A lot of social workers in England feel under attack from the government, and with good reason.
You have not been meaningfully consulted on an overhaul of how your profession operates. You face the prospect of ministers controlling the way you are regulated and having the final say on your professional standards. You face tests of your skills, without being asked what those should look like.
A lot of these changes wouldn’t even be suggested, let alone tolerated, in other health and care professions such as medicine and nursing. You have every right to be angry about it.
Why is this happening? In a large part, it is down to a breakdown in government’s trust in the profession’s ability to shape its own future. And a large part of that mistrust stems from the factors that forced the College of Social Work to close last year, just two years after opening its doors and having received £8m in public funding.
In the wake of the shocking news of The College’s closure, many in the profession clutched at a tempting narrative – this was the government’s fault, ministers had pulled funding to seize another chance to attack social work and rob it of a professional body standing up for professionals’ interests.
It was a story the College’s leadership did little to discourage. It was also untrue and if social workers are to respond to the current government agenda it’s important to learn from what actually happened.
No sinister plot
The roots of the College’s demise lie not in government plots to undermine social workers. Instead errors in the organisation’s strategy, accountancy and financial governance had the biggest impact.
Ministers’ decision to withdraw backing was made after the College’s leaders presented the findings of a warts-and-all review of the organisation in May 2015. The review, which remains unpublished but a copy of which has been seen by Community Care, made grim reading. One part contains the paragraphs that effectively sealed the College’s fate. Here’s a summary:
- The College had racked up an annual deficit of more than £240,000 by 2014-15.
- This was largely the result of a flawed corporate membership offer, which made a “very significant loss” – almost equal to the deficit itself.
- The scale of financial trouble had been masked by accounting errors that had treated corporate member payments covering multiple years, as recurrent yearly cash flow.
- The corporate membership offer had offered heavy discounts on member fees to local authorities in return for them signing up their social workers to the College.
- The College’s accommodation costs were high and placed an “undue burden” on its finances (a decision by TCSW to lease offices in the Royal College of General Practitioners’ plush central London HQ cost £200,000).
- The organisation also faced bills for expensive IT systems that “were not fit for purpose”.
- The College website crashed if more than 50 of its 17,000 members logged in at the same time, described in the report as a “worryingly low” number.
- The standard of the College’s outputs varied in quality “with some not being the highest quality that they can and need to be”.
On the brink
So when The College came asking ministers to make an “unambiguous” gesture of support by giving TCSW more functions, including responsibility for accreditation of social workers, they wanted government to put faith in an organisation on the brink of insolvency. On the brink of insolvency despite having had £5m of public funds to set up and more than £1m in annual support since.
Not only this, but civil servants were unconvinced by the quality of the College’s work and had doubts about the level of backing the organisation had from professionals.
Despite charging social workers just £5 a month to join, too few did (many social workers currently lobbying for an independent social work body, rather than the government-controlled one on the table, must ask themselves why they didn’t join the College?).
So the College missed its own early membership targets. Boosting numbers became the priority. Hence the introduction of the financially ruinous corporate membership offer. Corporate deals inflated membership to 17,000 but the DfE, rightly or wrongly, estimated only around 1,000 of these were really engaged with The College’s mission.
The College’s leaders claimed awarding TCSW new functions would make its membership offer far more compelling. It was an argument with some merit but came too late, given the scale of the financial mess facing the organisation. It also negated the fact the College’s previous strategy was based on building a membership without those functions. Not only had that strategy failed, but huge errors in delivering it had put the entire financial viability of the organisation at risk.
So the organisation closed and the government and TCSW’s leaders turned to damage limitation. A £250,000 bail out, allowing the College to wind down rather than go bust, was agreed.
A tragic end to a promising project
The damning report was kept secret. The thousands of social workers, and scores of councils, who’d paid fees to the College, sought answers. They were largely met with spin from the government and the College leaders, each trying to subtly blame the other for the closure while steering away from the damaging truth for fear of mutual embarrassment.
It was a tragic end to a promising project – social work’s first professional college. The sterling work, and there was a lot of it, of the staff and social workers who contributed to the organisation and its faculties should not be forgotten. But nor should the uncomfortable realities at the root of the College’s demise be ignored.
This was not a sinister government plot. It was a failure in financial governance and strategy at a social work organisation that had been backed to set up as independent and professionally-owned but ended up reliant on government cash to survive because too few social workers forked out to back it.
Social workers will be tempted to write this episode off as history and irrelevant to current pressures facing the profession. It is not. The College’s demise has had a direct impact on the government’s approach to current reforms and its distrust of funding sector-led, independent approaches. The profession must acknowledge the problem if it is to respond effectively.