A lost ambition

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A lost ambition

By Rob Darracott

Late one night, about six weeks ago, I decided to try to explain on Twitter what a royal college is and why the decision by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society not to pursue a long-term ambition to become one was about more than a name change. I’m not sure I helped.

The rights and wrongs of what Outsider thinks is a “hilariously funny spat” (p40) have been covered extensively by Pharmacy Magazine and P3pharmacy, notably in articles by former chief pharmaceutical officer Keith Ridge and the old RPSGB’s last president, Steve Churton. More recently, the RPS’s chief executive framed the latest decision in a historical context, in a piece for the Society’s own online journal. Read all that at your leisure, or tune into next month’s RPS annual general meeting for the ongoing fallout.

It should be of more concern that some members of the RPS Assembly have posed very basic questions on social media which suggest they didn’t actually understand the decision they were taking when the change of tack was agreed. Or they thought it was simply about the name above the door. Or they were not sufficiently curious to inquire how the ambition to become a royal college had come about in the first place.  

You’d hope Assembly members would understand how the history and development of a profession impacts the status of its members, and vice versa. The decision of the Government 15 years ago to split the RPSGB forced a cataclysmic change on a 160+ year old body. Mr Churton has reminded us of the lengthy debate that led up to the establishment of the new RPS. The process resulted in its new raison d’être, including raising the status of pharmacists – its members – by achieving the ultimate goal of becoming a royal college.

A Royal College of Pharmacy would strive for excellence in professional practice and patient care. Not ‘on average’, or an exhortation to ‘best practice’. Remember that ‘top of the licence’ stuff? This is where it comes from. It was always going to be a hard sell, one that might come at a price. But that was the bargain struck when professional regulation was hived off. The professional leadership body would be the authoritative voice arguing for the potential of pharmacy and pharmacists.

It’s striking that those most involved in the debate so far, including me, have the least to gain. For those in the early years of their careers, a royal college, through its pursuit of excellence, would mean identity, confidence and leadership, and provide the means to demonstrate that excellence in practice. Membership of a royal college – and here the name IS important – would be a signal to others, including governments, of that commitment to excellence, whether that’s in patient care, professional practice or teamworking.   

Those striking the deal knew that the field of education would be key to achieving that influence and respect. It’s what royal colleges do; it’s what defines them. In the real world, where the deals are done, it’s the vitality of professional education, the qualifications and the achievements of members of royal colleges that raise the status of those professions.

That’s why the redundancy of the director of education and professional development post at the RPS sparked the furore. And why you might wonder whether those deciding to downgrade a 12-year-old ambition, which arose out of the biggest change to the role of an institution in the best part of two centuries, knew what they were doing.

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