Social Work England bids to tackle systemic causes of fitness to practise issues in new strategy

Regulator says high volumes and long durations of fitness to practise cases are adversely affecting complainants and practitioners and show need to shift towards preventing harm and local resolution of concerns

Prevention plan written in a note pad and documents.
Photo: Vitalii Vodolazskyi/Adobe Stock

Social Work England will seek to tackle the systemic causes of fitness to practise issues over the next three years to reduce risks to the public and prevent social workers from enduring lengthy investigative processes.

In its 2023-26 strategy, the regulator said that it wanted to “get ahead of the curve” to prevent fitness to practise concerns from arising by addressing the key risks to public protection within social work.

It said that, in particular, it would focus on:

  • improving and strengthening the transition from education to employment;
  • supporting and guiding early career development;
  • making continuing professional development (CPD) routine, impactful and core to improving professional practice;
  • the development and accountability required of specialist roles.

The number of fitness to practise concerns Social Work England received fell by 26% from 2020-21 to 2021-22, to 1,734, with a particular sharp drop (38%) in those from members of the public.

‘Significant potential harm to public’

However, in its strategy, the regulator said this number constituted “significant potential harm to the public”, and showed that “more [was] needed to protect from harm the often vulnerable people who rely on social work services”.

“Additionally, by their nature, fitness to practise investigations can bring a further impact to the complainant, as well as to the social worker involved.”

This was being exacerbated by higher rates of cases going to hearings – which determine whether a social worker’s fitness to practise is impaired and what, if any, sanction should follow – and hearings taking longer.

Social Work England said it shift to greater prevention of fitness to practise concerns would involve using the data it holds to understand the sources of referrals and of risks to public protection and to work with employers, educators and government to identify solutions to them.

Tackling systemic risks

In terms of improving the transition from education to employment, the regulator will, from next year, assess social work course providers against a set of statements defining students’ readiness for professional practice on graduation.

In relation to early career development, the Department for Education (DfE) is due to test the introduction of a five-year early career framework for new practitioners, to replace the one-year assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE), though this would only apply to those in statutory children’s services and would not come into force until 2026 at the earliest. Social Work England said it would be looking at the issue itself, based on its professional standards, and has separately cited the importance of addressing social work’s workforce issues on a whole-profession basis, encompassing all areas of practice and types of employment.

On CPD, the regulator currently requires practitioners to submit two pieces a year, one of which should have been reflected upon with a peer, as a condition of registration each year.

However, it said that many practitioners recorded their CPD towards the end of the three-month renewal process, with a quarter uploading their first piece in the final week of the period.

In its strategy, Social Work England said it wanted practitioners to move away from this to CPD being “a continuous process of learning and reflection across the year”.

Accountability of specialist roles

In relation to specialist roles, Social Work England regulates the training of approved mental health professionals and best interests assessors, while practitioners can also choose to have their entry in the register annotated to recognise their qualifications as AMHPs or BIAs.

It is also examining how it could have more oversight of, and contact with, practice educators, which could include, potentially, assuring their training, supporting their practice and ensuring their ongoing suitability, as recommended by the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care.

Social Work England said it would consider “the role of annotations to the register in providing public information about the capabilities of social workers to do specialist roles, which we consider to be of higher risk to the public”.

As well as seeking to prevent fitness to practise concerns, the regulator said it would seek to have more cases resolved locally by employers without the need for them to be referred, on the grounds that this was “often the most appropriate, quickest and efficient way of resolving concerns or issues that arise”.

Resolving cases locally

It said respondents to its consultation on the strategy were broadly supportive of this, but several raised concerns about how this could be achieved without discrimination.

Social Work England said that, while it would encourage the use of local resolution, it recognised it would need to be managed safely. It has started working with employers and others to understand how local processes were working, and said it would seek to find the balance between helping resolve issues as close as possible to where they occurred and continuing to provide a route for fitness to practise issues to be investigated.

Social Work England’s objectives for 2023-26

  1. Build trust and confidence in the social work profession, and in regulation, by strengthening its relationship with the sector.
  2. Share the data and insight it holds about the social work profession and its regulation, to support leaders and policy makers drive change, and ensure its processes are safe and fair.
  3. Collaborate with other sector leaders to develop a clear and shared understanding of risks to the public and agree how to manage those risks.
  4. Ensure all social work students receive comprehensive and consistent education and training, in a supportive and inclusive learning environment to prepare them for practice.
  5. Ensure its registration processes are fair, responsive and efficient.
  6. Review its fitness to practise case resolution approach, to improve service quality and fairness, and ensure value for money.
  7. Develop its work with employers and the public to resolve more concerns locally (where it is safe and appropriate to do so).
  8. Further develop its digital channels and services, to ensure they are inclusive and focused on user experience.
  9. Be a diverse and inclusive employer, which supports and motivates its people so they can deliver for the people we serve.
  10. Continually develop and improve how it works, ensuring it is a well-run organisation that delivers the right outcomes and provides value for money.

