‘Badly led and rejected by the profession’: Emails reveal DfE’s damning verdict on College of Social Work

Stinging comments revealed in cache of government emails on College closure released under the Freedom of Information Act

  • Senior DfE official felt TCSW was ‘badly led’ and ‘rejected by profession’
  • Also claimed the College was considered ‘a failure’ by some children’s directors
  • TCSW financial issues primarily due to loss-making corporate membership scheme
  • College claims corporate membership push was considered a “sensible way forward” by government and cites lack of commitment from ministers
  • Documents also show government was unimpressed by ‘standard and pace’ of TCSW work
  • Financial woes of TCSW left it on brink of immediate insolvency
  • Immediate closure was staved off by £225k cash injection from DH
  • DH provided ‘wind down’ cash fearful of ‘chaotic’ impact of TCSW liquidation
  • Officials have held talks with Scie and Skills for Care over TCSW functions
  • Chief social worker for adults approached BASW to discuss its ‘offer’ in wake of TCSW closure

The College of Social Work was ‘badly led’, ‘rejected by the profession’ and was considered ‘a failure’ by some directors of children’s services, according to the Department for Education’s most senior social care official.

Paul Kissack, director general of social care at the Department for Education (DfE), made the comments in an email to colleagues on 17 June, a day before news broke that The College of Social Work (TCSW) was set to close due to a lack of funds.

The email set out a media handling plan to combat any “spin” from the College that its closure was “some kind of government betrayal”.

Kissack said the government should stress it had invested more than £8m in TCSW, yet the organisation’s leadership had failed to find a “viable financial model”.

“…which is a very polite way of saying we think it has been badly led i.e. with growing corporate membership actually deepening the financial problems and the board not really understanding their own finances,” Kissack wrote.

Rejected by the profession

In the email, Kissack also said that TCSW’s “low” membership numbers meant “it is the profession that has effectively rejected the College, not the government”.

He also claimed to “know DCSs [directors of children’s services] who think the College has been a failure, but they’re unlikely to speak publicly”.

The government also needed to come up with a “handling plan” for high profile sector figures who might be “disappointed” by the TCSW closure, including Professor Eileen Munro, Kissack said.

The dispatch is included in a tranche of correspondence related to the College’s closure that has been released by the Department of Health (DH) under the Freedom of Information Act.

The documents also reveal concerns within government the College was not delivering work at the “pace and standard” expected of a professional body and includes claims that only 1,000 of the 16,000 social workers signed-up to TCSW were “active members”.

Lack of committment

However, they also show that the College was viewed within the DH as having “helpfully profiled adult social work” and the DH had most to lose from the organisation’s closure.

In response to Kissack’s comments Chair of TCSW, Jo Cleary, said while government wanted the college to be a key element of the social work reform agenda, “sadly government’s commitment has not been maintained or been sufficient to create the strong and sustainable college that social work needs and deserves”.

She added that it should be remembered the corporate membership scheme was initiated in large part because the government had made it very clear it required the college to increase membership rapidly.

“Indeed at the time they considered it to be a positive and sensible way forward,” she said.

However, a DfE spokesperson said any suggestion the government was not wholeheartedly supportive of social work was untrue.

“The decision to stop funding the College was not taken lightly and follows investment of over £8m since its inception in 2009 to establish it as an independent organisation.”

The spokesperson said having high quality social work “must come first” and the government was working closely with the chief social workers and the profession to “champion and challenge” the sector. It was also working with the college to ensure an orderly transition of functions, she said.

The closure and threat of liquidation

On June 18, Community Care revealed the College was set to close due to a lack of funds. College leaders said the decision came after ministers rejected proposals to give TCSW more functions for post-qualifying training.

A leaked report subsequently revealed the organisation faced a £240,000 annual deficit. This was largely due to a corporate membership scheme that offered councils discounts of up to 66% on member fees in return for signing up their social workers to the College.

A week after news of the closure emerged, the College’s board announced it would shut by the end of September to allow for an “orderly” transition of its functions and resources.

However, the emails released under FOI show that the “orderly” wind down almost didn’t happen as a delay securing the funding needed to keep the College afloat until September saw the organisation come within hours of liquidation.

The documents reveal that:

  • On 24 June, College chair Jo Cleary emailed DH warning that if a deal on wind down funding wasn’t in place in time for an emergency board meeting taking place at 11am the next day, The College would face “insolvency liquidation there and then”.
  • The liquidation threat was staved off at the eleventh hour as terms were agreed on a £225,000 grant from DH to fund the ‘transition’ of the College’s government-commissioned work.
  • The DH made the payment after becoming concerned that the immediate closure of the College would be “chaotic” and pose a risk to health secretary Jeremy Hunt.
  • This risk lay in the fact Hunt had delegated to the College powers to carry out two key statutory functions on his behalf. If the College collapsed before the functions were transferred elsewhere, the legal duties would be left unmet.
  • The functions Hunt delegated were an endorsement scheme to approve best interests assessor training courses and a qualification verification scheme for social workers’ who trained prior to the social work degree.
  • The DH priority in the wind down is to find homes for those two “important” functions. Any other DH-commissioned projects carried out by the College could be re-tendered.

