Social Work England missed standards on fitness to practice referrals, registration speed and diversity data in first year

Regulator's watchdog, the Professional Standards Authority, says Social Work England met 15 of 18 standards of good regulation from December 2019 to November 2020

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

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Social Work England fell short of standards on assessing the risk of fitness to practise referrals, processing registrations and recording the diversity of the workforce in its first year, its own watchdog has found.

The Professional Standards Authority (PSA) judged the regulator to have met 15 of its 18 “standards of good regulation” from December 2019 to November 2020 but said it needed to improve in three areas.

Social Work England welcomed the report, published by the PSA last week, and vowed to meet all 18 standards in future assessments.

In the report published last week, the PSA praised Social Work England for its engagement with the sector since becoming regulator, saying other organisations had given it positive feedback on this.

‘Encouraging start’

It said it had “engaged constructively with feedback and…shown commitment to improvement”, and, in the context of the pandemic, had made “encouraging start” to its role as regulator.

The PSA said that Social Work England had met its fitness to practise (FtP) standards in relation to raising concerns, fair investigations, appropriate decision-making processes and effective participation.

It also acknowledged the severe challenges the regulator faced in its first year due to the impact of the pandemic on its ability to process FtP cases, higher-than-expected referrals and the state of the 1,545 cases it inherited from the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC). Social Work England found just 10% of cases that the HCPC identified as ready to schedule for a hearing to be complete, despite the average age of the legacy cases being almost a year.

Risk assessment failings

However, the PSA found Social Work England had not met the standard to identify and prioritise all fitness to practise cases that suggested “a serious risk to the safety of service users” and seek interim orders where appropriate.

Firstly, it found that Social Work England was not making decisions about interim orders promptly enough in legacy cases. The time it took Social Work England to make these decisions increased during the year, from 51.7 weeks on average (including their time with the HCPC) to 80.1 weeks. It also raised concerns about case examiners – who review a case following an investigation – making decisions about interim orders, and said that in a small number of cases examiners had made referrals for interim orders on the basis of information available earlier in the process.

The second issue raised by the PSA under this standard was that Social Work England did not do full risk assessments at the triage stage for most of the review period, so it did not demonstrate that it could identify and prioritise higher risk cases. It said this had improved since August 2020 when, following a review, it started requiring staff to do full risk assessments at this stage.

The PSA also found that Social Work England failed, on numerous occasions, to follow its own policy on recording risk assessments by not doing so when new information emerged.

However, the PSA said it did not see any cases where the regulator failed to act appropriately on information increasing the risk level on a case.

“We will monitor Social Work England’s work to learn from interim order referrals, such as the establishment of its investigation review group shortly after the end of our review period, and any further changes it makes as a result,” said the PSA’s report.

“However, based on the range of concerns we identified and the importance of effective risk assessment, we determined that this standard is not met this year.”

Social Work England said that, since the review period, it had introduced refresher training for investigators on risk assessments and interim orders.

It said it now did full risk assessments earlier in the triage process, and had conducted further risk assessments for all outstanding legacy investigations “to ensure that these are accurate and appropriate”.

Slower than other regulators

The PSA said it was not assured that Social Work England was dealing efficiently with registration applications in the period under review.

It said it took account of the “challenging context” of the Covid-19 pandemic in its decision, but it found that its processing was slower than that of the other regulators the PSA oversees from April 2020 to March 2021.

“We appreciate that there are differences between regulators’ processes and requirements, and we need to take care in comparing their data,” the report said. “Nevertheless, the difference between Social Work England and most other regulators in performance against these measures was striking.”

From April 2020 to December 2020, it processed 77% of UK registration applications requiring no further investigation within 10 days, against a target of 95%.

Though performance improved during the year, the PSA said it would expect these types of application to be the most straightforward for a regulator to deal with.

Social Work England said it was “confident this is no longer an issue” and was now meeting its targets for processing applications.

The regulator said it had improved information sharing with other organisations including education and training providers, increased student awareness of the registration process and improved its reporting mechanisms.

‘Not enough diversity data collected’

The PSA also found that Social Work England did not collect enough information about the diversity of social workers on its register, making it difficult for it to assess whether any of its processes may be affecting registrants differently based on their protected characteristics.

It recognised that the HCPC did not pass on to Social Work England any information regarding registrants’ demographic characteristics and said it would take time for the regulator to gather this data.

Nevertheless, the PSA said Social Work England had “made only limited progress during its first year in gathering this important information”.

The PSA welcomed the regulator’s equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) strategy, led by EDI lead Ahmina Akhtar, but this was not finalised and published until after the review period.

“Social Work England has been clear that it understands how important this work is and its relevance to social care,” said the PSA’s report.

“We have no reason to doubt its commitment. But given how little information it had about the diversity of its registrants, and the early stage it had reached in its strategy work, we could not be assured about its performance during our review period.”

Social Work England acknowledged that it had made limited progress in its first year in this area and said it was committed to meeting the standard in future reviews.