Source: Social Work England’s strategy for 2023-26: driving positive change in social work

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25 Responses to Social Work England bids to tackle systemic causes of fitness to practise issues in new strategy

  1. Black Diamond March 27, 2023 at 9:04 pm #

    Nothing about how they are going to tackle systemic racism though!!!!

  2. Afinches March 28, 2023 at 8:53 am #

    Need to set timescales for resolution based on level of risk. Put sw money where your mouth is!
    Employers need to sign up to this ie. provide evidence and also outcome of internal investigation within a set timescale or explain why no internal investigation.
    Employers need to explain why they have referred prior to completing their own investigation.
    Otherwise more and more social workers will embrace leaving the profession.

  3. Free at last March 28, 2023 at 10:55 am #

    How about putting a time limit on how long FTP proceedings can run? Then we can all actually measure the regulators ability to swiftly protect the public and prevent further distress to complainants and registrants.

    So instead of acting ‘without delay’ to inform registrants of any FTP concerns being raised, as was the bench line previously, SWE could have a clear timeline of within 2 months a registrant will be informed of the nature of the issue. Then, a further time limit for registrants’ response, review, and any hearing to be held within 6 months?

    I waited 12 months just to be told what I was being investigated for, 1 month given to me to respond, then a further 2 months to be informed of the outcome in one line : ‘No case for you to answer and no further action’. That would have been the half way point if a hearing was needed and there was a case against me.

    I had a mental breakdown in the time I was waiting due to the pressure and anxiety and whilst I did continue practicing for some time afterwards, I’m changing career now as its just not worth it.

    • Tom J March 29, 2023 at 12:08 pm #

      Sorry that you went through this.

      I would make three points

      1. Some of the things I have seen investigated by SWE did not warrant it. Their bar is too low.
      2. When they do investigate the process is far too slow
      3. The overwhelming majority of investigations are of local authority children’s social workers. This is grossly unfair.

      • Alec Fraher March 29, 2023 at 9:03 pm #

        SWE haven’t demonstrated competency, right? Who if anyone holds SWE to account?

        • Alec Fraher March 31, 2023 at 4:39 pm #

          Huh! Just as I thought.

          From ‘Right-First-Time’ to ‘Right Touch’.

          Is the brain child of Harry Cayton CBE and developed internationally with glowing illustrations from New Zealand, Canada, Ireland, Australia and British Columbia. And, drawn from Health, Banking and the Building Sectors.

          So why hasn’t SWE made mention of this. Maybe they have and I’ve not seen it. Or rather I have but by digging about within the literature reviews and statutory shifts in, primarily, the NHS Reforms since s222 of the NHS Act 2002 and the NHS and Social Care Act 2012.

          Rather scarily though the Regulators Regulator, whilst promotion ‘thought leadership’ and adding links to ‘MindLink’ on their portal are pretty thin on their actual thinking. For sure, Sparrow, Sinek and O’Neil have something to offer. But it is based on the rather limited newtonian machine world view. Except without the practical impact newtonian science brings to the physical world.

          It is concept driven. Yet the concepts used haven’t be derived from any understanding of complex adaptive systems let alone reality.

          The 7 principles suggests that SWE are simply following, ie being told to do ~ yeah know good old fashioned command and control dressed up a bit more nicely than before.

          In doing so SWE are failing in their responsibility by ignoring the obvious need for a differend (Lyotard) and to demonstrate their own ability to meet with the 7 principles of ‘Right Touch’.

          Maybe, that’s the unintended-intention afterall?

          Being Professional, or Being (Heidegger) a Social Worker, Eh?

          The Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS) approach is great if Langranian simplifications apply ~ Normatively speaking one could always agrue they do, but for how long and who really gains?

          Reflexivity is missing from the SWE handbook entirely, No?

          Lean and LeanSystemsThinking as well as Systems Thinking (including Systems Dynamics) is helpful only to the extent that one accepts that ‘All Models Are Wrong, Some are Merely Useful’ (George Box)

          Consider, if you will, that ‘to hold’ information is very narrowly legally defined ~ I know because I lost a ‘fitness to practice’ case against a number of authorities (and yep I brought such a case against a LA and NHS PCT) ~ and the whole thing falls apart at the seams.

