Social work’s development is best built from the grassroots

The children's minister is right to question what developmental body social workers need - and BASW is key to getting the right answer

Picture: Julien Eichinger/fotolia

by Ruth Allen

I took up post as chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) in April with many ideas about change and one simple thought at the forefront; society needs great social work, and social work needs an excellent professional body if it is to make the greatest difference in people’s lives.

Recently children’s minister Edward Timpson has posed the question of what post-qualifying and developmental body is needed for social work in England, to complement the work of a new regulator. He is correct to do so – and BASW is key to getting the right answer.

Since qualifying as a social worker in 1994 I have most often worked within integrated settings with health colleagues. I have seen those colleagues often benefit from and be proud of their membership of well-established associations, societies and colleges.

I have personally wanted a large, unified body that could speak for and about social work and provide a platform for us to lead on the issues that matter most to us and to those we work with. One that promotes our collective identity and challenges us to come up with the best ideas from within the profession, not have them imposed from without.

Lessons from elsewhere

The lesson from other professions is that the bodies that have been most successful in the long term have often been developed from the grassroots over a long period of time. They have frequently changed and developed in their form, status and functions. This is the case for the medical Royal Colleges, the Royal College of Nursing and the British Association of Occupational Therapists.

BASW is such a grassroots organisation, having been in existence since 1970, driven by and responsive to its members. We have an excellent position to build from.

We have organisational strength, financial sustainability, an ambitious development programme and a clear vision laid out in our 2020 Vision statement – to be the strong, independent voice of social work and social workers across the four nations of the UK. Our membership is nearing 22,000, with record growth of 14% last year. We have had success in influencing national policies, such as our powerful and thoughtful influence on amendments to the Children and Social Work Bill.

BASW needs to keep changing and growing if we are to ensure we are the organisation that all social workers in the UK want to join, stay with, shape and rely upon. We will grow and adapt while remaining, at core, the reliable and steady voice of ethical, excellent practice.

Building partnerships

Close to my heart is the vital importance of further developing a wide array of partnerships and alliances with others across the social work sector, and also, crucially, with people who use and experience social work services, and who may be denied them in this time of public service austerity.

We also have an increasingly diverse and empowered membership and part of my role and commitment is to provide the infrastructure to support their talents, knowledge and skills. I want BASW to be the ‘engine room’ where members can get involved, work with each other and, in formal and informal groups, lead and produce resources and guidance to the sector.

Through this we will have increasing impact on matters of ethics, social justice, human rights and practice quality, nationally and internationally. And we will make tangible our belief that social workers must lead their own profession, its standards and claims to knowledge.

Like many professional bodies we want to be, as far as possible, a ‘one stop shop’ for what people need for their successful professional life. This will change over time with the demands of job roles, expectations upon practice and policy changes. We need to be able to respond as well as provide continuity. We have many of the building blocks in place having come through various stages of development over 40 years. We are poised for the next phase.

Investing in CPD

We are investing in the expansion of our professional development and education functions. This is alongside our increasing activities to commission and produce high quality research, practice guidance and expert advice.

We will offer a framework for continuing professional development for England and are keen to work with all parts of the sector to determine how that profession-led framework should look.  We now host the professional capabilities framework and will ensure that it will be refreshed, relevant and alive to the demands of the social workers in all settings.

While social workers will develop specialist skills and make choices about their professional focus, the PCF will continue to embody the unity of the profession, providing common defining domains and guidance on levels of common capability and maturity of practice.

To take our vision forward, we will need our partners to help shape and deliver this. What we develop needs to be felt and understood across the social work sector. I look forward to reaching out widely and having these discussions with colleagues. And I invite anyone from any social work, social care, service user, carer or other organisation with a stake in a strong professional body for social workers to get in touch. We need to talk!

Ruth Allen is chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers

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4 Responses to Social work’s development is best built from the grassroots

  1. Maharg November 16, 2016 at 11:00 am #

    You get my vote on this. Over the years we have had a succession of well meaning government ministers telling us how good it will be, as long as we sign up to their vision of Utopia and adhere to there tramlines of advice. I recognised that we should be fit for the job and fit for purpose. However, I also perceive our purpose is being eroded and channelled into different avenues.

