New BASW chair seeks increased membership to enhance impact

    Julia Ross aims to set association on path to doubling membership to increase influence with government and employers, as former director, civil servant and company head returns to social work roots

    Julia Ross
    BASW chair Julia Ross (credit: Simon Hadley)

    “I want to help set BASW on the path to doubling our membership in the near future. It will be difficult, especially with the cost-of-living crisis, but with a larger representation we will be in an even stronger position to influence policy makers and represent social workers with employers.”

    New British Association of Social Workers chair Julia Ross is setting out one of her key priorities for her two-year term as chair, which began in June.

    Doubling membership is a seriously ambitious goal.

    BASW currently has about 22,000 members, roughly one-fifth of the registered social work population of the UK.

    While this is an improvement on the situation a decade ago, when membership stood at 14,000, numbers have been around the 20,000 mark for the past five years.

    So how does she feel it can be achieved?

    Diversifying membership

    Ross wants the association to get better at targeting younger and newly qualified social workers, including through improving the way it communicates with them, so that joining BASW on qualification becomes a norm.

    We’ve recently expanded the way we speak to our members, but we can go further,” she says. “I want to look at the full breadth of social media platforms to be involved in as many conversations about social work as possible.”

    “I’d like us to look very differently at our relationships with employers and universities. Looking long term, a more diverse membership will fundamentally change the way we think and campaign.” .”

    She also calls for better relationships with trade unions. Ross praises the work of the Social Workers Union, which is a member of BASW. However, its 14,000-strong membership is exceeded by UNISON, which puts its social work cohort at over 40,000 – give or take, where Ross would like to see BASW’s numbers grow to.

    Increased clout

    In terms of what membership of this level could achieve, she sees BASW having better relationships – and, by implication – clout with government, as is the case with professional bodies in areas such as medicine.

    While seeking to increase BASW’s influence, Ross is glowing about how the association has evolved over past five years, under the leadership of chief executive Ruth Allen and Ross’s predecessor as chair, Gerry Nosowska.

    She particularly highlights two changes: an increasing focus on the lived experience of those who receive social work support and on equality and diversity in BASW’s work.

    Focus on lived experience and equalities

    “There’s been a very clear decision to take the experience of people who have experienced social work interventions and put it right at the centre of what we do,” she says. “A lot of other social care organisations I work with really struggle with equalities but BASW has made a real step-change there.”

    Ross does not give specific examples but some recent BASW publications give a flavour of what she means. These include a good practice guide issued last month to conducting welfare enquiries in cases where people on unauthorised encampments – often Gypsies, Roma and Travellers – are threatened with eviction.

    This was developed with the Gypsy Roma and Traveller Social Work Association – a peer support group for social workers from the communities – in response to increased to police eviction powers brought about by the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022.

    Besides strengthening BASW’s membership and, consequently, its clout, Ross also wants to see a stronger voice for social work as a whole, which she sees as requiring closer links with fellow professions.

    Social work ‘must be proactive and proud’

    “They can probably learn from us and us from them. I’ve written to the new chair of the Royal College of GPs to say, ‘welcome, let’s talk’. I think people have an anxiety about NHS and health colleagues taking over social work…I think social work can be defensive. And I think it needs to be proactive and proud…We can have a louder voice nationally if we join up.”

    Her other two priorities for her two years as chair are strengthening social workers’ access to professional development – building on the association’s existing programme – and enhancing BASW’s work on tackling poverty, in the context of the mounting cost of living crisis.

    Challenging poverty

    This has been an increasing focus for the association in recent years, exemplified by a 2019 anti-poverty practice guide. This acknowledged the challenges practitioners faced in tackling poverty, but urged social workers to focus on helping people secure all the income they were entitled to, for example through benefits, and avoid stigmatising families they worked with.

    Ross also praises the work of social worker Dominic Watters who, drawing on his own experience, has campaigned against food poverty, with the support of SWU and BASW.

    Again, she sees this as involving BASW working in partnership, and campaigning, with others, in this case charities dedicated to tackling poverty, though she highlights the challenges individual social workers – particularly in local authorities – face in this area.

    “Within local authorities, you can be political with a small P but not with a large P,” she adds. “You can in the voluntary sector.”

    50 years with BASW

    Ross has become BASW chair after being a member of the association for 50 years.

    The intervening years saw her first rise up the local authority social work ranks to become a director of social services for 10 years, a role that she combined for three years as chief executive of the neighbouring NHS primary care trust, the first such joint appointment.

    She then, in 2005, moved onto the Department of Health to lead its work on social care improvement, followed by 10 years (2009-19) in the private sector, heading up care and health for data analytics firm PredictX (formerly Pi Ltd).