          I am sure SWE will have given consideration to the case-law in respect of these matters, right?
          What’s good for the goose and all that….

          SWE must act to qualify the re-use of ‘Right Touch’ as a regulatory concept ~ it is not fit for the job being done, unless SWE justify the ethical basis for it’s continued use.

          The harmonisation of Professional Services is a throw back to the EU/EC standardisation of such services arising from the Bolkenstein Directive of 1957.

          This is a post Brexit anomaly and greater care and due diligence is required from Parliament when delegating such tasks.

          Being, in the Heideggerian sense, a Social Worker necessitates the removal of such legal illiteracy.

          Problem identification and getting closer to it just got very real, Right?

          SWE have got a lot of ground to make up if they’re going demonstrate competency to their own regulatory body.

          It is really a matter for a HofC Select Committee, no?

      • Mark Staeds. March 31, 2023 at 4:54 pm #

        Agree with all points and I left profession after being found not guilty. In fact SWE offered praise for the piece of work that took them over 2 years to investigate. A half decent duty worker could sort in two hours. Truly. Work at Homebase part time and happy. Life is too short to be ruled by that mob.

    • Laura Rafael March 29, 2023 at 8:54 pm #

      To be honest, i have decided to leave social work too. I am so dissapointed in SWE and my social worker colleagues. I am really the one for positive change and e enhancing SW’s wellbeing at work, but all I am met is with resistance to achieve such outcome. It is a shame because it is such a beautiful profession, so poorely managed.

      • Alec Fraher March 31, 2023 at 12:43 pm #

        It is being managed, Laura. Just not on ways that are in keeping with Local Authority Social Work.

  4. Violet March 28, 2023 at 1:47 pm #

    I wholeheartedly support the aim of SWE to make CPD a year long meaningful endeavour. Assuming of course that it will place an expectation on employers and supervisors to create the supportive structures necessary with threat of sanctions if they fail to do so. Which of course SWE will not do. So the usual meaningless process will continue and social workers like me will do the minimum necessary in our own time to ensure our registration.

  5. Alec Fraher March 28, 2023 at 3:32 pm #

    This reads, to me, very much like an approach known as SofPK or Systems of Profound Knowledge ~ an approach to what’s called ‘knowledge management’ developed decades ago by Dr Edward Deming.

    I maybe wrong, of course. The signature of SoPK is identified by the following formulation which is computational or digitised.


    It is a staple for those handling information management requirements across closed systems. Often accompanied by additional ‘knowledge management’ approaches like Visualing Transformation.

    However, to claim it’s ‘systemic’ ignores entirely whether SofPK is suited to the treatment of ‘systemic problems’ in complex adaptive systems, let alone complex society with a myriad of unfathomable voids.

    There’s a whole raft of such approaches for consideration and each requires a detailed justification ~ messing around with messy wicked problems requires, in this instance, a level of discernment seemingly missing, no?

    For CPD see the library of management resources run by the University of Utrech here

    What’s being described doesn’t strike me as a systemic assessment ~ it is though more basic quality improvement and assurance exercise.

    Attempts to tame, through the digitised standardisation of data inputs, wicked messy problem is a dangerous way to go about things.

    Greater justification by SWE is required.

  6. Alec Fraher March 29, 2023 at 9:01 pm #

    Donald Shon, (1983) says very simply, and on the matter of reflective practice, that practitioners can very rarely put into words that which they learn from reflection-in-action. This ain’t new. It is in keeping though with other notable authors like Michael Polyani on indeterminacy and incommensurability. The relationship between the rational and irrational more recently addressed by Bojan Radej and Mojca Golobic.

    There isn’t ie it’s non-existent or a void, an evaluation methodology or system of systems methodology to address the issues SWE seek an answer to.

    As ever, knowing what questions to ask or not when valorisation is a necessity of safety and engagement, a prerequisite to any social work intervention.

    SWE, really ought to be minded towards such a basic and foundational responsibility, No?

    Direct observation is an ongoing and regular aspect of supervision is pretty hard to replicate algorithmically.

    By way of a simple analogy hanging a car wheel on a flat driveway at home is very different to doing the same on an inclined road or in the slip way of a motorway.

  7. Duncan March 29, 2023 at 9:36 pm #

    3 years and waiting. Two no doubt expensive psychiatric assessments both concluding that my mental health is stable and well managed. External legal firm to prepare evidence bundle fo the hearing at no doubt extortionate expense. And hearing scheduled for upto four days!
    Given that the concern is mental health related perhaps the regulator needs to consider if it is compliant with equalities legislation as well as the public services equalities duties with regards to its treatment of registrants with a mental health condition. Beyond farcical

    • Alec Fraher April 2, 2023 at 7:21 pm #

      In a case I heard about a registrant faced the Local Authorities Barrister, the SWE Barrister, and the Training Providers Barrister ~ they won.

