This week, the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) celebrates its 50th anniversary with, in keeping with the times, a two-day virtual festival.
The programme sums up the breadth of BASW’s work and focus, including talks on the future of the profession, improving workplace conditions, social work research and the profession’s ability to express solidarity and improve the lives of those it supports, interspersed with some musical interludes, such as a 50-year playlist for social work due to be broadcast tomorrow.
The association shares its birthday with the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970 that brought social services departments into being in England and Wales.
Those departments no longer exist in England courtesy of the Children Act 2004-initiated split between adults’ and children’s services (though they do in Wales). During the first half of the last decade there were some doubts over BASW’s future due to the government-sanctioned creation of a College of Social Work as the profession’s leadership body in England, leading to merger discussions and the question of whether one body would eclipse the other.
But five years on from the College’s demise, BASW remains as a UK-wide professional association for social workers, with two of the College’s professional leads, Ruth Allen and Gerry Nowsowska, as its chief executive and chair, respectively.
Its 21,000-strong membership roll is significantly above the roughly 12,000 who paid their subscriptions a decade ago, but is still a relatively small fraction of a profession with about 120,000 registered practitioners across the UK.
As it looks ahead to its next 50 years, Community Care spoke to Allen, its chief executive since 2016, about its role and ambitions for the future.
Social work in the UK is highly fragmented: by nation, by service specialism, between practice and academia, those working in statutory roles and those working independently or in non-statutory roles, across a number of different representative bodies and unions, as well as through the ideological divides that characterise debates over, say, fast-track training or private sector involvement in services.
Allen says that, as was the case at the time of its birth, BASW sees its role as an embodiment of professional unity, for example through its code of ethics and membership of the International Federation of Social Workers.
“We do believe there is one profession and that people who come into social work should be able to connect in with what unites us as a profession.”
She gives the example of the anti-poverty practice guidance BASW issued last year, which was designed to provide practitioners with practical guidance on tackling poverty in their casework.
“That can be adapted in any country or any part of social work. I think it’s very important that, as social workers, we have a very clear core set of values and ethics that we keep under review, but that we’re also agile and flexible in how we support social workers and are responsive to the world as it is and seek to shape it.”
Allen says the organisation’s role as the profession’s source of unity is evident in how it is – perhaps uniquely – able to bring together social work representatives from all four UK nations.
“We often find that people only come together through our events,” she says. “We had a big conference last year and we had the chief social workers from all four nations there. We do find ourselves facilitating different bits of social work coming together on a topic basis across the UK.”
Voice, support and professional development
Allen says that, throughout its history, BASW has sought to blend three roles: being a voice for the profession and seeking to influence policy and practice on behalf of social workers and those they support; being a source of support, advice and representation for practitioners, and promoting professional development.
The association’s response to Covid-19 illustrates this. On the voice front, it has been gathering the views of practitioners on issues such as access to personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing, changes to working practices and impact on individuals and families, through an ongoing survey so far answered by over 2,000 people. It has raised the results through an open letter to the prime minister and in correspondence to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and Public Health England (PHE) about the lack of social work-specific guidance around PPE and the disproportionate impact of the disease on black Asian and minority ethnic staff.
BASW has had to adapt its advice and representation (A&R) service to operate largely remotely because of social distancing rules, but this has prompted the association to develop plans for an online support service for members, due to launch in July.
On professional development, it has produced a suite of guidance on practising under Covid, including for specific groups – approved mental health professionals, children’s practitioners, hospital social workers – and on particular topics, such as home visits.
Allen says that the association’s plans for its next five years – which will be articulated in a vision for 2025 due out in September – are about making a bigger and more consistent impact across all three areas.
On voice, Allen sees this area of work involving “very strong policy analysis, involvement in research, using media of all kinds and being the independent voice for the profession”.
Recent examples include the association’s Boot Out Austerity campaign against cuts and poverty, its 80:20 campaign to redress the predominance of administration, as opposed to direct work, in practitioners’ working lives and its focus on improving social workers’ conditions of work.
