Tackling fitness to practise backlogs, refreshing CPD and a focus on students: the year ahead for Social Work England

Colum Conway discusses the regulator's business plan and says that, because of the pandemic, Social Work England still needs to identify what business as usual looks like

Colum Conway, chief executive, Social Work England
Colum Conway, chief executive, Social Work England

Story updated 

Social Work England still “does not know what a business-as-usual year looks like”, its chief executive has said after it launched its business plan for the coming year.

Within four months of it taking on the regulation of the profession in December 2019, social work, like the rest of the country, went into lockdown as the pandemic struck, affecting all areas of the regulator’s business.

With the country moving out of lockdown, Social Work England has published its business plan for 2021-22, but, in an interview with Community Care, Colum Conway says the regulator is still working on what constitutes a good year to measure itself against.

“That’s something we’re still working on in terms of what does a business-as-usual year look like?” he adds. “What’s the rhythm of the year? There will be changes this year in terms of work patterns, not just for ourselves, but for the overall sector.”

Revising down fitness to practise targets

A key area where this is relevant is fitness to practise. As well as delays caused by its inability to hold face-to-face hearings, Social Work England faced much higher than anticipated numbers of referrals of social workers and was not able to deal with “legacy cases” inherited from the Health and Care Professions Council as quickly as it had expected.

The latter was, in part, down to the difficulties of obtaining evidence from employers having to deal with the impact of Covid and unable to access paper files from their offices. The result was many social workers facing professionally and personally damaging delays after being referred for concerns about their conduct or practice, which the Social Workers Union said had had a “life-changing impact”. 

In addition, the targets that Social Work England had set itself to complete fitness to practise cases were missed, in some cases by large margins. This year’s targets have been revised down.

For example, its target for 2020-21 was to have the number of cases open at the investigation stage to be 1,100 or less, which was widely missed through the year. This year, the target is to have this number below 1,230 by March 2022. Also, the target for having at least 80% of legacy cases progress beyond the investigation stage has been shifted back from December 2021 to March 2022.

“We started last year with a set of assumptions and set KPIs around them and significant parts of those assumptions didn’t materialise and the KPIs weren’t quite right,” says Conway. “That’s one of the things we’ve been able to do this year and learn from that and set performance targets that we can achieve, that stretch but are also achievable and that we have the resources to achieve.”

Should things not go to plan and pressures exceed expectations, the Department for Education has allowed the organisation a £1m contingency in its budget – which is otherwise unchanged from last year in terms of day-to-day spending.

In relation to the legacy cases that date before December 2019, Conway says: “We are very conscious these are not cases, these are people. People who have made complaints who would like to see some resolution and social workers who have been complained against. We do keep in touch and have regular reviews and are very aware of the circumstances people are in. We, along with the unions, are looking to support people. It’s our key tasks to move these investigations forward, but with the right quality, right rigour and right approach to the process.”

Disproportionate impact on ethnic minority practitioners

In terms of tackling the higher-than-anticipated number of new concerns raised about social workers, Conway says the regulator’s broad aim is to ensure more of these cases are resolved locally by employers so they do not reach the fitness to practise process.

“We’ve put a project team that is working on this and we are now exploring those cases to see if we can identify better ways of resolving them,” he says. “We want to feed back into the sector to see if we can work with the sector and better understand the cases coming our way.”

A key part of this is understanding the disproportionate number of concerns raised about black or ethnic minority practitioners, a problem that dates back to the time of the General Social Care Council.

Last July, Social Work England’s executive director for fitness to practise, Jonathan Dillon, said this was “a really important issue for us and something that we are absolutely committed to work on” but it was “still developing a system that allows us to do that”.

Key to this is having the data that enables the organisation to identify not just the rates of concerns raised with Social Work England about black or ethnic minority practitioners, but also how the regulator’s decisions in the investigative process impact on these groups.

Almost ten months on from Dillon’s comments, it is clearly still work in progress.

Conway points to the appointment of Ahmina Akhtar as the organisation’s head of equality, diversity and inclusion this month, saying this was a key item in her intray.

He adds: “You may not see quick results, or it may not be very visible the work we’re doing, but we’re very determined to do this work. I don’t imagine there’s one particular determinant but it’s important for us to identify the determinants and work with the rest of the sector to work thorough how that can be addressed. It’s a big question and we’re focusing very hard on it this year. Last year was a responsive year. This year these types of project are things we’d be able to deal with.”