      They left Social Work too.

      American Legalism, unknown also as Formal Legalism, has since the Woolf Review of 1997 added confusion and uncertainty, for all parties including SWE.

      The use of Right Touch as an overarching governance concept, by the Professional Conduct Authority, and evident in SWE ‘Fitness to Practice’ strategies is flawed and radically so.

      It’s unworkable. The jurisdictional boundaries do not lean towards a local resolution adding, almost exponentially,to the litigatious risks of procedural irregularities. It is a crazy way to build public confidence, no?

      And, perhaps, to the extent that the Parliamentary and Health Services Ombudsman and Local Government Ombudsman ought really to be concerned.

      How many case’s of Fitness to Practice are actually a liability that would have ordinarily been placed at the Council’s door by a ‘complainant’? Failure to act when there’s a duty to do so is almost always about having created the conditions within which harm is caused. And, for anyone following how American Legalism is shaping the US social services check out the rise in Class Actions against Children’s Services in Seattle.

      There’s a whole raft of ‘points of law’ and, for sure, issues of the very construction of a statute that blind adherence to ‘Right Touch’ was never designed for and should leave alone.

      The continued use by the Professional Conduct Authority, and without contestation by SWE, of, in law, irrational concepts will only undermine and ultimately fail social workers, and crucially direct attention away from what’s really going on.

      Oops, I forgot. That’s the Purpose, Right? (Incidentally, when using the 7 principles outlined in Right Touch asking ‘what’s the problem’ is a meta-question organisational psychologists employ, alongside other meta-narrative like, The Purpose of the System is What it Does (POSIWID). This method of thinking, like Right Touch, is useful as long as one has diagnostic experience to differentiate between Frequentist and Bayesian approaches to Statistical Control Processes. I see no evidence of this, yet.

      For CPD see Alternatives to Courts: Obligation or Options? The Public Law Project, SOAS November 1997.

      * I was tutored in Statistical and Data Modelling by Dr Muhammed Muhammed one of the experts asked to examine the Harold Shipman murders*

  8. Alec Fraher April 4, 2023 at 12:50 am #

    It strikes me that it’s taken 30-40 years for the existing cohort of social worker’s to get a glimpse at the spirit within which LASSA was written ~ it’s without doubt that Councils became addicted to their own success in the early 70s ~ Whether or not social service are though a public health management problem, like smoking cessation programmes, requires a differend(Lyotard) mindset.

    SWE, should and could be world leading ratherthan blind followers. The UK, in drafting the Chronically Sick and Disabled Peoples Rights to Representation Act 1968 were world leaders ~ the very first to do something.

    Just saying.

    For CPD see Baby and Bath Water and Blackmail by Theodore Adorno in Minima Moralia: Reflections on Damaged Life. These two amorphism, amongst a whole collection, were captured by Adorno as part of his efforts to prevent the rising risks of authoritarianism ever happening again. One of his, then, students Otto Laske has written widely on adult developmental psychology and he’s worth looking up at the Interdevelopmental Institute ~ he’s very approachable and will sign post usually by return of email often advocating the work of Roy Bhaskar, The Pulse to Freedom. Similarly, Prof John Raven writes on Education in a blog called EyeOnSociety ~ John is one today’s sleeping giants on all things flaunting the brand of being ‘systemic’ or ‘systems thinking’ ~ again he’s very approachable.

    • Alec Fraher April 4, 2023 at 11:49 am #

      I can remember when Councils did everything ~ housing, education, buses, infrastructure ~ and while it often meant it was hard to make-sense of how things got done they actually got done in a ‘it makes-sense-making’ way … the real issues of land and property grab, challenges to which are the basis of a lot of social work, are not being addressed ~ is this the real price of ‘professionalism’, I’d say so and wouldn’t be on my own in doing so.

      Social Work necessitates being grounded by the reality of people’s lives ~ a social insecurity that is rooted in a path dependence on right-wing thinking; it’s completely avoidable creating needless and wholly preventable social anxiety and subjective distress ~ but then 50% of UK wealth is accumulated from ‘planning gains’ accrued through property and land transfers.

      Make no mistake that the real winners in the Children’s Care Services Review will be UK Real Estate Investment Trusts. And, make no mistakes that the MacAlister Review is actively taking sides with the allied Professionals from Banking and Building seeking an easy 8%-12% return on investment.