It now collects equality, diversity and inclusion data from social workers as part of the registration process.

Commitment to meet standards

Colum Conway, chief executive of Social Work England, said: “Becoming the regulator for social work was our first important step during the period of this performance review.

“We are committed to continue working to meet all the PSA’s standards of good regulation and welcome both the PSA’s annual assessment and ongoing engagement.”


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27 Responses to Social Work England missed standards on fitness to practice referrals, registration speed and diversity data in first year

  1. Caitlin October 5, 2021 at 11:42 am #

    Oh dear. To think SWE never tire of telling us they are for public safety and promoting equality and anti-discriminatory social work. Still, one more wasted year obsessing about how to justify not evaluating our CPD reflections has kept them busy perhaps. Personally, I admire the tenacity of Ahmina Akhtar but even she must see that SWE is not capable of breaking the paralysis that comes from the complacency of blaming HCPC and Covid for all of its failings. Employ some social workers.

  2. Jim Greer October 5, 2021 at 3:40 pm #

    This seems rather a harsh judgement. Social Work England was not only starting from scratch but inherited a backlog of FTP cases.

    • Katharine October 6, 2021 at 11:00 am #

      PSA: “We appreciate that there are differences between regulators’ processes and requirements…Nevertheless the difference between SWE and most other regulators in performance against these measures were striking.”
      SWE: “Becoming the regulator for social work was our first important step during this performance review.”
      With respect, you cannot be a regulator if you fail the most basic performance standards of a regulator now can you? How many more years of ‘induction’ is needed before “harsh” becomes redundant Jim? Incidently the student in my team was given 9 cases on her first day and asked to see at least 4 of the families in her first week. Bad practice? Yes. Realities of how services are? Yes. That is my definition of harsh, not the rabbit in headlights floundering of SWE.

    • Asclepius October 7, 2021 at 10:19 am #

      But SWE didn’t start from scratch. HCPC didn’t just go away the day before SWE landed. If you are shaped by the DfE, if BASW holds your hand, if you make decisions about who should work for you, if you set up an HQ, if you “consult”, than you are actively shaping what you are to become. SWE is what it is through choice not because it was let down. Its engagement with HCPC was on its own terms, it wasn’t a junior partner. I was involved in some of this stuff. SWE was always a disaster in waiting because it took a top down, one vision approach. It consciously decided against employing social workers for certain posts to “millitate” against “bias”. It’s good that SWE has allies still but it does our profession no good to excuse its failure to earn trust or to look for scapegoats to justify how it continuous to fail the most basic of organisational functions. It was incompetent and shameful not to have thought that having demographic data would be crucial to knowing who you are regulating, to think social workers waiting up to 18 months for a FtP hearing is acceptable, that it’s unfortunate if a social worker can’t start a job because SWE didn’t quite get round to registering them. SWE needs critical friends not pals.

  3. Ellie Ross (just retired) October 5, 2021 at 5:14 pm #

    Didn’t Sarah Blackmore just regale us about her reflections on the inequality of opportunity and different experiences of workers with protective characteristics? If SWE don’t have accurate data on diversity of registrants, how does she know what the discrimination faced is and by whom? How is it that social workers have to evidence their CPD but that does not apply to SWE staff? Who knew that when SWE yell at us that they are about boosting public confidence in social workers and CPD is the test, they mean any old guess work on their part will do. How can SWE claim it does not discriminate against some social workers and their FtP process is not racialised when they don’t even know who they are talking about? Social workers know though. Perhaps you can condescend to talk to us. PSWs and the like don’t count on this one mind. You don’t really have that much credibility to delight in the misplaced self adulation that without you we would just be a menace. When will you bother to get the data and when will you share on what evidence you think we should know our place and do as we are told?

  4. Alan October 5, 2021 at 7:40 pm #

    How many years of blaming HCPC is needed before criticism stops being harsh?

  5. Kigsley October 6, 2021 at 10:11 am #

    Disagree. It can’t be that much of a surprise that an organisation which seems to have somehow overlooked building resilience to its functions started off floundering and continious to struggle to meet the basics. Why is it so difficult to gather what most regulators would regard as elementary data about registrants? SWE is well resourced and even received extra pandemic funding so it does no favours to social work to turn a blind eye to the core reasons why it’s failing. HCPC is not responsible for the mess two years later are they?

  6. Jonathan October 6, 2021 at 2:23 pm #

    I am afraid Jim Greer is overgenerous. As I recall it was in the beginning of 2016 that DfE announced a new regulator would be taking over from HCPC. SWE opened for business in December 2019. Either those three years were wasted by HCPC obstructing a proper transition to the new Regulator or SWE were inept and did not ask for the right information. They certainly did not recruit the right personnel to get going. I have experience of being registered by both. While HCPC had little knowledge of social work, my interactions with them were always helpful and they engaged efficiently with a solution focused attitude. I can guarantee that unlike SWE they wouldn’t have kept a deceased colleague on the register adding to the distress of their partner nor would retired social workers show up as “failed to register” as is still the case by SWE now. And didn’t BASW fanfare how they walked SWE through the transition period? It’s not as if SWE arrived bereft of funding and support on December 2019 is it? What’s harsh is the demoralisation that comes with being a registrant of an organisation run by mainly non-social workers who are more comfortable with bureaucracy than asserting a confident vision of social work we can have pride in.