Talks with BASW, Scie and Skills for Care

The correspondence also reveals the options the government has considered to rehome some TCSW functions. Emails show that a day after news of The College’s closure broke, government officials held talks with both Skills for Care and the Social Care Institute for Excellence (Scie). Both organisations offered the DH their services to “help find somewhere to temporarily park TCSW activities”.

The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) has also been sounded out. On 6 July Lyn Romeo, the chief social worker for adults, wrote to BASW chief executive Bridget Robb saying that social workers had raised questions over “the offer” that BASW could make to practitioners who had been TCSW members.

Romeo told Robb that social workers had raised some concerns with her over BASW. One issue was a perceived “lack of inclusiveness” within BASW for differing political views and different views regarding professionalism. Another “key” factor, Romeo wrote, was that professionals wanted a body that could uphold practice standards.

“Do you think that BASW could change enough to make itself an attractive proposition to a much wider constituency in England?” Romeo asked.

Robb told Community Care they had had discussions with Romeo to clarify her meaning and had had discussions with Cleary and faculty chairs about whether BASW could offer a home to TCSW functions.

“These discussions are ongoing so would be inappropriate to discuss in further detail but BASW hopes that social workers within TCSW will see the professional association as their natural home for their work and allegiance.”

In a separate email sent to Jon Rouse, DH director general of social care, Romeo said the College had “helpfully profiled social work with adults” and this was something the government could initially struggle to get another organisation to do. That email, sent on 12 June, concerned fears within DH that The College’s cashflow problems put it at risk of immediate closure. Romeo said an immediate liquidation would “create particular difficulties across the sector”.

The financial woes

The documents also provide more details on the set of events that led up to the government deciding to withdraw support for the College. They show that:

  • The DH had originally planned to give The College £450,000 in grant funding in 2015-16.
  • However, in March – before any funding agreement for 2015-16 had been signed – The College approached the government to discuss its finances.
  • This led to the College conducting a review of its functions and business model (this was the report later leaked that revealed the £240,000 deficit).
  • The review would be completed by May and a report on its findings considered by DH and DfE officials. The officials would make recommendations on the College’s functions to ministers in June.
  • However, the process of reviewing the College’s functions unearthed the extent of the financial problems facing TCSW.
  • These financial concerns led the DH to decide that any decision on 2015-16 funding should be made by ministers once they had received the TCSW review findings.
  • The move meant the College would not hear if it had the money until ministers made a decision in June. Yet, TCSW had already been working on the basis that it would receive payments from DH in April and May.
  • An email sent by College chair Cleary to DH warned that the situation had “a disastrous subsequent impact on our cash flow” and TCSW’s finances were “precarious”.
  • The review of The College’s functions was completed in May. According to DH, it found that “even with the proposed level of government funding, the College would be running at a loss”.
  • On 11 June, civil servants submitted their recommendations to ministers. The officials sought approval to “stop funding the College as soon as is reasonably practical” and issue a one-off grant to ensure the transition of TCSW’s functions.
  • Six days later officials delivered the news to the College that the government was withdrawing support. A £225,000 grant for ‘wind down’ funding was later agreed to enable the College to close by the end of September.

The Department of Health’s FOI response stated: “The financial health of an organisation is a key factor in the decision to award government grant funding. In line with HM Treasury rules (Managing Public Money), the Department would not have been able to continue to provide grant funding to any organisation that is deemed to be financially unsustainable.

“The decision was therefore taken to reduce the Department’s planned funding to The College in 2015/16 to ensure an orderly transfer of its government funded work to other bodies and not to provide further funding in future years.”

The College of Social Work’s response in full:

All those involved in the endeavor to establish an independent College of social work have needed to exhibit huge commitment, tenacity, faith and strong leadership to enable it to realise its dual mission of promoting excellence and of being a strong and credible voice for social work. It was Government that wanted TCSW to be a key element of the social work reform agenda. Sadly Government’s commitment has not been maintained or been sufficient to create the strong and sustainable college that social work needs and deserves.  It also takes time for a new professional college to establish itself.The strategic functions review brought into very sharp relief the fact that Government was never willing to give TCSW the mandate and functions held by most other professional colleges. This meant that, from the outset, TCSW’s future survival was always going to be extremely challenging.  It was TCSW that instigated the strategic functions review in partnership with Government in March 2015 following DfE’s decision not to award the accreditation and assessment tender to TCSW. That decision made it very clear that our survival was at very great risk.

It should also be remembered that the corporate membership scheme was initiated in large part because Government had made it very clear that they required TCSW to increase membership rapidly. Indeed at the time they considered it to be a positive and sensible way forward.

As people and organisations ruminate on the whys and wherefores of TCSW’s closure, those directly involved in The College are dealing with its demise with dignity and will not be drawn into unhelpful and destructive speculation about what might have been.  The need for a strong and independent voice for social work is as crucial as ever and no less important than when the Social Work Taskforce recommended its establishment six years ago.  We now have to move on.  Up and down the country, social workers are continuing to protect, help and empower vulnerable people to live better lives.  For our part, we are determined to make sure that TCSW’s good legacy is protected and secured.

Keep up to date with the events following the closure of The College of Social Work with our dedicated page.

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