Social workers must face regular quality checks to remain in practice, says government review

Strong support for generic social work qualification in David Croisdale-Appleby's report contrast with backing for specialisation in Martin Narey's review

Social care team
Credit: Burger/Phanie/Rex (posed by models)

Social workers should face a system of revalidation at least every five years to show that they remain fit to practice and to support career-long continuing professional development (CPD), a review for government has concluded.

Practitioners should have to undergo “comprehensive formal appraisal” testing their practice skills, professional knowledge and ethics and commitment to evidence-based practice to enable them to remain in the profession, said Professor David Croisdale-Appleby. This would replace the current system of re-registration with the Health and Care Professions Council.

This would build on a proposed reform to the Assessed and Supported Year in Practice (ASYE) that would make it compulsory for newly-qualified social workers and require them to pass a formal assessment to enable them to receive a license to practise as a social worker.

Gove ‘personally supportive’ of revalidation

Croisdale-Appleby’s recommendation, in a review of social work education in England for the Department of Health, comes with the chief social worker for children, Isabelle Trowler, already working on proposals for a licence to practise test and revalidation regime for children’s social workers. Education secretary Michael Gove has said that he is “personally supportive” of Trowler’s work in this area, providing an indication that the government will pursue this policy.

Croisdale-Appleby found that the “generally held view” among social workers and employers was that the HCPC’s re-registration process, based in most cases on a self-declaration that practitioners have met the HCPC’s generic CPD standards, were not stringent.

He said a “much more stringent regulatory regime” – based on revalidation – would “greatly benefit the profession and should be pursued”.

Croisdale-Appleby, chair of Skills for Care, was commissioned last year by care minister Norman Lamb to examine the quality and structure of social work education. His review ran in parallel with former Barnardo’s chief executive Martin Narey’s review of the state of children’s social work, education, which reported earlier this month.

Contrasts with Narey review

But while Narey strongly backed the introduction of specialised qualifications for students intending to work in children’s services, based on a generic first year, Croisdale-Appleby strongly backed the retention of a single, generic initial social work qualification.

While Narey argued that graduates who took a specialist qualification should still be registered as generic social workers, permitted to work in all fields, Croisdale-Appleby said that they would qualify “with their capabilities very largely in a single field”, amounting to a split in the profession.

He said there was a near unanimous view among social work educationalists in the UK and abroad that it was “absolutely essential” for all social workers to understand the social and familial context in which their clients – be they children or adults – lived. He said it was an “underlying principle” of social work that it requires “a thorough understanding of all stages in the life course”.

Narey argued that specialisation was needed to turn out children’s social workers that were more practice ready than is currently the case. But Croisdale-Appleby argued that this was the wrong way to tackle any lack of preparedness to practice among newly-qualified social workers (NQSWs) – which he described as “not a particularly widely experienced situation”.

“To make the leap to a solution which seeks to respond to any such factors by assuming that early specialisation will obviate such problems is not based on any significant research evidence, nor is it particularly logically sound,” said the report.

Instead, he said these issues should be tackled by ensuring higher standards of entry to social work courses, tougher regulation of courses and better, monitored practice placements. While Narey also advocated reforms in these areas, the two reviews’ specific proposals are different.

Higher entry requirements for social work courses

While Narey said that all undergraduate social work courses should have an entry requirement of 240 UCAS points (equivalent to three C grades at A-level), Croisdale-Appleby said this should be set at 300 points (equivalent to three B grades). He said it was doubtful that 240 points was a “sufficiently high standard for a profession which has elements of very high intellectual demand, such as the need for the mastery of advanced sociological constructs, understanding of complex risk assessment, decision-making under uncertainty and reflective practice”.

Both reviews also said that the system for regulating social work courses should be made more rigorous and the Health and Care Professions Council assessment and The College of Social Work’s endorsement scheme for programmes brought together in a single, compulsory framework.

However, while Narey said TCSW should be made responsible for regulating social work education and social workers themselves, Croisdale-Appleby said both roles should remain with the HCPC.

Practice placement improvements

Both reviews said a reformed regulatory regime should involve an evaluation of the quality of placements, which Croisdale-Appleby said should include site visits – something neither the HCPC or TCSW do currently.

However, Croisdale-Appleby also called for more far-reaching reforms to placements to improve quality. He said funding for the education support grant – paid by higher education institutions to placement providers – should be increased substantially, having remained at the same level since 2003. He said this would help address the shortage of high-quality placements, though would need to be balanced by a “much more rigorous audit of placement quality”, and should be paid directly to practice educators or supervisers to ensure it did not leak out into funding other services.

