High tensions over establishment of social work college

A dispute between the CSW and the British Association of Social Workers continues – but at least they are still willing to talk. Terry Philpot unpicks the controversy

Social work’s seeming inability to organise itself is illustrated again in the on-off struggle to create a college of social work, which has included accusations, counter-accusations and legal actions – both initiated and threatened.

The College of Social Work (CSW) was proposed by the Department of Health’s social work task force in 2009, as (one would have thought) an uncontroversial and effective way for social work to stand up for itself.

Analogous to the royal medical colleges, the idea was that a college would represent and support social workers, speak on their behalf to press, public and politicians, and be responsible for standard setting and professional development. There are 84,000 practicising social workers in England, and the hope is that the college will eventually cover the 106,000 across the UK. It has signed up 8,300 social workers as “prospective members” prior to a formal launch next month when it will start to recruit paying members.

However, one problem is that social workers are not joiners. The UK-wide British Association of Social Workers (BASW) currently has 14,250 members, the highest number in its 41 year history. Unison, one of eight unions with social worker members, is said to have 43,000 social worker members.

Then there is the cost to individuals: an annual subscription of £270 has been mooted but not finally decided. Yet some social workers are paying fees to Unison and BASW and all social workers must pay a fee to be registered with the regulatory and disciplinary body, the General Social Care Council. (Next year, when the GSCC is absorbed into the Health Professions Council, social workers will have to pay fees to both the GSCC and the HPC.)

So, in order to secure the financial independence the CSW needs when government funding stops in April 2012 and to boost membership, it made a deal with Unison, whereby all college members would automatically become Unison members unless they choose to opt out.

So far, so might-be-good, except BASW, which would subsume itself and its assets within the college if an acceptable agreement were reached, is set against favouring a single union.

BASW also registered the college’s name while engaged in negotiations but didn’t tell anyone, and now action is being taken to wrest that ownership from them. Maurice Bates, a co-chair of CSW, walked out of one meeting when pressed for details of the Unison-college agreement (these were only released when the Commons education select committee pressed for them).

Last September CSW excluded BASW from further participation in the project on the basis of what the latter claims was false information in a risk assessment report drawn up by the college.

When Hilton Dawson, chief executive of BASW and a former Labour MP, threw his hat in the ring for the CSW’s chief executive post – currently being advertised – he didn’t get the job.

Last month the education select committee wrote to Tim Loughton, the education under-secretary, stating that relations between BASW and the college had “inexorably broken down” largely due to the Unison deal about which it, too, raised concerns and asked ministers to take a lead in getting the two bodies to re-open talks.

The conflict has engendered much ill feeling. BASW refers to “dubious deals between self-interested individuals and organisations behind closed doors” while it has been accused of “unethical and unprincipled behaviour”.

CSW has decided to go it alone and launch without BASW – but could face a judicial review.

Despite all the tension, both organisations say they are still willing to discuss the issue.

“We are ready, willing and able to sit down with anyone to talk about creating a strong and effective and sustainable college – and to commit our resources to it,” Dawson says.

Dorit Braun, CSW’s project director, says: “We believe that negotiations are always possible. We have a constitution that covers the UK and objectives that are consistent with the ambitions of BASW for a UK college. We remain open to getting back to negotiations once we are established”.

Will the launch be hobbled by BASW remaining out of the fold? Could there, anyway, be an agreement when the sticking point is the Unison deal?

There is a real prospect of two colleges – which is what BASW says will happen if no agreement is reached. All of this may convince people that social workers, trained to help others, have difficulty in helping themselves.