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.
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”.
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