Why it’s worth hanging on to a UK-wide concept of social work

We must not let social work in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales drift too far apart, says Bridget Robb, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers (BASW)

Bridget Robb
BASW chief executive Bridget Robb

Comedian Stewart Lee has a peerless routine in his current BBC series in which he pursues a parody of “the UKIPs” resisting not just the recent East European migration to the UK, but any movement of people or creatures through the ages, whether the Huguenots of the 1600s, Anglo-Saxons in the 5th century, or even the earliest amphibians and their ventures onto dry land before the dawn of civilisation.

Nigel Farage’s anti-change political party might be expected to find some solace, then, in the current trend within social work towards a more restricted labour market in the UK, with greater barriers on movement for professionals who once were free to take their skills across borders – and that’s even before Scotland arrives at any conclusions over potential independence later this year.

Put simply, devolution and an ever more divergent political and regulatory landscape in each of the four countries means social workers can no longer assume an ability to work across the UK.

BASW is in regular contact with the regulators and policymakers in all four parts of the UK and our national offices are regularly engaged with politicians and regulators in London, Belfast, Edinburgh and Cardiff. Our concern is that the demise of any remaining notion of “UK social work” means the loss of benefits we have long taken for granted: the ability to deploy specialist social work skills throughout the UK, for a student to have their training recognised wherever they wish to work and for the free exchange of ideas and experiences across our internal borders.

Diverging registration requirements

Social work regulation is devolved throughout the UK, overseen by the Heath and Care Professions Council (HCPC) in England, the Care Council for Wales (CCW), the Northern Ireland Social Care Council (NISCC) and the Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC). The four regulators meet regularly, sharing a memorandum of understanding in relation to the regulation of social workers and the approval of social work education across the UK.

However, new variants are inexorably dragging the profession in differing directions, according to the bit of the UK in which a social worker practises. For example, discussions with the devolved regulators suggest it is unlikely that the high-profile “fast-track” training programme Frontline – which is due to be launched this summer in England – will be recognised as a suitable qualification for registration as a social worker in Wales, Northern Ireland or Scotland, because it does not meet minimum standards.

The two recent reviews of social work education in England by Professor David Croisdale-Appleby and Sir Martin Narey signal further bespoke developments. Croisdale-Appleby proposes a system of revalidation, with social workers undergoing “comprehensive formal appraisal” at least every five years to show they remain fit to practise. Isabelle Trowler, the chief social worker for children and families in England, is already exploring proposals for a licence test and revalidation scheme for children’s social workers.

Under Croisdale-Appleby’s proposals, a revalidation scheme would replace the current system of re-registration with the HCPC and builds on a proposal to make the Assessed and Supported Year in Employment (ASYE) compulsory for newly-qualified social workers in England, requiring them to pass a formal assessment in order to receive a license to practise. However, while the ASYE in England owes much to an earlier assessed year programme rolled out in Northern Ireland, the models vary as much as they coincide, giving us more, not less, divergence.

Further differences

Narey’s report retained the principle of generic qualification, but only just, and his plan for social worker training to specialise after the first year of study again opens up more scope for social work in England to deviate from its equivalents in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Add to that his idea for The College of Social Work (TCSW) to become the single regulator of social work courses and of social workers, and there is yet more potential for barriers to movement within the UK.

For instance, while the HCPC has an England-only remit for social work regulation, its systems and processes are integrated into a UK-wide remit for all of the other professions it regulates. It is also closely allied to developments within professional regulation in Europe. Equally, the notion of TCSW assuming regulatory responsibility for social work in England would, as long as it seeks a role as a professional association, undermine a key tenet that has united regulation across the UK – that the profession must not be self-regulated. Self regulation is a failed model, one that is bad for the public and the profession.

The legislative framework for social work provision in Scotland and Northern Ireland has been different for a long time, and now Wales, too, is well underway in developing its own distinctive characteristics, exemplified by making the Social Services Bill one of the first pieces of bespoke legislation to be taken forward by the Welsh Assembly Government. England continues to go its own way for social work, but in several directions – the Home Office has now joined the list of government departments engaged with social work following the move by Cafcass into its area of work.

Retaining a UK dimension

It seems inevitable that we are well on the way to a situation where training as a social worker in one part of the UK will not entitle you to work in another – something already intimated by the models of registration now employed. For many social workers engaged in the daily pressures of practice, whether in Dundee, Derry, Denbigh or Dudley, the concept of a “UK social worker” may be largely inconsequential, but for those contemplating their study options, for those operating near an internal border, or for independents used to applying their specialist experiences widely, the impact is tangible and significant.

BASW, working with the UK government and others, is engaged in lobbying for social work to be included in a European Passports scheme for professional workers. Through this initiative it is just possible that we will be able to use European laws to enable social workers to operate across the UK, regardless of which of our four countries trained them or where they are employed.

This would be welcome. For all its many and growing variations, and notwithstanding the referendum this September in Scotland, it is to be hoped that we can retain a UK dimension to social work practice in the years to come. Just as Britain wouldn’t be the same place today without the silk weaving of the Huguenots or the language introduced by the Anglo Saxons, so too social work in the UK is the sum of what all of its constituent parts have brought to it over generations.

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.