  7. P. Nash October 6, 2021 at 5:00 pm #

    In an ideal world, it’d be great to see BASW facilitate a ‘vote of no confidence’ in SWE. In reality, I can’t see that happening somehow…

  8. Shirley G October 6, 2021 at 5:02 pm #

    Let’s not forget, SWE aren’t just incompetent – they also perpetuate institutional racism:

  9. Kassim October 6, 2021 at 6:56 pm #

    How complex is the “becoming a regulator” process that standards on fitness to practice referrals, diversity data and registration speed can be set aside for the “we can get round to it at some point” B list? Pointing out inept practice is just that. What’s harsh is setting priority targets with no regard to how lengthy delays to FtP and registration impact on the health of social workers anxious about their employment. What’s harsh is knowing diversity data is an after thought.

  10. Allison October 6, 2021 at 7:02 pm #

    BASW is all but embedded in SWE so that would be like telling themselves that they too are a tad unfit for purpose.

  11. Anonymous October 8, 2021 at 5:06 pm #

    Forget BASW supporting you with SWE incompetence. You are wasting your fees if you pay them. Money for nothing. SWE itself, try and find a social worker there, one who has practiced front line recently or is maybe more comfortable dishing out punishment to fellow social workers who are on the front line while they sit in comfortable surroundings/have supervision/have no one telling them how shit they are……. Cowards.

  12. Abdul October 8, 2021 at 5:42 pm #

    Oh the irony. So we have a regulator who ‘judges’ our practice, and the majority of cases referred are around ‘workload and practice issues’ (i.e. Social Worker’s who are not able to keep up with an unreasonable caseload), and they cannot even keep the same standard they judge us by? They are not even keeping up or managing their own caseload, and yet they impose sanctions which they themselves are guilty of, but who do we complain too? When will we have a regulator who stands up for us?

  13. Johnny Walker October 8, 2021 at 6:03 pm #

    The profession has a regulator that can’t meet it’s own standards. Fabulous.

    • Candy October 8, 2021 at 11:15 pm #

      3 of the 5 leaders aren’t even social workers.

    • Whinger October 9, 2021 at 10:36 am #

      A tad severe! After all, compared with other professional regulators uniquely, SWE had to cope with a pandemic and its staff working from home. I think social workers need to be kinder. We have had it so much better than them haven’t we?

    • Anonymous October 9, 2021 at 1:45 pm #

      Correct but thats okay. No workers there will be disciplined will they but we will be placed on trial for almost anything. No workers there will suffer a 2 year investigation that ends in nothing. We will.

  14. Cara October 9, 2021 at 10:46 am #

    True story. When told that I might not be able to submit my monthly KPI data, my manager “reminded” me that I don’t work for SWE. She is a nurse.

  15. Sheena West October 9, 2021 at 2:54 pm #

    Sarah Blackmore and her minions should come do a shift on the social work frontline. They wouldn’t last half a day.

  16. Elizabeth Blake October 11, 2021 at 12:18 pm #

    This report does not surprise me. SWE do not look at the evidence provided and pretend that it does not exist. They ignore any issues that are inconvenient, rewrite headings and rephrase concerns in order to obfuscate and get rid of service users who raise concerns. When provided with clear written evidence they call everything “poor practice” only and deem it not significant enough to have a FTP hearing. This includes evidence of deliberate deception of service users by social workers regarding reports; factually false information provided by social workers to SWE which SWE could but do not check; social workers’ refusal to allow any complaint, either corporate or statutory (for example in relation to children being actively denied an advocate); and social workers refusing to tell service users about the Children Act panel hearing 3rd stage. All considered acceptable by SWE.

  17. Anonymous October 12, 2021 at 4:02 pm #

    SWE ruining careers for no reason you dont say.

    • Not a social worker October 17, 2021 at 8:33 pm #

      SWE isn’t just smugly content to persecute social workers it extends its contempt to partners of dead social workers too. When I asked SWE to remove my partner from the public register as they hadn’t “failed to register” but had died before they could upload any CPD, I was told that “rules” did not allow it. Apparently the only way a social worker can remove their name from the register voluntarily is if they request it. You can perhaps imagine the upsetting conversation that followed about how this wasn’t possible. The lack of compassion I might have brushed away but I will never forgive them for making me feel as if I was being a nuisance. This is the mindset social workers and the public have to deal with.

      • Keith October 21, 2021 at 2:28 pm #

        Perhaps they were having one of their “clumsy conversation” so couldn’t hear your voice. My deepest sympathies.


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