Social Work England 2021-22 business plan: key objectives

  • Registration: reviewing legal framework and policies, including requirements for social workers returning to practice and its approach to the misuse of the title ‘social worker’.
  • Fitness to practise: examining the reasons for the higher than anticipated level of referrals and seeking to have more cases resolved by employers, and implementing remote hearings beyond the pandemic.
  • Professional standards: starting work to streamline professional standards and producing training and approval standards for approved mental health professionals and approved mental capacity professionals.
  • CPD: consulting on a revised approach to collecting and recording social workers’ CPD, drawing on lessons from the first year of registration renewal.
  • Education and training: introducing new standards for social work education providers and starting a three-year programme of course inspection and reapproval in September 2021.
  • Social work students: starting work to identify how the transition from student to practitioner can be improved, including considering the risks and benefits of social work registration.

CPD review

A prominent issue during Social Work England’s first year was its requirement for all social workers to submit a piece of CPD in order to renew registration. A last-minute rush meant that only about 250 practitioners failed to meet this requirement, though completion rates had been very slow through much of the year.

It will launch a consultation shortly on how to take forward CPD in subsequent years. This will draw on the learning from the audit of 2.5% of practitioners’ CPD carried out earlier this year.

“Last year we were really pleased with the response around CPD and renewals,” Conway. “We have some things we have learned.”

He says one area it will be improving is the online system for uploading CPD, based on feedback from practitioners.

“It was the first year we were able to implement our new rules – so there are bits of learning from that that we will use to adjust and amend what we are doing this year to make the process as fluid and accessible as possible. One of the areas around CPD is to encourage to submit CPD on an ongoing basis and not hang on until the last minute.”

Focus on students and transition to NQSW

It will also be focusing on improving the experience of students and their transition into practice, an area that is deemed a concern in the business plan.

The plan says: “We are concerned the current transition process does not support graduates into social worker practitioner roles as well as it could, which is a core element to keeping them in practice. In part, this is because there is no clear transition from the professional expectations on a social work student into the expectations on a newly qualified social worker.”

Conway says Social Work England has “no particular framework” for moving forward on this issue but adds: “We are very keen to work with those who are involved in developing and delivering to see in what ways it can be further developed.”

New standards for education providers will be launched in September 2021, along with the start of a three-year cycle of inspections and reapproval of courses, while Social Work England will also be continuing to consider the case for registering students.

This is something that applies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and used to be the case in England, but has not been in place since 2012.

“It’s something that we’re looking at,” says Conway. “It’s more complex and needs good consideration. There’s a lot of general support but student registration also means student regulation and that presents a series of complex issues that need to be well explored. We will have workshops and conversations with people about how to take this forward and whether it’s the right thing to do to ensure it’s done in the right way. I’m not saying we’re going to have a consultation this year and set a timeframe but it’s something we are keen to explore and come to a decision on.”

An end to the temporary register?

Besides the register of social workers, Social Work England also manages a temporary register of practitioners who have left the main list since March 2018 but are able to practise to bolster the workforce’s response to Covid-19, under the Coronavirus Act 2020.

About 13,000 former social workers are currently temporarily registered, but the government said in March that just 300 had made themselves available to practise, and only 18 had been employed by local authorities.

Conway says it has been “fantastic” having the capacity provided by the temporary register and it has proved a “useful safety net”. But, as the country comes out of lockdown, he says he would like to see this brought to an end “sooner rather than later”.

33 Responses to Tackling fitness to practise backlogs, refreshing CPD and a focus on students: the year ahead for Social Work England

  1. Anonymous May 14, 2021 at 3:03 pm #

    SWE not a friend of social work. Incompetent. You can ring today, say anything about any social worker and they will take it on. Then the social worker is thrown into this chaos for at least a year risking their practice, mental health and career. SWE supports the leaving of workers from the profession. This is the truth of it.

    • Johnny May 15, 2021 at 6:25 am #

      So true and now Social Workers pay yearly rather than every other year for the “honour” of being admonished, and left in the limbo by SWE.

    • Disillusioned May 21, 2021 at 2:13 pm #

      I’m currently in this position. I was referred to SWE for something that I didn’t do (another regulatory process has already said there is no evidence to support the allegations) but I’m now stuck in their system. The stress this has caused me is off the scale. Nobody cares.

    • Lesley Marshsll June 5, 2021 at 12:31 pm #

      Yes. Absolutely agree.

