Room at the top

Leaders in social care must focus on the needs and aspirations of those who use services, but it is essential that everyone who works in care feels a sense of recognition and opportunity if we are to improve recruitment, development and retention. We know that training for a qualification has positive outcomes for individuals (confidence, achievement, a foot on a progression ladder, improved pay); for families (encouragement and role modelling for others in the family, particularly young people); and communities (boosting skills rates in communities increases their overall prosperity, economically and socially). Ninety-five per cent of staff in residential and domiciliary care are women. Jobs that are held predominantly by women gain status and reward where qualifications are required.

We have made real attempts in social care to deliver. There are requirements for proportions of qualified staff in care settings, for specific qualifications for some posts, and for registration. In the UK care sector we know that we have about 90,000 qualified social workers and that 586,000 people have achieved an NVQ since 1991 – 400,000 of them in the past five years. We are tackling the scandal of unassessed, disconnected training and poor qualification rates.

So are we celebrating? Well, sort of. Some organisations have development strategies for their entire workforce, with progression for people who can and want to. Some have terrific awards events to make individual success public. Some are using occupational standards for a whole range of tasks across their organisations, including designing jobs as well as defining particular qualifications.

My worry is that all these achievements could be set back accidentally. National minimum standards for service regulation are being reviewed with an emphasis on outcomes. Quite right, but don’t let’s lose what proxies we have for staff quality by neglecting qualification attainment. People who manage their own direct payments want to make sure that they train their support staff to deliver care as they want it. But that shouldn’t mean they don’t have to be qualified already.

All employers are concerned about the costs of training and achieving a qualified workforce – but given how vital it is that we demonstrate competence we should not cut costs here. Neither should we substitute employer certification of competence for an assured system linked to qualifications. Some employers will be scrupulous and their testimony could be relied on by others. Some will be tempted to cut corners so the job can get done. Not much better than the old days when you relied on the reputation of who you worked for. I am not letting anyone near me when I need personal care who has no qualifications at all. Being told that someone has been trained is not enough assurance. You need a qualification to hold a licence to be a door supervisor after all. Are licensed premises more important than care homes?

Then we will be registering more colleagues through the national care councils to add to the social workers who are there already. Registration provides some measure of assurance to the public as well as a boost through continuous development to those registered. In Scotland, registration will be linked to qualifications already achieved or required for re-registration when it is due. Let’s not put the rest of the UK’s care services in any lesser position. No return please to the notion that being a streetwise granny is good enough for care. Leaders in social care owe this to their colleagues and their communities.

Jennifer Bernard is consulting director for the community & society sector at City & Guilds. She is chair of the Social Care Association

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