This is the age of the paraprofessional. Whether it’s the social care assistant helping care for vulnerable clients, the community support officer patrolling our streets, or the teaching assistant invigilating in the classroom, there are huge swathes of public service that were once the preserve of highly trained professionals, now being carried out by less qualified support staff.
Social work assistants have long been a feature of social services but they have now been joined by an army of family support workers and learning mentors working to support vulnerable people.
So will the creation of ever-more paraprofessional roles do what it is meant to do – help ease the pressure on overworked qualified practitioners, freeing them from the more mundane of their duties to concentrate on providing quality service in the areas that matter most? Or is it just a stunt to fob the public off with a cut-price service, provided by unqualified, underpaid assistants ready to be made the scapegoats the minute anything goes wrong?
The rise of the paraprofessional has followed a familiar pattern throughout the public services where they have been introduced. Initial scepticism by the professional bodies, followed by gradual acceptance and finally concern among the paraprofessionals themselves over low pay, rising responsibilities and exploitation.
When teaching assistants were first introduced the move was resisted by the National Union of Teachers. The union has cited opposition to TAs’ increasing influence in schools and continues to express “deep concern about any proposal that teaching assistants could lead some classes in their own right or that they should cover for absent qualified teachers”. Nevertheless there has been a rapid growth in the use of support staff by schools.
However, far from helping to reduce teachers’ workloads, a recent study by the Institute of Education in London found that the increased deployment of support staff in schools has actually increased their management duties. Many teachers now find themselves acting as line managers to classroom assistants, a task more demanding than their original administrative duties.
And there are grounds for TAs to feel discontent. A survey by Unison has found that more than one in three is carrying out HLTA (higher level teaching assistant) duties, but only 6% had been given even part-time HLTA status. The union also found a “worrying blurring” of roles with TAs covering for unplanned absences by teachers.
In social care, the rise of the social work assistant has been most notable in Scotland where the use of paraprofessionals has been expanded significantly since 2006. There are about 2,300 social work assistants and 5,000 qualified social workers in Scotland.
But the expansion has not been without its problems. Last year nearly 600 social work assistants in Glasgow threatened to strike over claims that they were being asked to carry out duties beyond their pay band. In England, there have been similar instances of paraprofessionals being asked to carry out duties for which they are untrained and are not being paid. Earlier this year a social worker was removed from the General Social Care Council register after failing to offer proper supervision to an assistant social worker in a child protection case.
“There is a valuable role for assistant social workers and family support workers in offering support and assistance to qualified social workers,” says British Association of Social Workers’ professional officer Ruth Cartwright. “But there needs to be proper supervision. I’m not convinced that always happens. And, of course this is an issue of extreme concern when it involves something such as child protection.”
Cartwright is concerned that cash-strapped social service departments are increasingly looking to unqualified staff to fill in gaps caused by a shortage of qualified staff. And although unqualified staff may receive training once they are in post, there is often a lack of continuing professional development that would be offered to qualified staff.
“There does seem to be an attitude among management that any well-meaning person can do the job. That really undermines those who do have the qualifications.” he says.
“If you look at the adverts for assistant social workers they all blithely state ‘no qualifications needed’. Well maybe that’s the case, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need any training once you start the job. You need to be asking for your NVQ or whatever, but many social work assistants don’t feel they can do that.”
Liz (not her real name), an assistant social worker in a children’s services department in northern England, certainly feels exploited. Working alongside qualified social workers, she often feels that her bosses’ only concession to her unqualified status appears in her pay packet.
“I am put on duty just as frequently as the other social workers despite not being qualified,” she says. “I also don’t feel the cases given to me are of much less severity and difficulty than those given to my qualified colleagues and sometimes I do feel like I am being taken advantage of.”
One of the key concerns over the growing army of paraprofessionals within the caring professions is the question of who picks up the pieces when they are unable to cope. This is an issue that is increasingly concerning Briony Hallam, head of the Family Welfare Association’s Building Bridges project for parents and carers with mental health problems in Lewisham, London.
“Over the past year we have seen a substantial increase in the number of referrals we are getting from education,” she says. “This seems to be because Lewisham has raised its eligibility criteria so that many people who were receiving support from social services for mental health problems are no longer doing so. So we are getting a lot of calls from learning mentors and family support workers who are trying to cope but they really don’t have a clue. These are often people with very complex needs and they are being dumped on these paraprofessionals who, with the best will in the world, don’t have a clue how to help them.”
Paraprofessionals’ managers may also be unaware of how to help those turned away by social services, leaving assistants with no one to turn to. Learning mentors work with children who require help in overcoming barriers to achieving – such as those whose parent has a mental health problem. They are predominantly based in schools where the more senior members of staff, such as headmasters, may not have the necessary expertise to advise them.
Hallam gives the example of a young mother with a severe multiple personality disorder who could, on occasion, become violent. The child’s learning mentor had approached social services but been told there was nothing they could do as the mother did not meet the eligibility criteria. Out of her depth, the learning mentor contacted Building Bridges for help.
“Learning mentors do not have the training to deal with these kind of problems,” Hallam says. “At most they will have experience of dealing with low level depression and anxiety. But these are highly complex mental disorders and they need proper assessment and management.”
For social care paraprofessionals to be successful they must have clear boundaries and proper supervision. If, instead, they continue to be asked to do too much, at best they will leave the profession in droves, and at worst it could result in a tragedy.
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This article appeared in the 10 April issue under the headline “They don’t really have a clue”