Lack of registered social workers on Social Work England board criticised

Critics express concern over regulator's failure to appoint more registrants to its board, with chief executive Colum Conway the only registered practitioner


Social Work England’s failure to appoint more registered social workers to its board has been criticised by the social work community, with one academic describing it as “really concerning”.

The new social work regulator, which is set to take over from the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC), has come under attack after it announced via Twitter that it was looking to appoint an additional board member with “experience in accountancy, audit and risk, procurement and regulation”.

But, social work professionals – quick to spot the advertisement – expressed concern that the board already contained a number of people with no frontline social work experience and asked whether the regulator had plans to appoint more registered social workers to the group.

The concern from professionals is that, by not having a strong contingent of registrants on the board, the governing council will not have sufficient knowledge or understanding when making decisions on social work specific issues, such as qualifications and overseeing practice.

Reacting to the advertisement via his personal Twitter account, chair of the international committee at the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) David Jones suggested it would be “unacceptable” not to have a greater number on the board.

Who’s on the board?

At present, chief executive of Social Work England Colum Conway is the only registered social worker – under the Northern Ireland Social Care Council – on the board.

Chair of the board Lord Patel is a qualified social worker, but is not currently registered.

Meanwhile, Baroness Tyler of Enfield is the only other member of the council with a clear link to social work, having served as chair of the Children and Families Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) for six years.

The rest of the board is made up of a mixture of health and finance professionals, as well as people with a background in running regulators.

Current list of board members:

  • Colum Conway – previously worked in statutory family and child care services, early years policy, funding and service provision, and family system
  • Lord Patel – prominent social work academic and qualified social worker
  • Jonathan Gorvin – head of regulatory policy and development at the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors
  • Dr Helen Phillips – chair of the board of the Chesterfield Royal Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, helped to establish new environmental regulator
  • Dr Andrew McCulloch – chair of GMC Services International and a freelance consultant in health and social care and international development
  • Baroness Tyler of Enfield – former chair of Cafcass
  • Mark Lam – chair of the Barnet, Enfield and Haringey Mental Health NHS Trust
  • Adnan Bashir – finance director

‘Drowning out’ the voice of registrants 

Social work academic at the University of Central Lancashire, Aidan Worsley, was one commentator to raise the issue of a lack of general social work representation on the Social Work England board.

Speaking to Community Care, Worsley said he was “surprised” by the regulator’s reluctance to appoint more registrants to the board and said it risked “drowning out the voice” of the frontline on key issues, such as setting registration fees and designing a new fitness-to-practice model.

“The thing that bothers me is that Social Work England is [due to make] some very big decisions and the board will be making them without social work expertise on the board.

“You might have people who know about regulation and think they know about fitness to practice, but they won’t know what it’s really like to be a social worker and the differences that there are in that specific setting.”

Morsley added that other regulators for parallel professions, such as the General Medical Council (GMC), had adopted a half and half approach, appointing both people with frontline experience and those with different professional backgrounds, which he believed would be more beneficial for the new social work regulator.

“What I’d like to happen is for Social Work England to announce, very clearly, its intentions about recruitment to the board, seeking a proper balance between lay and registrant members, with emphasis being on registrant.

“The [regulator] needs to announce the planned balance of the board and a timetable for getting there, assuring the profession’s voice will be heard on the board.”

‘Committed to collaborating’ with practitioners

Responding to the criticism, Conway explained the regulator’s strategy for appointing board members and allayed fears the voice of the social worker was being silenced.

“The board members of Social Work England are appointed through the public appointments process and bring a breadth of skills and knowledge, which enables the organisation to develop as a modern and effective specialist regulator. This includes experience in social work through the chairperson Lord Patel and myself.

“We are committed to collaborating with social workers and people with lived experience throughout our journey as we have demonstrated in our current consultation and the recruitment of our regional engagement leads.”

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9 Responses to Lack of registered social workers on Social Work England board criticised

  1. Chris Hale April 18, 2019 at 6:20 pm #

    It is surely essential that there should be practicing front line social workers on the board – not just registrants.

  2. Paul April 18, 2019 at 7:03 pm #

    This is typical of government appointed boards that have sought over many years to weaken the professional voice and autonomy across all social care professions – social work more than others.

    This is a clear message from central government policy and the CEO clearly doesn’t have what it takes in my opinion to challenge that! No faith in this new board at all.

  3. Anne Cooper April 19, 2019 at 7:59 am #

    And where is the social work academic expertise? Why so many medics?

  4. Kate April 19, 2019 at 11:32 am #

    If socialworkeng were committed to social workers they would appoint registered workers to the board. There is no excuse and meaningless rhetoric is insulting!

    • Catherine Moody April 23, 2019 at 3:39 pm #

      I believe Social Work England is a private enterprise contracted by central government. Since Tory ideology is based on the extraction of profit by an elite few then it makes sense for both the government and Social Work England to devalue and deprofessionalise social work to prepare it for exploitation and profit-extraction by the private sector. This isn’t a surprising development.

      • Paul April 25, 2019 at 8:59 am #

        Infact policy under the last Labour government weakened the profession far more than under conservative governments – past or present. The use of managerialism by New Labour was potentially the most damaging thing that happened to social work and its professional competence – before that social work was run by social workers not teachers and generic policy makers. The Barclay Report (despite its original aims) actually strengthened the status of social work under the Thatcher years and social work was one of only two public sector areas to actually get increases in spending under Thatcher. All the increases in spending that benefited social work under New Labour were indirect from Labours obsession on education. Instead New Labour sought to do what all left wing party’s do – which is take control from professionals and the front line and push it up to central government – which in social work it did through a massive increase in government policy teams writing volumes of procedural guidance which was an implicit message that they didn’t trust social workers to make the right decisions themselves. . Having been a social worker for more than 30 years and worked through it all – in my experience working within a conservative government is the lesser of two evils – and in terms of professional autonomy – much better under a conservative government than a Labour one.

  5. Margaret Jordan April 20, 2019 at 10:30 am #

    The decision to exclude participation from experienced social workers in my view represents the systematic attempts over the years to disempower the profession. Social work has become “impotent agents of the state” losing their core value of challenging social injustice.

  6. Disillusioned April 24, 2019 at 12:30 pm #

    I agree with the above comments – experienced social workers have expertise in the field and they should have been included in the board. The social workers having been excluded from the board, the rationale and purpose of this system would be meaningless.

    However, this approach of being managed and regulated by the someone distant is embedded in social care.

    In health services, the consultants do clinics; in addition they have their patients/cases, do other managerial, training, supervising/overseeing the junior doctors among other tasks.

    In social care, the managers, the service managers and the whole raft of managers are so moved away from the reality because they do not hold their cases. It is important that they should also hold cases to be in touch with the real situation and to better support the workers.

    Why are the managers in social care, having no cases of their own to manage, given preferential treatment compared to consultants/doctors in health services.

  7. David N Jones April 25, 2019 at 6:51 pm #

    My tweet on the composition of the SWE Board is quoted in this article and reference is made to my role in BASW. I wish to be explicit that my comments are personal based on over 30 years involvement in regulation of social work qualifications, a large part of that time as a member of the Board or a senior member of staff. I have also studied and had contact with social work regulators in many other countries. I am pleased to be clear that I was not speaking in a BASW capacity and did not claim to be. I was not consulted in advance about the article.