      SWE – IMHO not fit for purpose! Bring back the GSCC (did I really just say that? Things must be bad!) and stop all the paranoid governmental / quango tinkering.

      Why can’t and organisation run by social workers for social workers operate the register (BASW anybody?) At least we would be assured that they would act fairly and in a competent manner.

  2. Kelly mahdavieh May 14, 2021 at 9:21 pm #

    The whole system requires overhaul. How can Social work England start making judgement on fitnesss to practice when Sw’s are constantly for fighting. Screwed down by budget cuts and top down msnagement. I can’t remember when was the last time I ever had clinical supervision or was fully able to relax and participate in continuing professional development.

    • Lesley Marshsll June 5, 2021 at 12:49 pm #

      Yes Kelly. I totally agree with you. Having worked both as a locum in a number of authorities and now as a substantive social worker, I do not know a single social worker who is satisfied with the registration process or body. As if social work on the front line isn’t stressful enough without the bureaucrats from SWE piling on the pressure, taking our not inconsiderable annual registration fee and then consistently and persistently whacking is over the head with spurious demands and questionable regulation.

      Hardly surprising then that under the emerged regs that of the 13K entitled to return to practice, only a few hundred actually did return with a mere handful of those returning to (substantive???) positions. The reasons why are not exactly rocket science.

  3. Neil May 15, 2021 at 9:37 am #

    No ownership of failures, no mention of tackling racism, no mention of how they will be a listening organisation, no acknowledgement that they are there to serve the public and social workers not mould both to suit their own priorities, no acknowledgement that there are significant conflicts of interest at their board level, no vision on how to tackle underfunding, vacancy rates or bureaucracy, no mention of better transparency about how registration fees are spent, no mention of improving data collection. Same complacency dressed up as learning. I expect BASW approves though so why bother listening to mere social workers.

    • Rachael May 20, 2021 at 12:45 pm #

      Re. your BASW comment, this article by ‘Wayne Reid, BASW England professional officer, social worker and anti-racism visionary’ is helpful:

      https://www.communitycare.co.uk/2021/04/09/social-work-regulation-perpetuate-institutional-racism/

      • Tarnished May 20, 2021 at 2:44 pm #

        I do wonder when our lives are still being ruined Rachael what value Wayne attaches to his employer meeting SWE regularly about these issues. Surely there comes a point when “writing in a personal capacity” just becomes cover for BASW themselves enabling racist practices.

  4. Nigel May 15, 2021 at 12:59 pm #

    Why not student registration? What does SWE think students do when on placement? Oh hang on I just understood: student registration means SWE having to do ‘something’ about ‘something’ and it hasn’t worked out the “complexity” of doing ‘something’ so needs time to think about what ‘something’ is before it can do ‘something’ about ‘something’. Well worth shelling out £90.00 for.

    • Lesley Marshsll June 5, 2021 at 12:55 pm #

      Yes SWE hasn’t yet figured out how to do pretty much anything about anything – except take our annual £90 registration fee!!!

  5. Claire Henderson May 18, 2021 at 8:59 am #

    SWE needs a complete overhaul, they need to think about how long it takes to sort out fitness to practice, I know of someone who is still waiting after 3 years, its criminal to make someone wait that long, what about their mental health and if you put q complaint in, you make out its our fault!! SWE also needs to advocate for us, we supported the godly NHS through the pandemic and never get a mention, without us the hospitals would have collapsed. Instead of being the villians, it would be nice to be recognised by the government as caring and hardworking professionals Better support for sw students transitioning to nqsw would be a start, better PE/mentoring training not making part of progression without having some experience of supervision and biggest change would be to make the profession worth being a part of to name but a few issues and to remember you are there for us not to give yourself large pay packets, what do I get for my registration fee ?

    • Jon May 18, 2021 at 11:42 am #

      I understand and share your view of SWE and for me the same applies to BASW. We should be appreciated and our contributions valued but it’s a step too far to claim hospitals would have collapsed without social workers. Hospitals kept going because of the 12 hour 6 days a week shifts my junior doctor daughter and her other medical, nursing, physiotherapy, associates, porters and cleaners did months on end. Some of them even slept on couches or the floor of the hospital because they were too frightened of infecting their loved ones by going home. Lets not make this a competition. I know many doctors and other hospital staff who are appreciative of social workers and grateful for their support. That is what we should be about.

