Should social workers be graded individually as part of inspections?

Alan Wood's comments caused controversy in the sector- but he says individual grading would help drive up performance standards

Photo: Martin Lee/Rex

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.

Unreliable

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.”

‘Misguided’

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.”

Supervision

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?”

Joined up

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.

More from Community Care

5 Responses to Should social workers be graded individually as part of inspections?

  1. Andrew Grant October 29, 2015 at 12:58 pm #

    ‘ 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.’

    I agree with this assertion entirely but this will never take place in the current culture of Business Unit Management in Social Care.Those in higher Senior Management focus on finance targets ,make cuts backs , make more work demands from social workers ,expect them to work longer unpaid hours due to higher work performance expectations . All of us on the front line are aware of this but those ‘up high’ continue to ignore the implications and impacting this is having on grass roots work forces. It seems senior management focus is saving money whilst social workers continue -despite withering resources- to save lives.

  2. Peter Endersby October 29, 2015 at 7:50 pm #

    I really am sick of Social Care carping on about how unfair Ofsted is and how what they is sooo complex that it cannot be summed up in a single judgement. In education we have been engaged in this dance with the big ‘O’ for years, we get a single school and individual teacher judgements and it’s horrible. No the system isn’t fair, yes Ofsted are a blunt weapon used by successive governments to pour scorn on us in education and now you in social care. Take dancing lessons because you guys are looking awful and stop taking it so personally. Your jobs are hard enough as it is without this ‘poor man’ routine.

  3. J. Manu October 30, 2015 at 10:35 am #

    Performance management of which personnel appraisal forms part is strictly a HR function and the de facto responsibility of the employer. It can not be abdicated or surrendered to the Regulator who does not have supervisory responsibility for the day-to-day supervision Social Workers and of their development programmes. Woods suggestion will amount to dereliction of employers’ responsibilities, but it also informs me that Wood might be out of his depth in dealing with critical personnel issues. Management approach in social work should be more motivating than suppressive.

  4. Jo October 30, 2015 at 3:27 pm #

    I’m not even going to read the whole article
    It’s incredible that social workers (I’m one) are blamed for the crisis of social services nationwide!
    The problem is made up of several issue that impacts

    the caseload volume / often of very complex cases
    In contradiction – high expectations of work management & performance (often leaving many SW’s feeling stressed & inadequate – not reality as usually not sustainable by anyone)
    Staff shortage & absence – often due to stress
    Supervision – sometimes lack of
    Such a high turnaround of staff & in particular CSW’s – impacting on care plans & often resulting in delays for our children& young persons
    So many services being inspected & resulting in tick box exercised & no time fur real social work e.g. Building relationships with a child/young person & direct work – resulting in them feeling totally unsupported
    The lack of resources continually being cut & impacting on performance
    Frozen pay & often much too low wages for the job ( cleaners can earn £15 an hour!!!)
    Etc etc etc
    It’s really not rocket science &
    Last of all – being valued

  5. FosterCarer1964 November 2, 2015 at 2:01 pm #

    In ten years of Foster Care I have worked with some amazing people but they have been let down by quite a few. I work mainly with Child Social Workers but worked closely with a (what I call) front-line Social Worker quite recently and she was marvellous.
    In my experience I would love to see individuals inspected for their impact on a child, Standards, Training and how well they work with the rest of us while using those standards and training.
    What if one person was well known to Foster Carers and there was a reluctance to take a child if they were the Social Worker? What if because of that reluctance placement rules were changed to stop Foster Carers finding out. Shouldn’t there be some way to grade the better Social Workers who are a joy to work with because they improve a child’s chances by being good at what they do?