The College of Social Work closes at the end of this month and will spend its final weeks handing over the functions and resources it had, that were independent of government control, to the British Association of Social Workers (BASW).
Three years ago, this would have been unthinkable as the two organisations battled over who should take the profession forward into the new era heralded by the Social Work Reform Board recommendations.
That’s a shame considering how the organisation have behaved. Can’t pretend I’m anything but pessimistic about this https://t.co/7J6KM8r0Nj
— Ermintrude (@Ermintrude2) August 20, 2015
But by and large social workers and sector leaders have welcomed the news. A Community Care snapshot survey of 252 respondents found almost two thirds (60%) approved of BASW taking on the functions.
In reality, the resources handed over to BASW are pitifully small. The Professional Capabilities Framework (PCF), developed by the Social Work Reform Board, has been seen by many as the most significant element.
But there are questions over how relevant or used the PCF will continue to be in light of the knowledge and skills statements released by the two chief social workers.
Much may depend on what BASW now decides to do with the PCF. Bridget Robb, chief executive of BASW, says it is early days.
“Clearly we are taking things on from the College that were run in a particular way. We need to understand from all those directly involved, such as employers and universities for example, how the PCF was used, what value it brings and then look at what value it could bring, for example in a UK wide context.
“This will all form part of future dialogue with existing BASW members and new members. We hope that College members feel that BASW can not only take on the College functions but also become the home where all social workers can feel comfortable.”
Convincing former College members to now sign up to BASW is now likely to be one of the association’s primary goals. BASW’s membership, already on the rise in 2014, has jumped in the last 12 months from 17,000 to 18,500, but it still remains a small proportion of the 89,033 social workers registered across the UK.
Numbers are important because they are the basis for BASW’s financial, and therefore political, independence from government, which many see as its primary strength.
According to its five-year plan, 2020 Vision, BASW spent the last year consolidating the relationship between the professional association (which provides professional indemnity insurance, conferences and networking events) and the Social Worker’s Union (its advice and representation side, which members can opt in to). It also set up a charitable arm – the BASW Trust – which currently includes its benevolent trusts and sponsors research; it is due to take on an education and training remit.
How these three organisations interact and grow in future will be crucial, particularly when it comes to the least tangible part of the resources the College is handing over – the opportunity to negotiate with the faculties and professional assembly of the college to provide a home and space for their work.
College faculty negotiations
Despite its vagueness Ray Jones, professor of social work at Kingston University, says this may well be the most valuable element of the package.
“This was always the biggest advantage the College had over BASW – because the faculties had attracted a number of leading social work figures, both academic and managerial, who committed a great deal of time, energy and expertise within the faculties.”
Brigid Featherstone, children and families faculty chair, agrees.
“Although we didn’t have a strong research or policy unit, we had a huge mass of intellect and expertise. On the children’s faculty we had [Professor Eileen] Munro, [Professor Sue] White,[Emeritus Professor June] Thoburn. These were experienced practitioners and when responding to government policies and consultations we could say ‘but the evidence shows’ because we had often done the research ourselves.”
The faculty structure is a new entity for BASW to grapple with and Robb is cautious about committing BASW to anything at the moment.
“This is obviously an area where BASW is active but in a different way to the faculty system. We will have to consult with members now about how and what structures we use to take this forward.
“In the meantime we are having dialogue to understand their [the college faculties and professional assembly] expectations and commitments and what of these we can support in the short term, while we gradually converge to a single structure for the future.”
Featherstone says the negotiations between the faculties and BASW is unlikely to be easy but she is also convinced a suitable solution will be found.
“We are very committed to having that dialogue and finding a way to bring what we learned to BASW to strengthen it as an organisation.”
There is no doubt BASW brings real advantages to the table for the faculties, particularly in its size, increased resources and a careful focus on sustainability that has meant it has remained financially independent from government, in contrast to so many social work organisations.
Jones believes in order to attract both faculty and professional members and those social workers yet to be convinced, BASW must have greater transparency between the role of its union arm and that of its professional association arm.
Gerry Nosowska, adults faculty chair, says this will be an important element of any negotiation between BASW and the faculties.
There are organisations that can do both successfully, such as the College of Occupational Therapists. But there is a difference between a union and a professional college and there needs to be consideration of that around the governance.”
She says a professional association must have the pursuit of excellence as its primary goal. Any future structure should also allow members to feel free to pursue the strengthening of the profession in their own way.
Robb says discussions about how the union and charitable arm of the organisation interact were already in train before the College closure and have now “been given new relevance”.
Negotiating with government
In the Community Care poll, more than 90% said the primary function of a College of Social Work should be to negotiate with government on all social work policy. This was rated as even higher than boosting professional standards.
Robb says BASW has always seen this as an essential part of its remit, but she acknowledges it is an area where membership numbers matter.
“It would be great if the government could not dismiss any one organisation by saying ‘well you only represent this percentage of social workers’. So critical mass is very important.
“The next thing is to ensure we engage with government providing reasoned, not knee-jerk responses.”
This is perhaps where BASW has been seen as identifying more as a union in its approach, than a professional organisation, often taking a very combative approach to the government on a wide range of issues.
There are likely to be many social workers who did not sign up to either BASW or the College because of workload or apathy. But there is also a number who have not immediately transferred their allegiance because they are not convinced BASW represents all of social work.
In emails released under a Freedom of Information request, the adults’ chief social worker, Lyn Romeo, emailed Robb about concerns raised with her “re what they perceive as a lack of inclusiveness [in BASW] for differing political views and different views re professionalism and what it means in social work”.
“Do you think BASW could change enough to make itself an attractive proposition to a much wider constituency in England?”
Social Workers Assembly and BASW
The Social Workers Assembly came into being largely because a number of social workers gathered on social media, shocked by the demise of the College and unconvinced BASW could fill the gap.
In a statement to Community Care, the Assembly, while supporting the idea of a single organization to speak for social work, issued a five-point challenge to BASW – asking it to examine:
- their role in promoting social work, not just social workers.
- how to involve service users more in the development of social work.
- how to have a clear regional structure that empowers social workers in their localities.
- how the Social Workers Assembly could remain active alongside or as part of BASW.
- how to develop a clear, distinctive and credible voice with government (whatever its political makeup) and working with the chief social worker’s to ensure social work is represented effectively.
Robb is clear that BASW’s main strength over the past few years has been in deciding its direction only after wide consultation with members.
“In terms of the future, we created our vision document in consultation with members. Since then our membership has grown rapidly and I want to talk to those new members as well as service users and carers and those involved in the college to explore how and where BASW should go in the future.
“The added value of the experience and knowledge of the new people coming in of course changes an organisation, but we consult with members before we commit to change.”
Featherstone is still upset that social workers did not join the College, calling it an “abdication of responsibility”. But she hopes lessons can be learned and social workers will sign up in sufficient numbers to make BASW, and therefore social work, an organisation difficult to ignore.
“Hopefully if we can mesh the best of the College with some of BASW’s real strengths then people will feel they are getting more for their membership money and see better reasons to sign up.”