The Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) has warned there would be “considerable cost implications” for social workers if responsibility for regulation transferred to The College of Social Work (TCSW), as recommended by Martin Narey in his recent review of social work education.
The HCPC’s council met on Thursday to discuss the recommendations in Narey’s report, which was commissioned by the Department for Education (DfE), and those made by David Croisdale-Appleby in his parallel, Department of Health (DH)-commissioned review.
Narey argued that there was no need for a separate professional membership body and regulator in social work and recommended transferring the HCPC’s regulatory functions to TCSW.
But, in a briefing paper under consideration by the HCPC’s council on Thursday, the regulator fought back against Narey’s conclusions, claiming the registration fee paid by social workers in England could triple if TCSW took over.
It pointed out that the government has previously estimated that every social worker would have had to pay between £232 and £274 per year to register with the General Social Care Council, had it become an independent, self-financing regulator.
Instead, the government opted in 2012 to transfer the responsibility for regulating social workers to the HCPC , which, as a multi-profession regulator, benefit from economies of scale. The HCPC’s fee is £76, rising to £80 from 1 April 2014.
The HCPC also strongly refuted Narey’s argument that there was no need to separate the main functions of the two organisations.
“[TCSW’s] role is to develop and nurture the profession; our role, which is complementary, is to protect the public,” said HCPC chair Anna van der Gaag at the council meeting. The HCPC noted that this view was broadly shared by Croisdale-Appleby.
A generic degree
The HCPC also expressed concern at Narey’s recommendation to keep the degree generic, but make it easier for students to specialise in children’s social work at an earlier stage.
“While Narey does not suggest a ‘split at registration’, we might question whether the extent of specialisation he suggests would produce a ‘generic’ social worker in anything other than name,” said the HCPC’s briefing paper.
“A student who undertook only placements in children’s social work would arguable graduate with the demonstrated ability to work with a narrow client group, limiting their employability in other settings.”
Both Narey and Croisdale-Appleby were critical of the HCPC’s standards of education and training. Narey concluded that TCSW’s criteria for endorsing social work education programmes should replace the HCPC’s standards, while Croisdale-Appleby recommended combining the two.
The HCPC said it was already engaged in a review of its standards, with a discussion paper due to be brought before its education and training committee in September.
But it rejected the idea of making any immediate changes, given it is still in the process of visiting and formally approving all social work programmes in England. Visits are taking place over three academic years to 2014-15.
“It wouldn’t be appropriate to make changes while visits are ongoing,” said van der Gaag.
Narey said the standards were not sufficiently demanding of education providers, but the HCPC pointed out that none of the programmes visited to date were approved without conditions attached. “Programmes have had to make changes in order to come up to standard,” said the briefing paper.
The approval process
The two reviews also picked holes in the HCPC’s process for approving programmes.
However, the HCPC said some of the conclusions were based on factual inaccuracies. For example, it said Narey’s observation that the HCPC’s approval visits last ‘just a day and a half’ and are solely based on documents was “less than a complete description of the end-to-end process”.
In terms of practice placements, the HCPC said it was too early to assess the impact of the HCPC’s standards and approval process on this area of social work education.
“Students have only been on the approved programmes for six months, so it’s difficult to see if what we have done has had any impact,” pointed out an HCPC employee at the council meeting.
Licence to practise and revalidation
Croisdale-Appleby recommended the creation of a probationary first year in employment for newly qualified social workers (NQSWs), the successful completion of which would lead to a licence to practise. This would build on the assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE).
He also also recommended introducing a process of revalidation, where social workers would have to prove their continuing fitness to practise every five years.
According to the DfE, chief social worker for children and families, Isabelle Trowler, is already looking into developing such a system, in children’s services at least.
The HCPC pointed out that the system of revalidation in medicine is “in its relative infancy”, and as such an evaluation of its efficacy has yet to be completed.
It also explained that its own re-registration process, during which a selection of social workers’ continuing professional development (CPD) profiles are audited, takes place every two years.
The HCPC will be commissioning two pieces of work this year, one to look at the cost, benefits and outcomes of the CPD audits to date, the other to establish the views and experiences of stakeholders who have interacted with or who have an interest in the CPD process. This work will inform a review of the CPD standards and audit process.
Marc Seale, chief executive of the HCPC, noted that the Law Commission’s final report and draft bill on the regulation of health and social care professionals is due to be published next week and is expected to include the possibility of regulators introducing a licence to practise. However, it would still be for Parliament to decide whether to change the law.
“A lot of the recommendations in these reports would require changes to primary legislation,” said Seale, adding that the Law Commission’s draft bill and the DH’s reaction to it would provide a clearer indication of the direction of travel when it comes to regulating social workers in the future.