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Call for social workers in England to help shape professional standards

As Social Work England's consultation deadline approaches, PSW speaks to the new regulator's chief executive about its plans...

Social Work England's chief executive Colum Conway (left) and chair Lord Patel (right)

Published by Professional Social Work magazine – 11 April 2019

Colum Conway is the man tasked with overseeing the most significant shake-up to professional and training standards for social workers in England in years. A social worker by background, the chief executive of new regulator Social Work England says he wants to try and strike the right balance by developing policies alongside practitioners and the people they serve, not by “landing stuff on the sector from nowhere”.

“I think it [collaboration] underpins good social work practice. We will be a specialist social work regulator. So as an organisation we need to understand social work, how social workers are working, what values underpin their work – we need to be able to reflect on that. And we really want to engage people who use social work services. You can only do those things if you get out and talk to people,” he tells PSW.

Social Work England has been doing just that since launching a wide-ranging consultation on standards in February. Included are proposals for new draft professional standards, rules governing the approval of social work courses and a set of fitness-to-practise reforms. As well as inviting formal consultation responses, the regulator has held events across England to get first hand feedback from social workers and service users and is hosting a series of Q&As on social media.

With only a few weeks left until the consultation closes on 1 May, Conway says feedback so far has been broadly positive but he’s keen to hear more of it. He says there are early signs that the professional standards, which include a new requirement for social workers to report any issues they feel are preventing them practising safely, have been generally “well received”. Proposals for a new “more agile” fitness-to-practise process, designed to enable cases to be resolved quicker and without the need for a full hearing if appropriate, have also had some good initial feedback, he adds.

“One of the things people talk about is the length of time [the current fitness to practise process] takes both for those who make the complaint and those who are being complained about. Our legislation allows us to be a bit more agile, a bit more proportionate.

“It's modelled on what people in professional regulation would say they'd like to do if they could reform it. I think everybody in the professions would say it's too heavy, it takes too long and it can be really overwhelming for everybody involved [at the moment]. Hopefully this will work better.”

Social work education

Sparking more debate, Conway acknowledges, are some of the proposals surrounding social work education. Social Work England wants to make it a condition of approval that social work courses guarantee students at least one statutory placement. The practicality of this has been questioned – privately some academics say they do their best to secure statutory placements but sometimes councils simply can’t or won’t deliver them. If that’s the case, won’t courses be effectively punished by not being approved by the regulator for something that’s not entirely their fault?

Conway says when this issue comes up generally people agree a statutory placement is a “good thing” for students to experience in principle, particularly as most social work in England takes place in that environment. But he knows some areas are anxious about how to make it happen.

“We think it’s right to put a marker down. We acknowledge that in some areas there may be quite a step to achieve this. In others that won't be as much the case because there's good work that has been done on the ground already,” he says.

“We did toil with it – it’s about getting that balance right in terms of the level of our ambition and what’d we’d like to see and the level of disruption that might cause. The placements is one of those things where we think it is just too important – so we put it in. It will be interesting to see what the feedback is.”

The role for employers

The draft training and education standards also envisage a stronger role for employers in social work education. Courses will be expected to show that they involve social work employers in the design and monitoring of their curriculums. Isn’t there a risk that this could lead to local authorities having an undue influence on how and what social workers are being taught, that social work effectively becomes more narrowly defined by statutory services?

Conway says the standards aim to create a “connection” between local employers and courses, partly because a lot of graduates go on to work in their local areas. He says the requirement for engagement is broad and uses the term “employers”, not local authorities, deliberately.

“We’re talking about the broad base of where social workers end up being employed. A significant number will end up in local authorities but that’s not entirely the case. The key is that the engagement is reflective of the nature and type of employment in a particular area – in some parts of the country it may well be predominantly local authority, in others the voluntary and community sector may be prominent.

“It’s the difference between us being very prescriptive and trying to set out principles. Part of the principle with this is – show us you’re engaged with your local employers. Who are they? What are they? Why have you made those decisions? Why is that good for your students?”

Conway says that in several cases the standards themselves are deliberately broad and Social Work England will be looking to develop further guidance again, he says, in collaboration with the sector and those using services. One example is on the topic of social media. The draft professional standards include a commitment from social workers not to use social media and other technology “unlawfully” or “unethically”.

It’s a hot topic. In recent weeks The Times published an article on the ways social workers have used Facebook for surveillance of families while the What Works Centre for Social Care is carrying out a project on the ethics of using algorithms and machine learning in child protection. The proliferation of social media and technology in modern life meant Social Work England felt it was important to reference in the standards, Conway says, with more detailed guidance to follow.

"There are a lot of issues in this area. There are a lot of positives too. It's important that social workers are able to see the use of social media as presenting opportunities to them and there's a fair amount of expertise now in terms of some very good practice in that area. Equally it's an area that can be fraught. We'll be looking to develop good guidance on it so there is a level of clarity around what is unethical and how do people challenge themselves in how they use social media."

What's next

After the consultation closes in May, Conway says Social Work England hopes to have a response and any changes to the standards announced over the summer. The standards will also be reviewed by the education secretary and health secretary (that’s a requirement because Social Work England is a non-departmental arm lengths body accountable to the government – whereas the HCPC is independent of government and accountable to parliament).

Then, later, will come another consultation – this time on registration fees. It’s needed because the government is currently covering the costs of Social Work England but ministers want the new regulator to move towards a “self-financing” model. Conway feels the move towards self-financing is important for the sector and for Social Work England to show “that we as a regulator stand on our own feet and have that level of independence from government”.

He says the current consultation hasn’t put forward fees proposals because Social Work England needs a chance to see how its models bed in and how much they cost. The hope is that when it comes to fitness to practice for example, an area that makes up a significant part of the costs of running a regulator, the changes proposed to streamline the process will make it more “cost effective”, says Conway.

"It’s going to take us a wee while to work that out. But if we can have an impact on that it will be significant. We want to have a really proper discussion in the sector about fees and when we come to consult on it there will be a really good chance for that."

In the meantime he’s keen to hear as much feedback on the standards and rules proposals as possible before the 1 May deadline.

"I would encourage people to query things they’re not certain about and we'll come back on that. But also tell us about the bits you think are important and good to see. It gives us really good evidence on any issues and the parts people are positive about that we should keep working towards."

Ways to have your say

This article is published by Professional Social work magazine which provides a platform for a range of perspectives across the social work sector. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the British Association of Social Workers.