12 April 2011

New Standards of Proficiency for social workers in England: Reflecting the complexity of social work practice

Many people will be aware that the Government has proposed to transfer responsibility for the regulation of social workers in England to the HPC. As part of the preparations for this transfer, we established a working group (known as a Professional Liaison Group) of experts in the field of social work to assist us with the drafting of new standards of proficiency for social workers in England. This group met for the last time this week, having met four times since November.

The purpose of the standards of proficiency is to establish threshold standards necessary for safe and effective practice. They must reflect existing requirements and training provision, and must be flexible enough to apply to the different environments in which social workers practise. Each profession regulated by HPC has developed standards, written as part of the overarching standards which apply to all. This is a legal requirement, and the standards are specified in the legislation, which is why they had to be developed in addition to existing frameworks and standards, such the Professional Capabilities Framework or the National Occupational Standards. The HPC standards of proficiency serve a particular purpose – they are threshold standards for safe and effective practise for social workers in England – and although they do relate to the existing frameworks they have to be created for each profession regulated by HPC.

The key challenge is to ensure that the standards reflect the values of social work, the complexity of practice and diversity of contexts and settings in which social workers find themselves.

The process of drafting standards requires individuals who are able to focus on the nuances of the meaning of a sentence whilst holding the big picture of what lies at the heart of social work practice. Over the years I have taken part in many PLG meetings at HPC. I have rarely seen a group work so well together so quickly on what is ahugely challenging task. The representatives from the social work community included social work managers, employers, academics, professional body, regulatory body and union representatives. The group was well chaired by Professor Jeff Lucas, a lay member of the HPC Council and included three Members of the HPC Council. The feedback from members on the process and the way it was conducted by the HPC Executive was positive and constructive.

The next step is to ensure that the standards are thoroughly reviewed by a wide range of stakeholders before being approved by the HPC’s Education and Training Committee and Council. Once published, the standards will be subject to ongoing reviews and updates to ensure that they continue to develop and change with the profession. There is more work to be done in ensuring that the standards are clearly situated within existing standards and frameworks for social workers in England, and that the relationships between these different standards and their particular purpose is clearly understood. I have no doubt that the collaborative spirit in which this first stage has been conducted will continue to influence the process as it unfolds, and I am grateful to all those who have taken the draft standards thus far. The beginning is always the hardest part.

Anna van der Gaag