      • Claire Henderson May 18, 2021 at 10:20 pm #

        I appreciate your comment and its not about the nhs versus social workers, its about recognition for all parts of a over worked and unappreciated social care system. There has always been a rhetoric about the NHS and even more so though and past the pandemic. What has made me say this is a comment made to me by a nurse who said, it muat be hard for you Social wotkers and social care not to have been seen and appreciated, this is all we asked for and our regulators must act in our behalf to promote this, you are lucky as you have this recognition already.

        • Lesley Marshsll June 5, 2021 at 1:04 pm #

          Broadly agree with what you say Claire. Just a minor adjustment though

          its about recognition for all parts of a over worked and unappreciated HEALTH AND social care system.

          To coin a much overused phrase (but in this instance it is actually true) ‘we are all – H&SC workers – in this together.

      • Mary McG May 18, 2021 at 10:38 pm #

        Jon, I think Claire’s point is people will always feel grateful for the NHS and it’s workers, whereas social workers only receive criticism and complaints and are not protected by either SWE, BASW or unions in the same way as nurses and doctors. That’s maybe down to smaller numbers of social wokers , or the fact that they are at the mercy of local govt so struggle to unite as a collective – unlike the powerful organisations that support nurses and doctors. Maybe social workers should become part of the NHS, now wouldn’t that be joined up thinking? National Health and Social Services – NHSS

        • Jon May 19, 2021 at 4:48 pm #

          SWE are nothing more than a tool of the government interested only in embedding buraucracy further into our practice. They think if we are ‘regulated’ to all do the same tasks in the same way we can be controlled and whatever autonmoy we still have eroded. They are not an advocating professional association the way RCN and BMA are. BASW is just an impotent debating society of like minded polite souls. I am afraid whether through exhaustion, apathy, disinterest or laziness we are our own saboteurs in the respect and validation stakes. I am the Unison shop steward and in the last 3 years not one social worker has turned to a meeting. My RCN counterpart has an active membership. Until we are prepared to go beyond feeling sorry for ourselves why should anyone else validate us? If we sideline ourselves, we are going to be bypassed. Remember when BASW became overexcited about Matt Hancocks social care badge? If our supposed leaders are so easily seduced and so cheaply bought, it’s up to us to make the narrative.

        • Lesley Marshsll June 5, 2021 at 1:10 pm #

          I am a registered social worker and am employed directly by the NHS. All this does is stop me from participating in AMHP and BIA (AMCaP) training. I actually self funded to become a BIA but the local authority won’t use me as I don’t work for them so that was a waist of time and money.

  6. Tarnished May 18, 2021 at 10:03 am #

    I am one of the legacy cases. My employer provided the additional information requested by SWE in March 2020. I have replied to request SWE have made promptly on the day. They have hotel invoices, purchase receipts, permission from me to access my mobile phone data. They would even have a testimony supporting me from the family of the accuser but they refuse to accept witness statements on the basis that as yet they are not conducting an investigation. More than a year later, I am doing basic admin work from home, a third
    of the people I was working with remain unallocated. I am afraid Mr Conway can’t continue to blame employers and HCPC for the shambolic paralysis he is overseeing. Needless to say, and take my employers word on this not my claim, the allegation is malicious, made by someone with a history of false claims against others in our service. When this is over, I will resign my post and leave social work after 27 years of frontline practice vet bitter and angry. If truth, integrity and competence matter the picture of SWE we are presented with is not an accurate one. Unfit for purpose and unethical is my experience.

    • Mary McG May 18, 2021 at 10:49 pm #

      Sounds like you’ve had a really stressful time, and no way to treat anybody, let alone someone who has given so many years to public service. Why isn’t the profession uniting behind you and saying enough is beyond me. Like the school playground when the big bully is around, we are not standing up to them in our strength of numbers, instead we all individually hope it’s not us today. The atomisation of the profession, in true neoliberal spirit, is nearly complete. All the best.

      • Tarnished May 19, 2021 at 5:02 pm #

        Thank you. My situation is awful but I can walk away. My heart breaks for those social workers suffering at the hands of SWE who don’t have my options. I am just as disgusted with BASW, Unison and the sham SWU who knowing of the many cases like mine, happily meet with SWE and pretend they are advocating for us.

    • Lesley Marshsll June 5, 2021 at 1:30 pm #

      Really sad to hear about this case. What’s worse is that you are just one of many who are in the same position.

      In a couple of cases I am aware of – current and during the HPCP years – social workers have had nowhere to turn and nobody to support them when allegations are made against then. My experience of Unison is that they are worse than useless (perhaps that’s why nobody turns up to meetings)

      All I can say to the OP is best wishes and good luck with your case.