    Senior management roles across local government, health, government and the private sector appear an unlikely breeding ground for chairing social work’s professional body.

    Ross, who joined BASW’s governing council in 2019, after leaving PredictX, describes it as getting back to her roots.

    Back to her social work roots

    She subsequently became vice-chair, when that post became vacant.

    “That got me much closer to BASW’s central function and that made me much more optimistic about what it could do. I thought I really wanted to contribute in a more substantial way. That’s why I went for it, the combination of the 50years, the changing scenario and the confidence that both BASW and I could make a step-change in what we were doing.”

    Going back to her roots has also involved writing a book – Call the Social – about her career in the profession, told through the stories of the people she has worked with.

    “I really enjoy writing,” she says. “I wrote that book because I felt there was a lot I wanted to understand, think about and reflect on. That was what motivated me. Some of that was about my own family experience. A lot of it was to do with my own social work experience.”

    What did she take away from writing it?

    “I understood more about why we make the same mistakes – it’s the system, it’s not us as individuals. And that’s why I get upset when individual social workers get blamed.”

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    9 Responses to New BASW chair seeks increased membership to enhance impact

    1. Ex libris August 31, 2022 at 4:00 pm #

      It’s not really a surprise that the new Chair wants to target newly qualified social workers given that they have no historical context to judge BASW against. Perhaps they can start by asking about the percentage of qualified social workers who are actually practicing as opposed to the academics and retirees that make up the claimed 22,000. Perhaps they can demand that an association which claims to represent social workers in public doesn’t collude with the DfE and SWE out of earshot so that it truly is an independent and challenging voice. BASW has done immense damage to social work and social workers in its ineptness. Pay awards? Marginal and ineffective and at times even at odds with its own ‘trade union’ SWU. Undermining permanent social worker terms and conditions? First in line with its umbrella company off shoot. On the sidelines when SWE persecute and hound social workers? Ofcourse, it’s always difficult to criticise chums isn’t it. The list is longer still. So BASW has no interest in the likes of me that it hounded out of membership because I found its stance over Unison so destructive during the nascent Social Work College discussions. So excuse me if I think memory and actual facts matter more than excitement and enthusiasm. Or to put it another way, if you are so embedded in the bureaucracy of the “system” you often don’t get to see the individual yourself too.

    2. Sarah Chelmsford August 31, 2022 at 7:09 pm #

      Good luck to the new Chair. Bit of an early own-goal for not making reference to BASW’s groundbreaking work on anti-racism though….

    3. Tray August 31, 2022 at 9:54 pm #

      I would love to be a BASW member again but as a part time worker I couldn’t afford to maintain the cost as well as childcare and increased cost of living. Would consider rejoining if fees were reduced for half time workers

    4. Pauline Sergeant September 1, 2022 at 9:48 am #

      I look forward to working with the new BASW Chair in supporting and promoting the social work role whilst influencing Government and policy makers. I agree that the wellbeing of all social work practitioners must be integral and the focus of all that BASW hopes to achieve, particularly in these stressful times. Strong and collective membership will surely amplify the voices of all social workers.

    5. G Jackson September 1, 2022 at 8:57 pm #

      I’m convinced. This looks like a chumocracy appointment.

    6. Arthur Dent September 2, 2022 at 8:08 am #

      Increase impact? Really? What’s in the positive improvements tally? Last time I had the energy to think I found that SWE continue to persecute us for wrong think, seem to think social workers of colour need to be “regulated” more minutely, our pay and conditions continue to worsen, we have next to no post qualifying continuing education let alone training, most of us never get supervision, racism and sexism infects all tiers of social work, ableist discrimination isn’t even acknowledged, having a private work space is the equvilant of using a quill, managers shouting is apparently a sign of strong leadership. Some might say practice guides and tweets are the emblems of the ineffectual trying to convince that being ignored isn’t a thing.

    7. Anne-Marie September 2, 2022 at 5:39 pm #

      As a former BASW member, I found the cost to benefit situation prohibitive to my continued membership. I am very sad to say that I simply can’t see a reason to renew my membership

      BASW really does need to show social workers good reasons – not only to join, but – to continue with membership. It’s all well and good recruiting NQ’s, but you then have to retain them as members. As things stand, I simply can’t see how BASW is going to do this.

      Seems to me, there is a need for much more than rhetoric.

    8. Eyes Wide Open September 4, 2022 at 4:49 pm #

      Your aims are both unenviable and unrealistic Julia, but good luck!

    9. Chloe September 7, 2022 at 8:25 am #

      For a thoroughly inconsequential organisation BASW dies seem to irritate a lot of social workers. Join your local union, the real ones, I say.