      And, why not? Like it or not they’re the cohort of people wanted to become Foster Carers and Adopters. Our business leaders, like Digby Jones, are exemplary ~ putting money where the mouth is.

      The 3rd Sector has been aping it’s commercial counterparts for a couple of decade’s ~ is this the price of being Professional as opposed to Beging a Social Worker?

      • Alec Fraher April 5, 2023 at 9:54 pm #

        For CPD on Collective Memory, a vital feature in the art of valorisation in Social-Working see:

        Lecture Notes: The Care Structure of Dasins Disclosedness a Revealed Anxiety by Scott D Churchill (2012) ~ Care Structure is the fourth pillar in Heideggerian thought. Related directly to his treatment of forgottenness or Seinvergessenheit and particularly relevant to the issues of Being, being a Child in the World today and Being a Social Worke r with statutory duties to protect children and vulnerable adults.

        The total reads to date are @5000 and it’s 19 pages in length.

      • Alec Fraher April 5, 2023 at 10:51 pm #

        This is an illustration of the application of Heidegger’s Care Structure which if applied alongside both Heron’s Six Category Intervention Analysis and the Hawkins-Peulet Model of supervision may, at a push, the SWE use of Right Touch meaningful, I think not but one has to work with what one’s got, right?

        • Alec Fraher April 8, 2023 at 8:42 pm #

          When weighing up where SWE are at one must locate their activity in a wider context, right?

          Well, and when Eileen Munroe was asked to help Gov with Working Together, the super-meta-narrative was to treat social work, and especially children and family work, within the topography of Complex Adaptive Systems.

          Here’s a illustration of how this looks. This is abstracted but if one ever wondered where and how the words and language(s) used emerge this is a good source.

          The omissions are, indeed, ontological ie this is about the increasing pressure for computational assessment of social complexity and not about being-a-person in the world or Being-a-Social-Worker. Here’s the link on the Computational Handling Indeterminacy. This is a key driver for SWE whether they know it or not, I think not.

          Have fun…

  9. Alec Fraher April 8, 2023 at 12:25 pm #

    FYI ~ Heidegger’s thought while constituting a considerable body of work is derived from Hindu and Buddhist philosophy. Much like the popularised Mindfulness of today and the secular appropriation of Eastern and African thought it’s always useful to go back to the original sources. For CPD keep an active eye on IFSW publications.

  10. Alec Fraher April 10, 2023 at 11:43 pm #

    *blummin autocorrect ~ but that’s the future, no? At the 2007 BASW AGM members, by unanimous show of hands, voted for action against the unchecked use of IT software driving social work decision making. What action was taken? Social Work remains uniquely placed in Data Protection Law, ie there are exemption see s34(d) of 1998 Act but do check it out as it’s been a while since I used it, to make sure that the data held about a data subject is in fact, factual*

  11. Jackie Arnold April 16, 2023 at 6:26 pm #

    I wish there was a fitness to practice investigation against the local authority social worker who failed to tell me or my 15 year old daughter that she was to be the subject of an s47 process (after I had made a referral to a SARC). It meant that I found out almost by accident after a dire year of safeguarding at her school. We were not engaged in the process and not issued with an outcome to Enquiries letter. There were enormous conflicts of interests at the school, the social care department and police. This is a clear breach of the Children’s Act; the statutory duty to promote the best interests of the child. Her voice was not heard at all. It almost wants to make me train to become a social worker.

    • Alec Fraher April 16, 2023 at 10:28 pm #

      Firstly, all Councils must give reasons for the decisions taken. This is an area of administrative law that the Local Government Ombudsman covers and they may help you with this. Although, I suspect, any records would be heavily redacted due to the confused lines of responsibilities and accountabilities between the services.

      Similarly, this is something that the Information Commissioner’s Office may help you with. Although in Information Law and your assertion of Data Subject Rights the Council’s duties ‘to hold’ information are pretty narrowly defined. As yet there’s No legal responsibility for an indivisible obligation despite all the talk and literature on partnership and seemlessness.

      NB: These are long winded remedies for maladministration and when a Council hasn’t dealt with problems properly and irrespective of the problem. [The Ombudsman] Or when Information must be made available and isn’t [The Information Commissioner] It is a very tiring and can be soul destroying to use either of these.

      In addition, Dr Grace Carter is the named lead on SARC Research and maybe interested in your experience. She is available here:

      Other information is available here:



      I do, and genuinely so, wish you and your daughter well ~ sometimes helping isn’t helpful ~ this is or was a central aspect of social worker training and practice education. So, do find out more about Social Work for yourself too.