Options of Excellence begs funding questions for the Treasury

England’s social care review is awash with “visions” for the future of the workforce but, Mark Ivory reports, much depends on the willingness of the Treasury to chip in and help the sector disown its poor law inheritance

It doesn’t take a forensic scientist to identify the fingerprints of the Treasury on Options for Excellence, the report on which the future of the social care workforce now hangs. The incriminating evidence is plain to see in its avoidance of concrete progress on pay and in the decision to leave the definition of social work to someone else.

It was perhaps the government’s misfortune that the report, which covers only England, came so soon after Scotland’s 21st Century Review of Social Work and Social Work in Wales: A Profession to Value, both of which addressed pay and the role of social workers.

So not entirely unexpectedly, the prospects for social care and its workforce depend on next year’s comprehensive spending review, where the Treasury may decide that the case has been made and dole out more money to the hard-pressed sector. Or it may not, given all the other hopes pinned on the chancellor’s generosity, including Sir Derek Wanless’s recommendations on the funding of care for older people. Either way, say the critics, the result is a cost-neutral bubble-and-squeak of recommendations from previous reports.

Helga Pile, Unison’s national officer for social services and a member of the report’s review board, says Options for Excellence does make a powerful case for the social care workforce, although she admits that the timescales are less compelling. “The vision is not due to be realised until 2020, which is a long way off for the people working in the sector. It’s frustrating for front-line workers, when pay and conditions don’t have much prominence in the report yet are fundamental to improving our status.”

The report’s portrayal of the future social care workforce has  been widely welcomed, if not its mapping out of the journey there.

Published jointly by the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Skills, drawing on contributions from a 26-member review board broadly representative of the sector, it is the first attempt to sign up the various interest groups to a single vision of what the workforce of 1.5 million should be.

There are several 2020 “visions” in the nine chapters, but the boldest of them can be found in chapter six: “All those who work in social care will be proud to work in the sector, will be valued by the public for the work they do, and vacancies arising will be swiftly filled by high quality candidates.” 

No government report would be complete without its utopian aspirations, but the obstacles in the way of this one are formidable despite the progress already made. Better leadership, workload management and more opportunities for professional development are part of the answer, as the report’s detailed proposals make clear.

What is less clear is how Options for Excellence will help social care disown its poor law inheritance.

Among these proposals are government initiatives such as the current recruitment campaigns, extending the “care ambassadors” scheme to promote social care as a career choice and developing a  long-term campaign to raise the profile and improve perceptions of social care services.

 But Peter Beresford (pictured), chair of Shaping Our Lives and the sole user representative on the review board, worries that the  document will neither deliver the resources nor the necessary change in public attitudes. “The belief that the pre-1997 Conservative policy of denuding the public sphere could be challenged by investment has prevailed in health and education, the big universal services,” he says. “But people don’t see social care as a universal service and it doesn’t command that kind of public respect. It will take more than a campaign to regenerate social care. Earmarked funding would have been a good idea because the product has to improve before you start campaigning for it. You can’t just tell everyone it’s changed if it hasn’t.”

While pay and conditions were considered crucial to raising the status of the workforce in Scotland and Wales, Options for Excellence is more tentative. It suggests a project to “consider the link” between rewards for staff and vacancy rates that run as high as 15 per cent in some specialisms. However, a reference elsewhere in the report to Children’s Workforce Development Council research indicating no “direct link” between pay and recruitment will not inspire confidence.

The Scottish and Welsh reports had the luxury of focusing on social work rather than social care as a whole. Although the Scottish executive has shied away from a commitment on pay, it has set aside £15m for the first two years of a five-year plan to transform social work services north of the border. In Wales it was estimated that it would cost £5m a year to bring  social workers’ pay up to reasonable levels; given the difference in population, the corresponding figure in England would be in the range of £100m-£150m. Comparing professions on a like-for-like basis, the Welsh review found a 44 per cent pay gap between social workers and secondary school teachers.

