The Social Care Association has held its sixty-first Annual Seminar, this time in the Radisson Blu, a newly built hotel with a beautiful view of the River Wear and Durham Cathedral and Castle. To anyone thinking of a venue for a conference, I can recommend not only the setting but also the accommodation, and most important of all the excellent staff service.
SCA Annual Seminars are always friendly and pleasant occasions, and this one was no exception. As the outgoing President, Grace Easie-Edgar had got together an excellent range of speakers and the quality of discussion was high.
On the child care front, Martin Narey delivered a punchy, well-substantiated and well-argued case for taking more children into care. It is good to have advocates who are prepared to take on the media and deliver messages which are not always what the public want to hear.
The only drawback with the Seminar was that it was poorly attended. The numbers were not embarrassing, but they were nothing like the hundreds who used to attend twenty years ago. It may be the impact of the recession, or the increasing unwillingness of employers to send their staff to events with general titles. Yet SCA events like this are excellent for networking, for learning about clienteles other than one’s own, or for picking up ideas and news.
Against the Tide
One of SCA’s problems is that it has stood firmly against the tide of events. While the Association of Directors of Social Services was wound up and split into two organisations serving Directions of Children’s Services and Directors of Adult Services respectively, SCA has continued to be a forum for considering issues across the spectrum of client groups. While the four countries have the UK have taken their increasingly divergent lines politically, the SCA has persisted as a UK-wide organisation. In a scene where many quangos have been set up and have had substantial funding to develop policy and monitor services, SCA – which in its former years was a pioneer in policy development – has had limited resources and has consequently played a more limited role in recent years.
So, is SCA a sand castle that has fulfilled its purpose and is about to be washed away by the tide? Or is it made of firmer stuff that can withstand the surge? And is the tide turning? Is the split between children’s and adult services going to last, or will there be a reversion to a Seebohm-style service with one door for all client groups, especially with the trend to personalise services so that individuals’ needs may be met without client group labels? Are the four countries of the UK – while retaining independence – actually going to share common standards and systems? Are we likely to see a quango cull after the General Election, which is only a few months away now, leaving roles for a professional association to fulfil? And are there new and different roles which SCA could take on or create?
A Presidential Perspective
Nancy Hamilton, SCA’s new President, is keen to emphasise the importance of relationships during her presidential year (as her article elsewhere in this issue explains), bringing a human element into the work. For the SCA she sees the tasks ahead being to:
- adapt to the changes occurring in social care
- support and encourage best practice
- be at the forefront of practice development
- respond to national consultation documents
- be in a position to influence decision making/makers and have input into social policies
- support practitioners in adapting to new ways of working
- help develop a skilled workforce through continuous learning and professional development
- support service delivery in times of financial constraint
- develop relationships and promote partnership working with other agencies.
SCA was first founded – under a different title – in 1949, as a membership organisation, and that has been its fundamental strength for more than sixty years. It has been composed of professionals who have been keen to set high standards of practice, so that people using the services enjoy quality care. Over the years it has at times given priority to other functions such as the provision of training and consultancy and serving the membership has taken second place. But the SCA’s standing in these other fields has been fundamentally based on the credibility given it by its membership.
If SCA is to survive and thrive, it needs to get back to basics. There is always the danger that organisations are run by established older professionals and that they lose touch with the next generations. SCA needs to be recruiting the young professionals, the people on the make, developing their careers, the people with new ideas and drive. If it doesn’t, it will become out of touch and become an irrelevance, but if it recruits, it could once more be a major driving force.
Service Users Matter More
What attracts members? There is always the argument that members want to know what they will get for their money – services such as professional indemnity insurance or representation in disputes with employers. Such services are of course useful, but I suggest that if SCA is to be worth running, it needs to be attractive as the organisation which social care professionals feel they must join if they have ideas about where the services should be going or concerns about where things are going wrong, and who have the fire in the belly to want to change the bad and develop the good.
There is no point, in my view, having a professional association which primarily provides services for members; that is what trades unions are for. The greater goal has to be the improvement of the services offered by the professionals, and this is reflected in Nancy Hamilton’s main aims.
Specialisms under the Umbrella
When the Association was first set up its focus was residential child care, and following the introduction of Social Services in England and Wales in 1971, it broadened out to include work in other settings and with the full range of clienteles, taking the umbrella title of Social Care Association. This made good sense in terms of the organisation of services at that time, and it reflected broad concepts about people’s needs, rights, training and so on, which applied to everyone receiving social care services.
Yet people do have specific needs which are organised in specific ways. Specialist services are required and the staff need specialist skills. What is perhaps more significant, workers often identify with specific client groups or work in particular settings, and they do not always identify with the bland overall umbrella title of social care.
Over the years, the SCA has at times had special interest groups and standing committees focusing on specific areas of professional activity such as child care or training. It needs to do the same again. There is already an active special interest section of rehabilitation workers with the blind, and the Institute of Childcare and Social Education is offering to act as SCA’s special interest group in child care with a particular emphasis on residential care. SCA needs to identify another two or three similar areas of specialism and look to set up specialist programmes for them.
Of course, every worker in social care matters, but considering the needs of the whole social care workforce is an elephant which has to be eaten in bite-size portions. If two new special interest groups were set up each year, the SCA could organise targeted recruitment drives, and the increases in membership should bring in new enthusiasts to drive the Association’s work forward in each of these fields.
The wider image of social care is important, but for most people their professional identity is based on specialisms. SCA could act as the federating body – the overall umbrella – for groups of professionals, each with their own specialism.
There are some exceptions, such as the National ChildMinding Association, but by and large we have been through a period where fewer people have joined associations and unions. In trying to recruit now, would SCA be once more fighting against the tide?
Maybe. But maybe this tide’s ready to turn. We have been through a phase in which the driving force for change has been the Government, policy development has been delivered by quangos, and support and training have been provided by employers. In that context what could SCA offer? The needs of workers have been met by organisations with more resources than SCA.
With the recession, that may change. Perhaps because of threats to standards workers may value solidarity with colleagues facing similar threats. Maybe the time will shortly come when social care professionals – or those who make up the specialist groups within the larger umbrella – will want to take the initiative and set their own standards, determining how their profession should work, rather than being told by politicians or bureaucrats. If so, SCA would be well placed to act as a focus for such a movement.
How to get things moving? First of all, what about a survey to see what matters to existing SCA members? Then, how about setting up sessions for professionals who are at the point of moving into managerial roles, to discuss with them the ways in which the services should develop, and the problems which are currently of concern to them? In this way, SCA will be up to date with the issues of current concern.
The SCA has a major role to play in monitoring all the other bodies, to ensure first of all that they are doing what they were set up to do, and secondly to look at the unintended consequences of the systems which they have set up. There are certainly plenty of issues to consider – not the least being the current children / adults split and whether it is working. Or what about the credibility of Ofsted? Or why the GSCC has not registered non-social workers? Or about the value for money of quality assurance systems? Or the long-term outcomes for service users?
The SCA does not have the resources in cash or time to undertake research or other complex pieces of work, but it does have the networks needed to bring together the knowledge of experienced practitioners, and knowledge is power. With that power it should have the armoury it needs to lobby ministers, make shortcomings known to the media, urge others to undertake research, run campaigns and so represent the professionals who are its constituency.
The question, then, is whether the existing SCA membership has sufficient spark to reignite the fire in the belly, sufficient mass to act as a catalyst for change, sufficient solidarity to withstand the tide and, maybe, to help it to change.