He also said the standards under which practice educators are assessed – the practice educator professional standards (Peps) – should be strengthened and practice educators subject to more formal assessment by the responsible HEI.

Fast-track qualifying routes

Croisdale-Appleby’s review comes with scoping work underway to develop a fast-track qualification for adults’ social workers, potentially focusing on mental health, along similar lines to the Frontline initiative for children’s social work. Frontline, which launches this year, will provide trainees with five weeks of classroom training followed by a year’s placement in a local authority child protection team, after which they would qualify as a social worker.

Croisdale-Appleby said that fast-track routes should be encouraged so long as they met the more rigorous regulatory requirements that he was advocating for all courses. However, he voiced scepticism about the restriction of courses to certain practice areas or user groups – such as children’s services in the case of Frontline – and pointed to the contrasting international trend towards longer, rather than shorter qualifying periods for social workers.

“It is imperative that such routes do not provide a stripped down, form of social work education – a sort of “social work lite”, but seek to achieve higher learning outcomes than are current,” he said.

Other recommendations

Croisdale-Appleby also made the following recommendations:-

  • a reduction in the number of social workers trained and the development of a new strategic workforce planning system so that supply of practitioners meets demand;
  • the proportion of students studying through postgraduate – rather than undergraduate – routes should be increased, given evidence that postgraduate students are of higher calibre in areas including critical thinking and reflective practice;
  • bursaries should be retained, but means-tested, for postgraduate students but reduced, and if necessary phased out, for undergraduate students, given higher funding priorities, such as in improving practice placements.

The DH will now consider the recommendations, alongside those of Narey’s review. The HCPC said it would discuss the findings of the two reviews at its next council meeting in March.

“We are confident that our processes and standards in [continuing professional development and education] are robust and are able to complement both existing and future initiatives to drive up quality across the sector,” said chief executive Mark Seale.

TCSW said it would also be discussing the findings of the two reviews with members, the government and the two chief social workers. Chair Jo Cleary welcomed the Croisdale-Appleby report, saying: “We are pleased with the report’s emphasis on a generic approach to social work qualifying education so that newly qualified social workers are qualified to practise with children and families, as well as with adults.”

This aspect was also welcomed by the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (Adass).

Methodology

Narey’s report, which was based upon a series of private interviews with employers, academics, students and social workers and his own observations, was criticised by social work academics for being lacking in evidence and overly based upon anecdote.

Croisdale-Appleby said he had used a “rigorous” process to form his conclusions. This started by undertaking a literature review of research on social work education from around the world, and then interviewed the authors of papers on their conclusions. He then conducted a series of interviews with stakeholders on social work in England, including practitioners, service users and their representatives, universities, organisations such as HCPC, TCSW and Adass, and the British Association of Social Workers.

He then cross-checked the literature and interview-based evidence to create a series of hypotheses that formed the basis of a call for evidence from stakeholders.

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8 Responses to Social workers must face regular quality checks to remain in practice, says government review

  1. Andrew Faulkner February 27, 2014 at 11:22 am #

    More double standards by our government, doctors and surgeons kill more people than social workers ever do each year and I don’t see them getting five yearly “fit to practice” assessments! . It sounds to me like Professor David Croisdale-Appleby is yet another academic banging his gums in order to justify his own position. When are successive governments going to stop burdening social workers with more and more layers of bureaucratic nonsense and just let them get on with a difficult and demanding job?

  2. Jenny Quince February 27, 2014 at 12:43 pm #

    Sadly I would not have been able to be a social worker today. I left school with 1 ‘o’ level and achieved another at college. Over the years I have gained a DipSW, BSc (Hons) and have just completed my AMHP Training. Qualifications are important but so is experience, common sense, people skills, political awareness and the abilty to progress – I am nearly 50 years old and am considering a PHd.

    • Pamela Chambers February 27, 2014 at 2:42 pm #

      I qualified as a social worker in 2010 after several years of gaining qualifications in order to pursue degree level. Unfortunately for me I am not working in social work due to the recession. I agree with Jenny that experience and life skills are essential and I’m 56 myself. I wish to some degree that specialising in an area for the social work degree would be good, however I wanted to work with adults but could not find any positions. I am now working as a support worker with the elderly. In order to achieve a better chance with a social work position I am doing an Assisted and Supported Year of Employment (ASYE) . I have felt very disheartened with getting work in the profession but I’m doing all I can to improve my knowledge base and pursue the work I qualified in.

