Social work bodies have voiced their disappointment at the absence of any references to the profession in the health service’s long-term workforce plan, issued by NHS England last month.
The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) England criticised the omission in the context of social workers being “a crucial component of the healthcare system”, a stance then backed by Think Ahead, the fast-track training provider for mental health practitioners.
The long-awaited strategy lists student training targets for 36 separate roles, in order to grow the workforce to address the current 112,000 NHS vacancies and meet the needs of an ageing population.
Besides doctors, nurses, pharmacists and dentists, the roles include occupational therapists, physiotherapists, speech and language therapists, psychologists, child and adolescent psychotherapists and peer support workers.
Within mental health – where most NHS social workers are employed – the plan calls for increasing numbers of other roles, including mental health and wellbeing practitioners, who work with people with severe illnesses.
Social work excluded from NHS plan
However, despite mental health trusts having grown their social work workforces by 20% on the back of NHS targets set in 2019, there were no references to ‘social work’ or ‘social workers’ in the 151-page workforce plan.
Also, while NHS England engaged with 33 royal colleges or professional bodies and seven professional regulators, representing over 30 separate professions, while drawing up the strategy, it did not list BASW or Social Work England among them.
BASW England said social work’s exclusion came despite it undertaking “extensive engagement” with its members to inform its contribution to a call for evidence in 2021 on long-term workforce planning by NHS workforce development body Health Education England (now part of NHS England).
BASW’s ‘deep disappointment’
“It is with deep disappointment that, despite extensive engagement, we note the glaring omission of any mention of social work in the NHS Long Term Plan which constitutes the final report,” said BASW England.
“This omission perpetuates the disheartening sense that social work is simply not considered when it comes to discussions and planning in health and social care services. As a crucial component of the healthcare system, social work should be recognised and valued for the significant contributions it makes towards holistic patient care and the overall well-being of individuals and communities.”
Think Ahead – many of whose trainees go on to work in the NHS as mental health social workers – supported BASW’s stance in a thread on Twitter.
#MentalHealthSocialWorkers are an integral part of the #NHSWorkforce, and it is crucial that they are both recognised and invested in for the support they provide to people living with mental health needs.
— Think Ahead (@ThinkAheadMH) July 19, 2023
There are several references to social care within the workforce plan, stressing the need to tackle its severe workforce problems and its interdependency with the NHS.
£250m to develop care workforce
In response to the concerns around social work’s omission from the plan, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said the social care workforce was “at the centre” of Next steps to put people at the heart of care, the policy paper issued in April setting out its adults’ services agenda.
“This includes £250m for staff to develop their skills through relevant training and progress within their careers with the introduction of the care workforce pathway,” a DHSC spokesperson said.
However, the £250m, available up to 2025, is half the £500m the DHSC originally committed to developing the workforce over this period, which has prompted severe criticism from social care bodies.
In response to this, the DHSC has pointed out that it is yet to allocate £600m in adult social care reform funding up to 2025, some of which may go on the workforce.
The DHSC spokesperson added: “We are also making available £15m for 2023-24 to help local areas establish support arrangements for ethical international recruitment in adult social care.”