Why we are launching the College of Social Work alone

Maurice Bates, interim chair of the college, explains why the professional body will launch next year despite a breakdown of talks with BASW

The party conference season has done little to lift the gloom pervading the public sector, as politicians offer little to cheer staff worried about services, jobs and pensions. This is one reason why we spoke about the urgency of the challenges facing social work at the formal launch of our professional college to paying members.

At the College of Social Work, we are all too aware that social workers have been buffeted by politically inspired change for decades. Sometimes reform stems from a market-driven ideology, such as care management, and sometimes from the latest crisis in child protection, including much of the unnecessary red tape that ties up social workers and keeps them from their clients.

Few of these changes have ended happily. The problem is that they have been top-down, dictated by ministers and officials in Whitehall. The college wants to turn the old way of doing things on its head, ensuring the social workers call the shots as policy and practice evolve. This is what nurses expect of the Royal College of Nursing and it is what doctors expect of their royal colleges. Why should social work be different?

Once again, social work stands on the verge of massive change in children’s and adults’ services. This time around there will be a college to speak up for the profession. We will open our doors to paying members from 3 January so that, through us, they can have a prominent role in shaping the reforms.

We had hoped to merge with the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) beforehand, but despite our wholehearted endeavours to reach agreement with them, there are still too many sticking points to make this possible. One of them is our agreement with Unison, which is fundamental to the strong, influential and respected institution we aim to create.

His policies might not always be the equal of it, but Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has a good phrase: “not easy, but right”. That’s exactly how it felt to press ahead without BASW. We still hope that senior negotiators can overcome objections on points that are essential to the viability of the college; if so, we can still seek to merge BASW into the new college after 3 January – if that is what the association’s membership wants.

In the coming months, social work will find itself under the microscope once again as the recommendations of the Munro child protection review are implemented. Social workers will have to fight for a secure role in “personalised” adult social care, and greater rigour will be brought to social work education and practice.

Our college, which was a major contributor to the Munro review and is leading the debate on adult social work, will be at the heart of the reform programme. This is a huge opportunity for social workers to make an impact – we do not intend to waste it.

Maurice Bates is interim co-chair of the College of Social Work