Social care professionals working with disabled children and those with special educational needs are anxious about their future role after publication of the government’s strategy document sparked confusion.
The SEN and Disability Green Paper proposes wide-ranging changes, including a move to a single multi-agency assessment process and a combined health and social care plan for children lasting from birth to 25 years of age.
But there is a lack of detail about how this process would work on the ground and no reference to social workers’ roles. The details will instead be determined by pilots due to launch in September.
“It’s the unknowns about all this that are threatening to social workers,” said Nushra Mansuri, professional officer for BASW – The College of Social Work. “Children’s services are quite a scary place to be right now; there’s always this anxiety.”
What does come through clearly is that ministers want to increase the role of the voluntary sector in carrying out assessments for disabled children. The government believes this would reduce the current conflict of interest within local authorities, which currently both assess the needs of disabled children and commission services for them. This shift presents the question of where social workers, who currently carry out the assessments, fit into the process.
Mansuri fears some might try to use the move as a way of replacing social workers with a less expensive substitute.
“This cannot become an excuse for local authorities not to use social workers and go for a cheaper option,” she said. “That would compromise the level of services these children need. It really does take a qualified social worker to take on the kind of complex work behind an assessment.”
Certainly, some in the voluntary sector see the government’s hands-off approach as an opportunity.
“It’s better that the government isn’t prescribing something and is letting the pathfinders take the lead – I would be concerned if it was the other way around,” said Graham Jowett, education consultant for the Treloar Trust, which runs a school for disabled young people in Hampshire. “It’s a good approach so long as the government shows it is receptive to new ways of working.”
Jowett said the government’s lack of prescription would enable the voluntary sector to take a more dominant role, moving away from the current emphasis on local authorities.
However, Christine Lenehan, director of the Council for Disabled Children (CDC), thinks it unlikely the voluntary sector will take full control of assessments: “The government’s been told there’s a conflict within local authorities around assessment and commissioning and this is about how we can use a voluntary agency to mediate the process rather than carry out the assessment themselves.”
But nor does she want to see the workload of social workers increase as a result of the changes. “We need to make sure the single assessment is properly joined up and distributed among the different agencies,” said Lenehan.
“We need to make sure all the assessments carried out by social workers are incorporated into the single assessment and it isn’t just put on top of everything else. We don’t want a situation where the new system simply means social workers are doing yet another assessment.”
● A single, multi-agency assessment to replace the current statementing system, with greater inclusion of the voluntary sector. The single assessments are expected to be piloted in 25 local authorities from September this year and will see children given a single care plan including health, social care and education support.
● A legal right for parents of disabled children to a personal budget from 2014
● Children’s health and social care plans lasting from birth to 25
● A reduction of the assessment process from 26 to 20 weeks (actual assessment to take no more than nine weeks).
Pilots will decide social workers’ role, says children’s minister Sarah Teather
Children and families minister Sarah Teather admitted she does not yet know where social workers will fit into the vision set out in the Green Paper proposals.
She told Community Care she was relying on local authority pilots to be launched in September to decide both the social worker role and how best to involve the voluntary sector in assessment and co-ordinating services.
“The thing I want to stress is that this is a Green Paper, so it’s a consultation,” she said. “One of the things we want to test in the pilots is the role of the voluntary sector within the assessment process. The voluntary sector might sit on the assessment panel, it may co-ordinate the assessments – we don’t know yet what will work best on the ground.”
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