Story updated 20 May
The temporary register of former social workers brought in to help the sector manage the coronavirus emergency is likely to be needed ‘for the long haul’, the chief executive of Social Work England has said.
Colum Conway said the regulator was looking at how the temporary register could be retained as the country comes out of lockdown, a time in which it is expected that referrals will rise as needs currently hidden from view come to the fore, particularly in children’s services.
“We think [the temporary register has] been a positive development. We’re thinking of it as something not just to meet immediate needs but for the long haul. As lockdown scales down there may be increased needs for children’s and adults’ services. This arrangement could be sustained for a period of time to deal with that impact.
In a wide-ranging interview, Conway also said that:
- Registration fees – currently £90 a year – would be frozen for the 2020-21 year.
- Virtual fitness to practise hearings could continue post-Covid though with practitioners’ consent and not for final hearings.
- The organisation’s key priority in relation to education was ensuring current final-year students could qualify, despite significant changes to courses and practice learning under the pandemic. He said he was confident that the expected number of people would qualify.
- Around 12,000 practitioners had uploaded CPD onto their online accounts as of the beginning of May and the regulator would be making a push for all registrants to do so before the 30 November registration deadline over the coming months.
About the temporary register
The temporary register, set up by the emergency Coronavirus Act 2020, includes all social workers who left the register in the past two years – just over 8,000 – and means they are all eligible to return to work; it is up to them whether to take up opportunities with employers. The Local Government Association, in partnership with the regulator and government, has set up a platform for matching temporarily registered practitioners with employers looking to bolster their workers, under the banner Social Work Together.
Temporarily registered social workers must comply with Social Work England’s professional standards – besides those relating to continuing professional development – but are not liable for fees or subject to normal fitness to practise procedures. However, if concerns are raised about a practitioner, Social Work England will investigate and can remove the person from the temporary register if it judges their fitness to practise to be impaired.
As of last week, just over 1,000 of the approximately 8,000 temporarily registered practitioners had expressed an interest in returning to practice through the Social Work Together campaign (see box), and some had started to be deployed into posts. Of this group, 238 said they would work anywhere in the country – remotely – while preferences for working in a particular region ranged from 234 (in London) to 44 (North East).
However, Social Work England said there was currently a good match between candidates and the 90 local authorities looking for practitioners, while the Social Work Together campaign was being supplemented by recruitment campaigns co-ordinated by regional branches of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services that are also drawing on the temporary register.
This reflects the fact that the demand for additional practitioners has, so far, predominantly come from adults’ services due to the demands of speeding up hospital discharge, dealing with the epidemic in care homes and managing increased responsibilities such as supporting people required to ‘shield’ due to their extreme clinical vulnerability.
However, despite referrals to children’s services reportedly dropping by 50% in some areas, Association of Directors of Children’s Services president Jenny Coles has said authorities are preparing for a “huge spike” , as restrictions lift and children become more visible in schools and other settings.
Potential for ‘hidden harms’
Conway agrees. “There may be issues that are currently hidden from view that are having an impact on families and communities and we won’t be sure until we’ve been able to assess that.
“Where children haven’t been in school, there’s potential for hidden harms, and we know there has been an increase in demand for helplines for domestic abuse.”
Conway says concerns about workforces being significantly depleted by staff sickness haven’t materialised.
“Largely, sector capacity has maintained which is why we are thinking that capacity needs will increase as the lockdown eases rather than now.”
The Coronavirus Act will stay on the statute books for two years from March 2020 unless it is removed by a vote in the House of Commons at one of the six-monthly reviews it is due to face, the first of which will be in September.
Conway says it is not possible to put a timescale on the temporary register, adding: “We will continue to assess it on an ongoing basis and maintain it for as long as necessary.”
While it remains, temporary social workers will be subject to different rules to their permanent counterparts, including paying no fees to the regulator and not being subject to formal fitness to practise proceedings – though with the provision for them to be removed without proceedings if Social Work England identifies concerns. Conway says this is in line with arrangements established by other regulators.
He suggests that some temporary practitioners may want to rejoin the full register after experiencing a return to practice, which should be relatively straightforward given that they will have been out of practice for no more than two years in the first place. But he says there will not be a fast-track procedure for them to rejoin.
