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What a college means in practice

As BASW members begin receiving details of a referendum for establishing an independent College of Social Work across the UK, an analysis of how equivalent bodies for other professions function is timely. Just what do professional colleges offer and achieve for their members?

The College of Occupational Therapists and the Royal College of Midwives represent health and social care professionals, actively promoting the work of their members and offering services that range from industrial relations to continuing professional development.

In its current five-year strategy, the British Association and College of Occupational Therapists – to give the full title – declares its mission to ‘offer support to our members and our commitment to continuously champion the profession’. There are 31,000 occupational therapists (OTs) and a sizable 80% of them are members of the college.

Much of the college’s work focuses on providing OTs with the knowledge and skills needed to achieve high professional standards. “We feel passionate about ensuring that occupational therapy remains innovative and at the cutting edge of health and social care delivery, and that our graduates of today become the leaders of tomorrow, delivering services that will improve the health and wellbeing of the UK population,” say college chair Dee Christie and chief executive Julia Scott in their introduction to the five-year plan.

“Our members need to be up to date and able to cope with the relentless pace of change in occupational therapy,” says college education manager Zoe Parker. “The Health Professions Council (HPC) recently began auditing OTs’ continuing professional development and the college had to be proactive in supporting our members through that process, producing the information, guidance and tools they needed so that they could feel capable and confident about their CPD.”

When the HPC wanted to consult on implementing the audit, the college was a top priority. “The college is a champion for the profession,” Ms Parker says, “and the HPC consulted extensively with us beforehand. Ultimately the HPC can’t be experts on people’s practice as they’re not practitioners themselves, they’re the regulators.”

Like social workers, OTs now require a degree in order to practise. Just as the care councils for social work approve social work degree courses in their capacity as regulators, so the Health Professions Council approves OT degrees. But Parker points out that many universities offering OT degrees also seek endorsements from the college because this effectively validates the courses.

The college also provides a curriculum framework and offers support for both students and tutors, many of whom are themselves active members of the college. Its academic credentials are reinforced by the peer-reviewed British Journal of Occupational Therapy, which it published alongside its monthly magazine Occupational Therapy News. The parallel with BASW and its title, The British Journal of Social Work, is hard to miss.

“I am a learning and development monomaniac so I’m bound to say that CPD is one of the most important things we do,” Parker says. “One of the benefits of membership is the members-only part of the website where there are lots of CPD tools they can use in their own time. The college draws together OT-specific resources in one place and gives members an overview of knowledge and research. We try to keep abreast of what’s happening in learning and development, including e-learning and free downloads to supplement our paper publications.”

College of Occupational Therapists: Activities

· Providing a distinctive voice for the profession

· Developing the evidence base and supporting members in their practice

· Advising government and business on the importance of occupational therapy in health and social care

· Setting standards for College-accredited OT courses

· Industrial relations

The Royal College of Midwives

The Royal College of Midwives styles itself the ‘voice’ of midwifery, whose mission is to promote the profession, quality maternity services and professional standards. It has a wide remit covering CPD, standards and practice, and industrial relations, effectively combining the roles of trade union, professional body and educational charity.

“Education is equally as important as the trade union side of things and our members expect the highest standards,” says Jon Skewes, the RCM’s director of employment relations. “It is their profession and our members want us to be the repository for challenge, debate and education.

“A very important part of our role is to champion the profession. Much of our contact with the government, thinktanks and the media is around that, putting the case for midwives and the women and families with whom they work. It’s not just about birth, but about the broader agenda of antenatal care, postnatal care, public health and much else.”

The RCM runs an open learning programme through its online bookshop to help midwives meet their CPD requirements, as well as an accreditation framework for CPD programmes. Midwives can attend study days, courses, interactive clinical workshops and lectures. Bursaries and scholarships are also available to support midwives’ professional development.

The college sees itself as having a vital role in disseminating information about professional midwifery practice and in establishing its strengths as a platform for sharing good practice across the UK. The RCM’s mission statement defines the central purpose of the college as supporting its members ‘in positively influencing the quality of midwifery care offered to women and their families’.

In Skewes’ view it is hard to give a simple definition of a multi-faceted college like the RCM. “I think the term ‘college’ can be used in different ways,” he says, “and we understand the term in its widest sense. In one way we are like the medical colleges which set standards and offer access to a professional qualification and CPD, but we are also a trade union which in medicine is the province of the British Medical Association.”

Royal College of Midwives: Activities

· Professional leadership across the UK

· Lobbying for effective legislation

· Ensuring good terms and conditions of employment

· Advancing midwifery knowledge through publications, seminars, conferences, workshops and leadership programmes

· Campaigning on important issues, such as the Campaign for Normal Birth