  7. Malcolm May 18, 2021 at 2:35 pm #

    Randomly referencing “co-production” in the business plan does not mean much when there is no transparency about how “partners” are chosen. Personally I am very interested in how the £9million collected in registration fees is being spent. Unless I missed it why no finance and conflict of interest sections in the Businesd Plan? This has been standard in every such report I’ve been involved in drafting. I would be happy to be directed to where these are referenced.

  8. Nigel May 18, 2021 at 10:17 pm #

    Finance and conflict of interest data can be found in the Board meeting minutes. Perhaps only for an obsessive like me, they make for interesting reading. Not surprising that this information isn’t included in the Busuniess Plan given the data on expenditures, the recruitment strategy, the clear failures to meet targets around FtP, the sums set aside for legal and audit fees, staff sickness rates and rewards for going “over and above” performance targets. Be reassured that your £90 is well used funding Capsticks and Yougov help SWE maintain such high standards.

  9. Neil May 20, 2021 at 12:17 pm #

    1080 days to conclude FtP cases isn’t really performing “over and above” is it?

  10. Neil May 20, 2021 at 3:08 pm #

    The article you point me to is helpful but perhaps not in the way you intend Rachael. BASW are firmly embedded in the government approved social work establishment.They can’t criticise SWE because they are part of it now and were architecs in its creation. Visionary or not, Wayne is the legitimacy BASW bestows itself even though seemingly he is always writing in a personal capacity. Ever the social worker happy to be corrected if you can tell me where BASW have made a difference on: Disproportionate sanctions on black and disabled social workers, Disproportionate numbers of black and disabled social workers subject to Fitness to Practice investigations, Workplace discrimination, Unchallenged employer racism and the rest of the ever lengthening list of victimisation we are subjected to.

  11. Jane May 21, 2021 at 8:41 am #

    It’s really not that complicated. SWE are run by a senior team who are desperate to appear tough and determined to appear to “protect the public” while doing and being neither. The incompetence of their case workers and the slow pace of investigations is of no concern to their Board. How could be if every failing is blamed on others. Compared to properly constituted, transparent professional associations led by competent first rank staff, SWE has zero credibility. Low on self esteem they only feel secure when persecuting social workers. Constant blaming of “legacy” issues and unwilling to take responsibility for a mess of their own making. If I ran an organisation that classifies dead social workers as failing to register and have their names on the register open to the public, I would be ashamed at best. SWE response to me regarding my partner? “Our regulations” don’t allow removal of his name. Just imagine the mindset that thinks that is an acceptable response. Automatons with not even a pretence of compassion. Using the registration of dead or retired members to inflate social worker numbers to con the Governmet for cash is really despicable. An organisation with such low grade ethics is hardly going to feel shame for taking 3 years to conclude fitness investigations. I urge all social workers to read their board meeting minutes. I know you are busy and perhaps demoralised but it’s the only way to see the self reverential time servers for exactly what they are. Blame us, blame HCPC, blame covid, blame teething problems, blame staff resources, blame “remote working”, blame all and everything rather than own the responsibility. Perhaps this explains why most Board members have the time for several other jobs.

    • Kad May 21, 2021 at 9:24 pm #

      Wow! SWE say that can’t remove the name of a deceased SW (my condolences to you Jane) did to ‘regulations’?! What the hell kind of body is regulating (i user that word loosely) us?

      I like others cannot understand at all the point of SWE.

      • Jane May 22, 2021 at 8:41 pm #

        Thank you for taking the time Kad, I really appreciate it. This conversation took place two weeks before Christmas which made it all the more horrible.

      • Lesley Marshsll June 5, 2021 at 1:34 pm #

        Yes Jane.y condolences also.

  12. Richie May 21, 2021 at 9:15 am #

    Pitiful SWE. Just be honest and say we are here for at least the next 3 years hurrah, velvet cushions for us, hot coals for you so get used to it.

    • The Watcher May 28, 2021 at 3:00 pm #

      Yes, agreed. SWE is unsustainable. SWE will be history (like the GSCC) by 2025, mark my words.

  13. Carol May 31, 2021 at 9:30 pm #

    I urge every social worker to read the SWE conflict of interest register. I urge all of the apologists and enthusiastic champions of SWE to tell us openly why it benefits social workers to have a SWE Board made up of members with many other jobs and interests in organisations financed by off shore tax avoiding hedge funds undermining public services.