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

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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 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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