According to Tony Garthwaite, author of the report and ADSS Cymru workforce lead, nearly one-third of Welsh local authorities have improved social workers’ pay since the report and, though there is no proof of cause and effect, there has been a 2 or 3 per cent reduction in social work vacancies. At the same time, the Welsh Local Government Association has set up a review group to look at the feasibility of a more uniform pay scale. “There’s bound to be a link between workforce quality and pay; arguments to the contrary don’t stand up,” Garthwaite says. “Our research showed that pay was always important, but it wasn’t necessarily the single biggest issue. Pay became more prominent if other factors weren’t working well, such as supervision, work-life balance and good management.”

Before it became obvious that the Treasury planned to keep a firm grip on the purse strings, it had been hoped that Options for Excellence would be a comprehensive pay and career progression package similar to Agenda for Change in the NHS. Few  social care leaders would have relished the bureaucratic nightmare that accompanied the implementation of Agenda for Change, but many think that the case for linking pay and status is unanswerable. The principle of clearly defining roles – the job evaluation scheme in Agenda for Change has generated more than 250 job profiles – and rewarding them consistently has never taken hold in social care.

The alternative, says Ray Jones, chair of the British Association of Social Workers and former social services director in Wiltshire, is that social care and social work will stay in the shadow of their public sector cousins. He says: “Agenda for Change gobbled up a great deal of money and I’m not sure the returns have been worth it. But if we don’t have a similar programme, along with the enhancement of career structures that they have had in nursing and teaching, we will be left behind as Cinderella services.”

No one doubts the basic premise of Options for Excellence that the sources of job satisfaction are varied, but this only made its failure to define social work in detail more surprising. A favourable reading of the white paper Our Health, Our Care, Our Say and the green paper Independence, Well-Being and Choice holds out the prospect of a social work profession which does what it was always supposed to do: work alongside service users to empower them and help them to flourish. Many social workers like the idea, but it is often far from the reality of their working lives.

“Social workers have had to prioritise assessments and the rationing of scarce resources,” Jones says, “but we need to get away from that to engage with service users, to be an ally who sits   alongside them to help them empower themselves and take the decisions that they want to take.”

Now progress towards this holy grail will not begin until the General Social Care Council produces its consultation document on the definition of social work, scheduled for early next year. Coming 25 years after the Barclay report’s attempt to establish the role and tasks of social work fell on deaf ears in the then Conservative government, it will be interesting to see whether this one fares any better. If the green paper ambitions for social work are to be realised, it will probably have to form the basis of a remodelled workforce, something Options for Excellence merely describes as a long-term option.

The report’s subtitle is Building the Social Care Workforce of the Future and it can claim to have laid part of the foundations. But it is a first step. Without political commitment and the money to back it up, the building is unlikely to be completed.


Work in progress. Initiate project to “consider the link” between rewards for staff, recruitment and retention, and outcomes for service users.

Work in progress. General Social Care Council to produce consultation document in early 2007. Longer term, guidance may be produced to clarify the authority, accountability and autonomy of social workers.

Long-term option to examine what social workers currently do, in light of the forthcoming definition, and review how to make best use of them. Would result in the delegation of some tasks to other workers.

Continue work on new roles and more flexible working practices so that qualified workers can make best use of their time.

Continuing professional development should be available to all in social care and there should be a CPD charter to encourage good practice.

Floats idea of Newly Qualified Social Worker status, similar to Newly Qualified Teacher status, as a long-term goal.

Long-term option to develop joint posts with universities, such as practitioner/researcher and user/teacher.

Build on existing involvement of users in training and encourage employers to involve users in service design, training and  valuating outcomes.

The vision for 2020 is that this will have been transformed for the better, helping to produce a ready availability of high quality candidates to fill vacancies.

Develop long-term campaign to raise the profile and improve perceptions of social care services.

Develop a strategy to support workforce development in the third sector.

The report acknowledges the importance of effective workload management and reviewing the distribution of work within teams. It stresses visionary leadership and effective people management, as well as proper induction for newly appointed managers. And it says how commissioning can shape the workforce.

To have your say visit our Discussion Forum

Contact the author
 Mark Ivory

This article appeared in the 23 November issue under the headline “Foundations barely laid”

Other feature articles in this weeks issue
Learning difficulties progress, self advocacy and 60 years of Mencap
No recourse to public funds: the plight of refugees fleeing domestic violence.
The emergency response to 7/7. Flaws with the Family Assistance Centre
Urgent health care: will the social care model prevail?


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