    This may not suit everybody, but then again, what in the current present and in the past has.

  2. Robert November 16, 2016 at 3:40 pm #

    USA social worker here. I applaud the clearness of your vision. If there is one thought for the BASW I would wish it is monetary support from your Social workers throughout the country. Whether or not we would agree with BASW as our representative – it is better that control reside with Social workers. I pay significant dues to my USA organization. It keeps our functionality less subject to the gales of political intervention whose motives are governance and not necessarily the welfare of the most needy. That concern is our vocation. Wishing you and the BASW the absolute best. (30 years a social worker)

  3. Ellie November 16, 2016 at 10:29 pm #

    At last! You seem finally to have heard me! Just HOW LONG have I been banging on about this – just HOW MANY posts have I written to Community Care, stating that Social Work needed a professional body just like Nursing and Medicine? I’ve lost track of the number of times that I have made this point, and made comparisons between Social Work and other health care professions. It is good that somebody is FINALLY taking my points on board.

    It is important that every Public Sector profession has its own body of representation – professional bodies, or colleges, that work in the best interests of the profession they are supposed to represent. Where Social Work has, in my eyes, seriously got it wrong is in the following respect…

    Both medicine and nursing have been seriously active and vociferous in terms of championing their “Royal Colleges”. Organizations like the RCN are both massive, and very well known. Not only that, but they have gone out of their way to forge links (sometimes questionable ones) with big business, with the media, with advertising companies… in a way that BASW never has. In this sense, for a start, BASW missed the metaphorical trick! It is well known that medical and nursing professional bodies hob-nob with anyone and everyone who can raise their prestige; they go out of their way to deliberately cultivate links with other organizations, and businesses, that not only help them maintain their gilded image as “heroes and angels” (even if this is actually sometimes a fake image). They also deliberately cultivate links with individuals and organizations that can raise the profile of their profession; get it publicity; secure it funding; push for better working conditions; secure placements, apprenticeships or even jobs for trainees and qualified staff… I am not aware that this has occurred in Social Work.

    The other BIG difference is that, compared to BASW, organizations like the RCN, and medical professional bodies, go out of their way to make themselves known to workers in that profession. They deliberately reach out to, and in a sense, target students, trainees and newly qualified staff by asking them explicitly to join their organization. I have met many people in the course of my social, and professional, life who were Doctors or Nurses. ALL have told me that, upon qualification, they were contacted by their professional organization asking if they would join it. Nurses, upon qualifying as nurses (for example) are automatically contacted by the RCN with a request to join it. When I qualified as a Social Worker, by contrast, I received NO such invitation or, indeed, information from BASW. In fact, at the time I was not even aware that BASW existed, because NOBODY had told me about it. No wonder membership is not as strong as in other health care professions! If a professional body does little to reach out to its prospective members, to tell them that it exists, then HOW can they possibly join it or support it?

    I totally and utterly agree that it is Social Workers, themselves, who should be responsible for driving any changes, and for shaping the future of their profession. THIS is how it ought to have always been. It is high time that Social Work, as a profession, began to take responsibility for how it “sells itself” to the public – recognizing that media image, training, recruitment, word of mouth… recognizing that potential recruitment and retention of future generations of happy, competent Social Workers is dependent upon understanding that the impression that people get of a job is based on MULTIPLE factors (e.g. media image, word of mouth, training) and that all f these have to be successfully managed for a profession to remain “healthy”. In this respect, BASW also has to be able to “sell itself” to Social Workers – to make them understand that it is viable as a professional body, and that it understands and effectively meets the needs of the Social Care workforce. This means managing media image, word of mouth, training, recruitment, job satisfaction, working conditions, research, staff retention… competently and compassionately.

