When the national standards for social work employers in England were launched in 2011, many unions and professional bodies lambasted the government for failing to make them mandatory.
Eighteen months later, the group tasked with rolling out the standards has carried out a survey of social workers and employers, to find out how well they are bedding in.
The results are mixed. Where they have been introduced comprehensively and well communicated to staff, the standards appear to have improved support for social workers.
But progress has been variable, hindered by mounting pressures on social work services and councils’ budgetary pressures.
As a result, the Employer Standards Group (ESG) has announced a “refresh” of the standards. The group will look at how the framework is working on the ground in those areas where it has been successfully adopted and use that learning to drive participation in other organisations.
Workload management ‘extremely challenging’
The ESG surveyed more than 2,000 social workers in England to find out whether the standards are having an impact in their organisations.
Under the standards, employers commit to providing 90 minutes a month of regular, uninterrupted supervision for all social workers, as well as annual “health checks” to assess team working environments, caseload management systems and support for continuing professional development (CPD).
Some broad themes emerged from the survey. Workload management continues to be an “extremely challenging” area for employers given the increasing pressure on the services, the group found.
Two out of five respondents said their employer does not have a transparent system for allocating, assessing and reviewing their workload, taking account of their capacity and giving enough time for supervision and CPD.
Almost half (48%) said their employer does not operate a contingency plan for when workload demands exceed staffing capacity.
“Where employers have introduced systems to manage workload, they need to ensure these are applied consistently and carefully monitored,” the ESG recommended.
In addition, many social workers seemed to be unaware of the Social Work Reform Board, the reform programme and the employer standards: “In many places, there appears to be a communication gulf between leadership and management and the frontline.”
Reviewing the term ‘health check’
Two out of five social workers said their employer had not completed or published an annual health check using feedback from social workers about practice conditions and the working environment. Almost half (48%) said they did not know if this had taken place.
Comments suggested that the health check process is something social workers welcome in theory – and where they have been done with full involvement from staff, they have driven positive changes.
“However, this relies on proper and open communication of the outcomes to social workers and open reporting through employers’ governance structures,” the ESG said.
“It may also be helpful to review the term ‘health check’ and explore integrating this within the employer standards auditing process.”
Helga Pile, Unison’s national officer for social work, warned that, “without sustained action to apply the standards consistently”, many social services departments are in danger of reaching crisis point.
“We have to face up to the reality of what is happening in social services,” she said.
“We want more honesty and openness about how and where the new standards are being implemented. Above all, we need to have open reporting of all the capacity issues so that politicians can see what strains the services are under.”
Supervision and support
On a more positive note, nine out of 10 social workers responding to the ESG’s survey are receiving at least part of their supervision from a registered social worker.
Half said they receive supervision once a month for at least an hour and a half at a time.
But a quarter complained that their employer does not provide them with time, resources and support for CPD, and a further 40% said there was some, but not enough time.
One in five said their employer does not provide them with support to continue meeting the requirements of their professional registration.
Visit Community Care’s special report on the state of social work supervision
“Councils, unions and their partners within the Employer Standards Group are committed to improving the quality of social services by supporting the professional development of social workers, monitoring and raising standards of practice and creating a safe and productive working environment,” said Mark Rogers, who chairs the group.
“Despite the challenges presented by significant reductions in local government funding, progress is starting to be made to improve standards for social workers and the people they serve.
“After just 18 months we have begun to see the positive impact the standards framework can have. However, it is acknowledged on all sides that there is still work to be done to drive take-up and delivery of the standards framework across the country.
“Our challenge in the coming months is to refresh the standards framework to ensure it can be a positive force for change in practice and develop a plan for taking it forward in a way which engages more employers and social workers alike.”
The majority of the 2,184 respondents to the employee survey have been qualified for at least two years and work for a local authority. Just under half are based in the North West and London and the South East.
The results from the survey of employers are not yet available.