By Guy Shennan
The demise of the College of Social Work has caused concern among social workers everywhere, both college members, BASW members and non-members, in England and beyond.
Social workers are worried about what it means and what it says about the government’s intentions towards social work.
The withdrawal of government support for the college follows other deeply worrying actions: from the outsourcing the accreditation of social workers to the private sector to announcing a consultation on plans to imprison social workers for failing to protect children.
Crucial to stand together
These actions are also taking place in the context of a renewal of savage austerity policies, the impact of which social workers are seeing daily on the lives of those who use and need their services.
It is crucial now that as social workers we unite and stand together against these attacks.
Encouragingly, in the midst of this difficult transitional period, while the College is overseeing its closure, there are signs of this much-needed unity starting to take shape.
Example of collective action
Two days after the news broke that the College would be closing, social workers took to the streets of London and Glasgow to call for an end to austerity.
In London we walked within the Social Workers and Service Users Against Austerity bloc, which had been brilliantly put together by Kirk Michael-Lewis, a social work student from Wales.
It was a great example of how a grassroots initiative can lead to the mobilisation of an alliance of social work organisations. Members of BASW, the Social Work Action Network (SWAN), the College of Social Work and the Association of Professors of Social Work all marched towards Parliament Square together.
Then, just over two weeks later, when BASW Council met to consider our response to the College closure, high on the agenda was how we could strengthen our alliances and partnerships to promote the best interests of the profession and service users.
While we had already emphasised the importance of developing alliances in our recently-launched 2020 Vision, the present situation made it all the more urgent that we take concrete action on this.
To this end, we decided to convene a summit of interested organisations from the social work community, together with service user and carer groups, to take place in the Autumn.
This will enable us to continue the process of working together to promote and to reclaim our ownership of social work as social work professionals and educators.
Thirdly, and hugely encouragingly, a meeting has recently taken place involving representatives of a number of organisations for social work, social workers and social work educators.
Fittingly, this originated in conversations that happened while we were marching against austerity.
BASW and SWAN convened the meeting, we were also joined by representatives of UNISON as well the academic world including the Joint University Council- Social Work Education Committee, the Universities and Colleges Union and the Association of Professors of Social Work.
I don’t think I am exaggerating if I call this an historic meeting. The desire of all to work together was palpable, and the fruits of this joint working should be seen soon, for example in the development of a social work charter, and in a joint conference that we discussed should follow the planned summit.
Although this meeting was precipitated by the current crisis relating to social work in England, one thing we noted was that all our organisations are UK-wide.
We need social work unity within each country of the UK, and it is important too that there is unity across the four countries.
From there the unity needs to spread internationally, and here again this has already begun.
The European Association of Schools of Social Work, through their president, Nino Zganec, and vice president, Vasilios Ioakimedes, made contact with me prior to this joint meeting to extend their solidarity and support to social workers and social work educators in the UK. Their recent conference also endorsed a statement in solidarity with UK colleagues.
As the UK’s member of the International Federation of Social Workers, BASW will be working to develop this solidarity further – with a great opportunity coming our way at the IFSW Europe Conference in Edinburgh in September.
I don’t think the value of collective action can be over-estimated.
It has always surprised me that as social workers we seem to have been suspicious of it, so that only a minority of us have ever been members of a professional association.
Yet the clue to what distinguishes us from other helping professions is surely in our name – it is our focus on the social.
We are keenly aware of the social origins of the difficulties people have and we should be as aware of the importance of the social in the remedies of the ills that face us.
I have always been a great believer in joining the organisations relevant to my roles as well as in working in cross-organisational alliances and this has never seemed as vital as it does now.
Guy Shennan is the chair of the British Association of Social Workers (BASW)