    How humans form impressions is an extremely complex process. Suffice it to say that they do so by gathering and weighing information, both old and new. This can come from a vast number of sources, some of which may be more reliable than others. Ironically, humans can be as likely to believe misinformation, as to believe truth and fact. THIS is what BASW needs to be aware of, if it is to become a successful professional body. Being a professional body means successfully managing information – knowing what information makes a profession appealing to new recruits, for instance; or knowing how to manage information about the profession in the public domain, so that the profession maintains a good image. There is a psychology to “selling” a profession that it seems to me Social Work did not grasp, which is very much like “branding” a product. By contrast, organizations like the RCN or medical colleges built their “brand” year after year – glorifying Doctors as “heroes” and Nurses as “angels”. Real life tells us that this branding may not always accurately reflect the truth (otherwise we could not have had Harold Shipman or Beverly Allitt)… but, just as with Supermarket produce, the general public tend to fall for the lie of “branding” if it is repeated often enough.

    So, BASW needs to get on board with a huge Social Work “re-branding” exercise. It’s time to think about just what the “product” (i.e. the profession) is, and about how you want to “package and sell” it. This may mean de-constructing the profession, and its image, as they stand in order to get to grips with the TRUTH of Social Work. Just what DOES the profession want the public to see it as? Just HOW does it wish to represent itself?

    What I have learned in life is this, for what it’s worth as an insight. There are different types of people… some more open and honest than others. Some people are TOO truthful, and this can backfire. By contrast, other people know how to brag, to bluster and to big themselves up. Even though their blagging may not represent fact, if enough people believe it, it becomes a sort of “truth”. This is the case with professional image. Perhaps the problem with Social Work is that the profession was simply too down-to-earth and a little naïve? Whilst Nursing and medicine, for example, sold themselves to the public based on a huge amount of brag and bluster – which, incidentally, the public seem to have swallowed – Social Work did nothing to big itself up. Instead, it seemed to resignedly take a back seat.

    WHY? Does Social Work not have a LOT to be proud of? As I have written before to Community Care, Social Work was the one profession to champion the SOCIAL MODEL OF DISABILITY. This is far less stigmatizing than the MEDICAL MODEL that the NHS adopted, because it does not seek to pathologize patients and service-users. Rather, it sees societal obstacles to inclusion as the cause of “disability” (read Jenny Morriss “Pride Against Prejudice” if you have forgotten what the social model means). Is this not something to shout about, and to be proud of? Also, Social Work is actually one of the OLDEST caring professions – older even than Nursing. Social Work grew out of the work of “Almoners”, who as far back as medieval times were people with a philanthropic vocation. Again, is this legacy not something to celebrate? Social Workers work with some of the most disadvantaged people in the country – people whom others might shun… Physically disabled people; mentally unwell people; homeless people; learning disabled people; people who have been subject to abuse, bullying or domestic violence; people seeking asylum; people who are alcoholics or drug abusers; criminal offenders… Surely it takes a particular “brand” of kind and caring nature to work with such stigmatized groups of people? Is this not something for Social Work to be proud of?

    I am deeply hurt by the fact that I was bullied out of my career as a Social Worker for having the guts to speak up about such things. For asking questions and for complaining about poor working conditions. For pointing out online that things such as excessive bureaucracy, lack of funding, lack of resources… made Social Work an unnecessarily hard job to do. Was I wrong to point these things out? I don’t believe so. I believe that somebody had to speak up. It would have been good to have had some backing. Alas, I have found few others brave enough to come forwards! HOW is the Social Work profession ever to improve its lot, if its own staff do not back those who try to fight for changes for the better?

  4. Hilary Searing November 19, 2016 at 8:24 am #

    Very interesting. I was there at the start of BASW and active in its early development. So I can remember the fierce debates we had about whether social work should strive to become a full profession or see itself as a radical organisation for people in a job that society regarded as a semi-profession.

    Personally, I have some misgivings about the claim to professional status. On the other hand, I recognise that social workers must be actively involved in setting clear standards – particularly as many are now using compulsory measures without being completely honest about this. BASW has to do more to ensure social workers understand the extent and limits of their legal powers and duties.