The College’s demise poses uncomfortable questions for social work

Insufficient membership lies at the heart of the closure of The College of Social Work. The profession must now ask why more of its number did not join

The shock news that The College of Social Work will be closing due to financial difficulties has understandably left the profession seeking answers.

Our inbox has already received the following views:

  • “The government is to blame for cutting College funding.”
  • “The College is to blame for being too reliant on, and scared to stand up to, government.”
  • “The embarrassing row with BASW that plagued The College’s early development turned social workers off their professional bodies.”
  • “The cost of joining at a time of low public sector pay and other fees was too high”.
  • “The College was too removed from the front line and too dominated by academics.”
  • “The move is part of a government agenda to privatise or kill off social work entirely.”

Rush to apportion blame

This rush to apportion blame in order to try and make sense of unexpected events is understandable. It is human nature. But in truth the factors behind The College’s demise will be complex. In coming days and weeks the outpouring of anger, sadness and shock of the past 24 hours must make way for a more considered, forensic and probably highly uncomfortable analysis of why social work’s first ever professional college is to shut its doors after less than four years in business.

Amid a lot of lingering questions, here are two certainties: the mission given to The College by the Social Work Task Force – “to give the profession itself strong, independent leadership” – was, and remains, vital; but the taskforce’s view of an ‘independent’ body also included financial independence. And The College, for whatever reason, never found a financially sustainable business mode model to deliver that.

Yesterday’s announcement is the culmination of a deterioration in The College’s finances that left it concluding it could no longer run as a going concern.

Government funding, or an increasing lack of it, was unquestionably a factor and there were warning signs that backing for The College in parts of Whitehall was cooling. The College’s accounts for 2014-15 show that Department of Health funding rose from £500,000 to £600,000 last year but Department of Education funding dropped from £828,000 to £600,000.

The College of Adult Social Work

This year The College has picked up contracts for adult social work development work from the Department of Health, and received backing in the chief social worker for adults’ knowledge and skills statement. But it has been passed over for a number of Department for Education projects. As one person with knowledge of the situation remarked, only half jokingly, the cold shoulder The College was increasingly getting from children’s policy makers meant “it felt like they might be left as The College of Adult Social Work”.

Lack of membership

However, the task force envisaged that the College would have near universal membership. But at the last count, about 16,500 social workers had joined out of more than 80,000 registered social workers in England.

Why did the member numbers needed not materialise? Why would enough social workers not pay out £5 a month to lend their voice to their professional college? The reasons will be plenty. But they need to be confronted and understood, no matter how tempting it is to lay all the blame at the government’s door.

One possible reason may have been the lack of a clear incentive to join, in terms of access to accredited post-qualifying training and, consequently, progression in your job. This is something that the medical royal colleges provide and one of the additional functions that The College was looking to secure from government to stave off its demise. This was rejected by ministers.

Soul searching

That should all be part of the soul searching that will come in coming weeks as social work takes stock of developments and works out how to respond. That exercise must not only focus on the failures of The College but also learn from its achievements.

The College has, after all, been the custodian and driving force behind moves to take much of the Social Work Reform Board recommendations forward. It has developed the Professional Capabilities Framework, has ensured that social work’s voice has been heard in government consultations on landmark changes such as the Care Act and Children and Families Act, and produced a string of useful practice resources.

And whatever your view of The College, credit must go to the groups of social workers old and new who – often on top of their day-to-day- practice – have put their time, blood, sweat and tears into trying to build an independent organisation that the profession could be proud of. Respect must also be given to The College’s full-time staff. They worked hard day in day out to promote the views of social work at a time of huge turmoil for the sector. Yesterday’s news of closure must have been incredibly hard and distressing. Our thoughts go out to them all.

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.