Continuing virtual fitness to practise hearings post-Covid
The organisation is not quite six months into its existence since it took over as regulator in December 2019 but has already gone through two phases: pre and post-Covid.
“In our first few months, we were settling down and getting to understand the work, including the cases inherited from [previous regulator the Health and Care Professions Council]” says Conway. “Then Covid came along and we had to get everyone working from home.”
The lockdown has necessitated holding fitness to practise hearings virtually, which Conway has said is working well, saying practitioners involved are pleased to have their hearings heard.
“We’ve had 74 hearings so far, which is similar to what we would have had in a normal period,” he says. Virtual hearings can only proceed with the social worker’s consent and are mainly being used to decide on interim orders, which place temporary restrictions on a person’s practice, or reviews of existing restrictions.
Final hearings are generally not taking place in this way, as Conway says that it is “important to have these physically”. But Conway says that there is potential for virtual hearings to be used after the Covid crisis is past, in the way they are now, so long as practitioners consent. This is particularly significant given the longstanding issue of many practitioners not attending their hearings.
“[The situation] has opened up other ways of working which we should explore…I think the potential is there to [to increase practitioner attendance at hearings]. We haven’t done the analysis of whether more people have attended [virtual hearings] but they can offer up the opportunity for people to get more involved in their hearings, which we would very much welcome.”
Ensuring final-year students can qualify
While Covid-19 has taken a significant toll on practitioners, it has also been a time of great uncertainty for students, as courses have ceased face-to-face teaching, many placements have stopped and concerns over financial support have been heightened.
Social Work England has been working with the higher education sector and fast-track providers to ensure they can still meet the regulator’s standards under the current situation.
It has published details of how 36 providers are making adjustments to teaching, assessment, placements and admissions, which include remote interviews for potential students, replacing exams by coursework, online lectures and reducing the lengths of placements. The latter is something that Social Work England’s current, 2019 education and training standards provide for as they do not specify a set number of placement days.
This is unlike the 2020 standards due to replace them, which specify that students must undertake 200 days of practice learning during their courses.
Conway says that these standards, which had been due to come into force in the coming academic year, will now not be implemented until 2021, so that universities can manage the current admissions process under the existing standards.
The regulator’s priority for the sector is ensuring that current final-year students can complete their courses and qualify. Conway says Social Work England is currently doing a piece of work to analyse how these students are progressing towards qualification and should complete this shortly.
“The key thing is encouraging universities to support people to qualify and get through their courses but in the right way so that they do meet the standards,” says Conway.
“That was our underlying principle. We didn’t want to be very prescriptive about the way things were done; we very much encouraged institutions to look at their own environments and their own local realities around placements, and whether these could be completed or not, and being creative around ensuring their students can achieve their learning outcomes and qualify.”
He adds: “There are very strong examples of innovative work…but it’s very variable due to the nature of the sector.”
He says he cannot give an “absolutely definitive answer” on whether all final-year students will qualify, but he adds: “With the level of feedback we have I would say that a good, high proportion of those who were on track to qualify [will do so] and I would be very confident that the workforce we envisaged coming through will come through.”
Filling CPD gap
Aside from Covid-19, Social Work England is looking to encourage practitioners to sign on to their online accounts on which they must upload at least one piece of continuing professional development during the current registration cycle – 2 December 2019 to 30 November 2020 – or put their registration at risk.
As of the start of May, Conway says, 12,000 people had uploaded CPD to their accounts – roughly 12% of the registrant population. Despite the need for almost 90,000 social workers to do the same from May to November, Conway says this is the position the regulator expected to be in at this point. He is also satisfied that the uploading of CPD has not tailed off since March during the Covid-19 crisis.
But he says there will be a need for the rate of people uploading CPD – currently roughly 80 a day – to accelerate, with the annual registration period due to start at the beginning of September.
“As we get towards the renewal period, it’s really important that we get as close to 100% as possible…We will be continuing to work with the sector over the next six months on that,” Conway adds.
Registration fees frozen
While Social Work England had previously planned to consult on increasing fees for the 2020-21 registration year, Conway says they will stay as they are – £90 a year – with any consultation coming at the end of 2021 at the earliest.
This would be in the context of government decisions about its future funding of the organisation.
“The commitment from government to fund Social Work England is there but at some point we will have to look at fees,” says Conway. “The earliest that would happen would be the end of 2021 but that would be the start of the conversation.”