties want good social work that delivers good outcomes for people; I don’t feel social work will become a political football in that respect. But you need the best social workers, need good CPD – that’s critical – and good supervision, so you need to invest in good social work. That’s the issue we will be pushing government on: invest in good social work and you will get good returns.”
The battle to improve social work’s image
In addition to its role in developing the practice of social workers, the college is charged with improving public understanding of social work and encouraging a more positive image of the profession in the media. But, of the 188 respondents to our poll, less than a third (54) felt the college had made headway on this issue. The comments of the remaining 134 included accusations that the college was “invisible” and failing to challenge criticism of social workers.
“It seems that the college is very reluctant to speak up, let alone speak out on behalf of social work, e.g. the recent attack made on social work and social workers by Michael Gove in his speech at the NSPCC,” said one. Others felt the college should have spoken out against Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming’s recent suggestion that parents suspected of child abuse should flee the country.
However, Cleary disagrees with the view that the college has failed to deliver on this aim: “I wouldn’t say there’s been a huge change, but I do think there’s been a shift in the media. It’s really difficult with some papers, but you do see change in some of the other newspapers and, particularly, with TV. I was on Sky just a couple of weeks ago when they were talking about what was happening with discharges of older people from hospital and it was very responsible. They were asking me about what social workers do and it wasn’t aggressive, it was genuinely can you help us understand what social workers do.
“On the Daniel Pelka serious case review, I did 10 radio interviews within two hours, I did a lot on the TV too. People are beginning to realise that social work may be the lead profession, but they are not the only profession that are involved in safeguarding.”
A difficult journey
Another area that the college has been grappling with is delivering on the Social Work Task Force’s belief that service users should have a strong influence on the college. While the college has now recruited two service users to its board, the task of finding them took months, hampered by the challenge of finding suitable candidates. But Cleary feels that the college has now overcome that challenge and promises that there will be more service user-related work in the pipeline. “Getting the right people was really important,” she says. “Also, we were successful much earlier in recruiting service users to our professional assembly and getting them involved in our faculties.”
While some question the college’s progress, Dame Moira Gibb, who chaired the Social Work Task Force and, later, the reform board, feels it is important for the profession to acknowledge that the creation of the college is a positive step in itself. Not all of its goals are going to be quick wins. “Quite often taskforces and working groups make their recommendations and they seem to be accepted, but never quite come to pass as you envisage them, so I’m very pleased, given the change of government since the taskforce, that we have a college,” says Gibb.
“We were always clear in the taskforce that a programme of reform wasn’t going to happen overnight and the one thing that we were trying to do was ensure that we have a safe, confident social work profession. It would be nice if [the college] were further ahead and more financially secure, but it’s had a much more difficult journey than I anticipated, particularly in the early days. But things like the appointment of a chief executive of the calibre of Annie Hudson have been fantastic.”
Two issues that reared their head early in the college’s life appear to have been particularly problematic. First, the bitter fallout from the collapse of merger talks between BASW and the college and, second, the tight financial climate the college was born into.
While the clash between BASW and the college has subsided, the scars remain. “The whole way the college was set up and the way it carries on running, continues to make it difficult to have any reconciliation,” says Robb. “It is certainly on my agenda to find ways we can work together, but that does mean significant changes in the way the college is currently working and, I suspect, some changes in how BASW works as well. We can’t repeat the fiasco of the last merger talks. There are some very, very raw feelings still, I know, in both organisations so this isn’t going to be a quick fix, but there may be opportunities to take small steps to find a way through this.”
Cleary hopes the row is now history: “I sincerely hope it’s in the past. Both organisations want the very best social work and the very best social work outcomes and we will always collaborate with BASW to achieve that – but a merger is no longer on the cards. We are different. They are a trade union and we are not.”
2014 and beyond
On the financial pressures, Cleary admits that the college would have had a better start in life if it launched prior to the onset of austerity measures. “Yes it would have been easier, undoubtedly,” she says. “Every organisation in the public sector is really struggling at the moment. It’s also a struggle for individual social workers to find the additional money to join the college, when the HCPC has just put up its registration fees. All of that is really difficult for us.
“It is tough, but it’s not undoable and I’ve been really pleased with how many people want to see this work and are really supporting us, not just in government but from the House of Lords to social workers of all levels. There’s a lot of goodwill to get this going.”
Cleary believes that the progress the college has made in its first two years should make membership an enticing offer for social workers, including the development of its magazine, communities of interest and insurance offer. As for next steps, she says a new push on adult social work is high on the agenda. “One of the things we’re doing at the moment is a summit on adult social work and that’s really critical, particularly with the Care Bill. There’s a real opportunity to restate the position and importance of social work in adult settings,” she says.
“Often adult social work has been regarded as bit of a Cinderella service. There’s a lot of attention on children and families, but adult social work is equally complex, challenging and demanding work. I want social workers to be really involved in looking at the implementation and practice guidelines that will come out of the work that the Department of Health under the chief social worker around the Care Bill.”
Other plans include the roles and tasks document that Cleary says will be “critical in defining what good social work is about”, more work with service users and a drive to extend the college’s endorsement scheme for higher education institutions.
For Gibb, who has kept a close eye on how the college is developing, the key thing now is for social workers to recognise the benefits a strong college and collective voice can bring to the profession. “Social workers should see it as part of their identity. I know times are tough, but you are part of a profession; you have to make a contribution, but it’s one you will benefit from in the long run.”