Tackling poor working conditions
The latter embodies the importance of research partnerships highlighted by Allen, in this cases with Bath Spa University, which involved surveys in 2017 and 2018 that charted declining working conditions, driven by high caseloads, excessive admin and lack of resources for services. This led to the development of a toolkit practitioners and their managers reduce workplace stressors and improve practitioner wellbeing.
Though its launch was postponed due to the pandemic, Allen says it is due to launch shortly.
“It will include support to organisations and individual social workers on how they can improve working practices.”
Getting the distinct voice of social work heard by politicians and the media remains an uphill struggle, as Covid-19 has illustrated, with the impact of the pandemic on the profession overshadowed by the affects on the health professions, teaching and the broader social care workforce.
While the faces of many of the nurses and doctors who have, tragically, lost their lives to Covid have often stared out from newspaper front pages, the deaths of the at least 10 social workers who have died from the disease have been largely anonymous.
Allen sees improving impact about forging effective partnerships with other organisations and also with people who use social work services.
‘Traumatic’ levels of inequality and poverty
“We’ve got a long way to go on that but we’ve done a lot more in the last few years and possibly changed attitudes. Some people think professional associations are not the place to have a conversation with people who use services. I totally disagree as does everyone involved with BASW.
People who use services know how important it is to them that social workers are well supported – otherwise they cannot do good social work.”
“The issues that social workers are working with at the moment are made so traumatic by the levels of inequality and poverty in wider society. When we talk about working alongside people it’s about understanding the sorts of challenges people have or needs that they have, their experiences of poverty and disadvantage and what we can do to improve things, but it’s also about being in solidarity.”
On supporting professional development, BASW operates in a crowded field that includes the four nations’ professional regulators and, in England, the professional networks for adults’ and children’s principal social workers, government – specifically the offices of the two chief social workers – and What Works for Children’s Social Care.
BASW has a central role as the body hosting the professional capabilities framework (PCF) – the overarching statement setting out what social workers in England should be capable of at different stages of their career that shapes much social work training. However, this sits alongside Social Work England’s professional standards and, perhaps more significantly, the knowledge and skills statements for practitioners and supervisors developed by the DHSC, for adults’ social work, and the Department for Education for children’s professionals.
Allen says that BASW is mindful of the need to avoid duplication in its professional development work.
“What we do has to feel like a necessary part of improvement and professional development and fit in with what regulators are doing…We need to be clear about what our niche is and what we deliver at country level and what at UK level.”
In recent years, BASW has taken on a number of projects commissioned or funded by government bodies, often in partnership with the Social Care Institute for Excellence, such as their work on developing digital capabilities for social workers, and their series of resources on supporting practice with autistic adults and those with learning disabilities.
Allen says these have filled gaps in practice guidance in areas of social work where there has previously been little.
Looking forward, BASW is looking at the possibility of developing peer-led standards for practitioners, as opposed to ones dispersed by government or regulators.
“This is very common, where a professional body co-ordinates the development of standards and provides accreditation against these.”
Allen, who was previously director of social work at South West London and St George’s Mental Health NHS Trust, says the four years of her leadership have been spent strengthening BASW’s operations.
This has included a stronger IT capability – which she says has held up during Covid-19 as BASW, like everyone else, has had to move work online – and taking on more contracted work, such as the practice guidance on digital skills, learning disabilities and autism.
In the light of the renewed focus on the Black Lives Matter movement, in which BASW England professional officer Wayne Reid has taken a leading role within the profession in raising awareness, Allen says the organisation is very focused on ensuring it reflects the diversity of the profession and the communities it services.
One area where there is still room for progress is membership, which has hovered in the early 20,000s for four years, representing roughly one-sixth of the UK-registered population of practitioners.
“If I see what our members can do with 21,000 and I think what it would be like with 100,000 it would be amazing and transform the profession,” says Allen.