When Hackney director Alan Wood recently made the call for social workers to be graded individually as part of inspections, he said social workers should learn from models in education.
This is despite the fact the system he suggests, of grading individual practice, was dropped by the education sector in 2014, following recommendations from the think-tank Policy Exchange.
The assessment of a teacher based on the delivery of one lesson was judged to be unreliable as a way of assuring quality.
However, Wood told Community Care, when Ofsted started reflecting on individual teachers’ performance, the consequences were “profound”.
“Teachers became a lot more acute at knowing what good teaching looks like and what you need to know and be to be a good teacher.
“In social work, we have not done the same. We still think, you’re qualified, you go on a couple of post-qualifying training courses and you belong to a professional members’ organisation so you’re a professional.”
Local authorities’ job
Social work professor Donald Forrester, former academic lead on the Frontline fast track programme, agrees local authorities should be evaluating the quality of practice of their workers on an ongoing basis, but believes individual grading is a bad idea.
“It is reasonable to expect them to do so, and perhaps Alan Wood’s views express some frustration at the consistency and rigour of this process in many authorities. This I think is a legitimate concern and one I share,” he says.
“However, Ofsted inspects services not individuals. Inspections should be checking that local authorities are evaluating the quality of practice.
“There are very serious challenges in reliably evaluating the quality of the practice of individual workers. Ofsted have stopped doing this for individual lessons in school inspections because the results were so unreliable.”
Essex is a council that grades individual social workers, but its director says to embed it into an inspection framework would be “mad”.
Dave Hill describes Wood’s message as “misguided”, despite his own council using an appraisal system which grades workers’ practice using labels ranging from “unmet” to “exceptional”.
This system might sound familiar to those used to Ofsted’s often damning one-word judgements. But Hill is clear those labels are a product of the previous year’s worth of practice observation, supervision and getting to know the worker as an individual along with all their personal circumstances.
Line managers, he says, are able to see a social worker in the round by looking at everything they’ve done over the year, while inspectors will only ever see a snapshot.
“On your caseload you’re going to have a range of different cases. If Ofsted comes along and looks at one of your straightforward cases, they might make the judgement you’re doing really good work. They might take a really complex case and it might look like that social worker is struggling.”
Hill adds: “It’s really important to know the quality of the practice of your social workers, but I don’t see how that’s Ofsted’s role.”
Indeed, Hill says schools with good practices around appraisal are no different from good children’s services.
“If you take a really good or outstanding school, they know exactly what their teachers are and are not capable of, have really good continuing professional development and close supervision.
“Similarly, really good social work departments are really good at knowing, supporting and challenging their staff.”
He adds there is little evidence formally grading people outside of supervision improves their practice, while in the confidential setting of a supervision, social workers may be more open and honest about the challenges they face.
Both Forrester and Hill feel it is unproductive to focus on individuals and not systems.
Forrester points out that if certain local authorities have high numbers of poor social workers then it points clearly to certain parts of the profession not doing enough to ensure excellent practice.
“Equally, instead of our constant focus on failure, I would like to see commendations for individuals and recognition for local authorities and courses that seem to produce high proportions of outstanding social workers.”
Sharing good practice
For Hill, this goes further than just commending good practice – councils doing something well should be sharing that practice with those that are struggling. This, he says, would have far more impact than a grade from an inspectorate.
Essex is doing just that by acting as an improvement partner to Somerset, exporting its appraisal system to the struggling council.
British Association of Social Workers’ England manager, Maris Stratulis, agrees a quality assurance system combined with continuing professional development would be better than a clinical scoring system feeding into either an inspection framework “or worse, a capabilities framework”.
“We will not defend the poor practice of social workers, but every organisation will have its internal disciplinary process and capabilities framework. Why are we creating the potential for yet another assessment and benchmarking process for social workers?”
But for Wood, who recently announced he will retire as Hackney director at the end of the year, one of the biggest problems is the disconnected nature of social work reform at the moment.
For him the solution lies in having a robust national framework setting out what good social work looks like which individual workers can be judged against.
He believes social work education, core knowledge and skills, continuous professional development and ongoing assessment are all part of a spectrum.
“What we’ve got at the moment is tiny parts of that spectrum, at different points of development, not being connected up,” he says.
“It has to all be joined up so students leave courses knowing what’s expected of them, and directors don’t have to spend so much time saying ‘this is what the job actually is.”
But Stratulis points out directors must also consider themselves part of the improvement process.
Role of directors
“Directors should be walking the floor and getting to have a relationship with the social workers in their department.
“How many directors have had a recent conversation with a child in care? How many recently did a home visit with a social worker?”
Stratulis believes that only when directors have a rapport with their workforce and understand the outcomes for children and families on their caseloads will they really be able to assess the strengths and weaknesses of individual social workers.