  3. Mr Jones February 27, 2014 at 5:04 pm #

    Indeed Jenny, I started with a DipSw and am amazed at how many reports that need correcting for grammar and spelling from colleagues who have Masters Degrees and much more. Fully agree with the common sense approach and the need to be able to analyse.

  4. Naomi February 28, 2014 at 8:46 pm #

    I would echo all of the comments and sentiments thus far about the approach and entry to this profession. I am a mature student having fought hard to get onto the course. I have some O levels, a professional qualification in another social sector, a qualification from my former Uni which confirmed the level and standard of qualifications for me equivalent to the credits for the first year of the degree, and importantly I could demonstrate considerable experience at all the competency levels required in the PCF…it all counted for nothing because they could not tick one box; the O level at B grade for maths even though I have managed multi- million pound budgets… all meant nothing because they couldn’t tick that box. I also tried the “Step Up to S/W” programme which requires a First class degree as an entry requirement. I spoke directly to them, and challenged that if I had a first class degree in geography and was 18 years old they would accept me…to which they replied yes, but my considerable social sector experience and professional qualifications were not adequate. Ironically this route would be particularly useful to more mature applicants if the entry requirements were not idealistic nonsense. Narey therefore has a point in addressing this aspect. A competency based approach that incorporates safeguards for a level of communication and comprehension skills that could be assessed as part of the entrance requirements would achieve a higher quality and committed cohort of S/W students in my view.

  5. Alan March 1, 2014 at 8:31 am #

    I have asserted for long enough clinical supervision (as is mandatory for counsellors, BACP) should be part of best practice, this would help to uphold quality and it would also help cover the “cradle to grave” heading as this type of supervision also covers CPD. The problem being in these days of cuts back how does the government think this can be financed when it is getting harder to do basic requirements of social care?

  6. Louis March 3, 2014 at 5:05 pm #

    I’m still amazed after these reports what the end product of social care / worker education (training) is. A social worker, at any level. I started my degree in 2008 and finished in 2012. Reports I heard of in this time included the Social Work Taskforce, Munro, Narey and Appleby. Whatever the education route taken or standard defined, be it degree, Step Up, Frontline or some other development; there is a bottom line for what employers want and what is cost effective. People with SW qualification at any level still need to live, have a home, have food (something every human being needs) and if they can’t find employment as a social worker, they look elsewhere. I think it is a matter of how sustainable for the individual to be a social worker in a time of austerity contrasted with an opinion of a top politician saying ‘We’re a wealthy country, money is no object’. Although this opinion was connected to the recent floods in England, it makes me wonder what is the real value of effective social care and social work.

  7. Christian Kerr March 5, 2014 at 8:19 pm #

    I have long argued that social workers should be confident in engaging a diverse range of service users across a variety of practice settings. Rather than promoting a model of specialisation, which serves to undermine worker confidence by creating and reinforcing artificial lines of demarcation between ‘children and families social work’, ‘mental health social work’ and so on, we should promote the idea of a competent, multi-faceted ‘total social worker’ who is able to work with individuals, families and communities to address and deal with the complex issues they face. Many children’s safeguarding social workers work with parental substance misuse, mental ill health and so on, but it seems few feel confident in doing so. The key skills for social workers, such as the ability to communicate effectively and to work with complexity, apply across all practice settings and should be the focus of generic training. The specialist knowledge required to engage specific can be gained and developed through practice experience. This model of total social work could underpin greater integration of hitherto disparate specialist services in order to reduce the number of professionals involved and facilitate improved collaborative working, leading to better experiences and outcomes for service users. In addition, a defining characteristic of social work education is the critically reflective application of theory in practice, yet students and practitioners seem to view theory and practice as separate and distinct, leading to theory being undervalued by practitioners (and employers). However, theory and practice are not separate. Everything we do as human beings is informed by some theoretical notion. Likewise, everything we do as social workers is underpinned by theory – from holistic assessment and planning (systems theory) to welfare reports (attachment theory, child development) – yet this is largely left implicit or, worse, unrecognised. A greater, more explicit engagement with the theoretical underpinnings of the proforma and templates, the very tools of assessment, administration and accountability we use every day, will lead to better quality social work, while enabling us to understand, challenge and refine those tools for the benefit of service users. A deeper understanding and appreciation of theory should be one basis for the programme of ongoing professional development.