If there’s one thing more anxiety inducing than an exam, it’s not knowing whether you have to take the exam in the first place.
This is the position most children’s social workers are now facing.
Following the publication of three statements of knowledge and skills for three different statuses – practitioner, supervisor and leader, the sector now awaits the plans to implement ‘accreditation’ (proof that a social worker has the specified knowledge and skills).
Pilots are already underway in 26 local authorities, and three other employers, where 1,000 social workers are undergoing a four- stage testing process, including online simulations and observed role play.
The testing process will be the same for supervisors but a tender to develop an alternative assessment for practice leaders (assistant directors) is expected to open in January next year.
Following the pilots, a consultation on implementation is also due early next year. This will include the key question of whether accreditation should be mandatory and, if so, for which practitioners.
Lee Pardy-McLaughlin, principal social worker at Staffordshire and deputy chair of the PSW network, believes the profession has high expectations of itself and is therefore broadly in favour of accreditation. But he raises the question of how this will be managed and implemented across the system.
How much would it cost?
The money being invested in these government contracts is not inconsiderable – £2 million for the practitioner and supervisor testing and developing two of the knowledge and skills statements, up to £1.4 million for the practice leader testing as well as £150,000 to develop guidance for employers who will need to endorse practitioners before they are tested.
The cost of implementing the system across the workforce, if it became mandatory, is therefore likely to be sizeable.
In his spending review, the chancellor George Osborne said he would maintain the Department for Education’s central children’s services budget “to help drive up social care workforce standards to improve support for vulnerable children”. There was no new money, just no cuts.
Rachael Wardell, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) workforce policy lead says if accreditation is mandated, the logistics and parameters will be crucial in terms of how much of a burden it is on local authorities.
“We might be given a short timescale or there could be a number of years to introduce it. It could just be for new entrants or encompass those already in the profession. The implications of administration and cost will obviously be greater the more people affected and the faster we need to do it.”
She also points out there might be an indirect cost of making it compulsory if it restricts councils’ flexibility about their staffing structures.
“The knowledge and skills statements (KSSs) and their focus may suit some better than others. Will some organisations need to change how work is distributed and allocated and existing development structures for practitioners?”
Vijay Patel, formerly professional standards lead at the College of Social Work and now an associate with Daisy Bogg Consultancy, thinks the DfE may be politically reluctant to make accreditation mandatory because it will require legislative change which would mean central government would need to make at least some money available for it.
‘Long term culture change’
“They would have to cost out and potentially fund it if local authorities had to implement this process. It would probably be more effective if it’s a long term culture change, gradually winning hearts and minds. We know with GPs that it took time but it is the norm now that one cannot practice as a GP without having passed the RCGP exam. A sensible approach could be to get good evidence of how the accreditation system works and its benefits to show other social workers and employers that it’s appropriate for the workforce.”
This might include, for example, Ofsted looking into how many accredited practitioners an organisation has and the impact this makes.
‘It could sell itself’
Wardell can see this operating in a similar manner to the assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE) which despite not being mandatory has been widely implemented.
“If, as a developmental tool, it’s effective and not burdensome, there will be good reasons local authorities want to be able to say practice is endorsed. If it’s pitched at the right level it could sell itself, it wouldn’t need to be mandatory,” she points out.
Pardy-McLaughlin says much of what is in the knowledge and skills statements is already good practice so councils might view it as an effective “kite-mark” of quality of leadership, supervision and the practice culture and environment that would help with recruitment and retention of social workers.
If the costs of accreditation helped reduce the significant costs associated with agency staff and high staff turnover as well as improved outcomes many might see it as well worth investing in.
Of course, there is another way of making it mandatory which would be to place the burden on the individual social worker. If local authorities only advertised for accredited social workers or certain jobs could only be done by an accredited social worker, it would effectively create a market for accreditation.
The Health and Care Professions Council is currently reviewing its standards of proficiency for social workers as part of their registration criteria. It is as yet unclear how the new standards might mesh with the knowledge and skills statements and the accreditation process.
For Maris Stratulis, England manager for the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), this approach would simply add to the feeling the profession is under constant attack.
We have a regulatory body and employers have internal processes to address capability issues. What is the government saying about social work with accreditation? Do other professions have to jump through this many hoops?
Students are telling BASW they are genuinely confused about what their future careers will look like, Stratulis says
Some universities have already started to incorporate the knowledge and skills statement for the practitioner level (and the equivalent KSS for those working with adults) into qualifying curricula. But to accredit all courses to ensure they are all producing social workers to this standard will take time.
If validation took place in the next academic year (2016/2017) for example, then undergraduates on those accredited courses would not be coming into the workforce until summer 2020.
This means the greatest burden of making the workforce “accreditation ready” will fall on employers or individuals in the short-term.
And if you fail?
If accreditation were mandatory in either form, it also opens up an entirely new workforce structure and the potential for a painful transition period.
What sort of role would you be allowed to hold if you aren’t ‘ready’, and for how long? As employer endorsement is the first stage, Wardell says it should follow that employers would only put forward staff they think are likely to pass the next stages, meaning numbers who fail should be quite low.
But if a social worker doesn’t meet the standards but is qualified and HCPC registered, where will they go?
Social workers might have started to build relationships with children and families but be unable to continue working with them. If practitioners who are not accredited need to have a restricted caseload and more supervisory support, this would also impact on an under-resourced workforce.
If accreditation was only considered essential for child protection teams, this would also cause concern, according to Pardy-McLaughlin.
“If we’re going to say this is what social workers need to be able to do, why would we single out child protection? What about looked-after children, care leavers, adoption and fostering services which need highly skilled social work support?”
He also raises the question of how this fits in with the current push for social workers in children’s and adults’ services to work more effectively together to reflect the needs of service users and a whole family approach. He points out more and more local authorities are looking at practice models that run across both parts of the system.
What about adults’ social workers?
While there is no suggestion that adults’ social workers will face an accreditation test, a knowledge and skills statement introduced in April sets out the level they should have reached by the end of their ASYE. In addition to the more rigorous standards, internal and external moderation and plans to introduce national validation of the assessors’ decisions should improve the consistency of decisions on who passes.
Lyn Romeo, chief social worker for adults, says changes to the ASYE process aim to achieve a similar outcome to accreditation.
“There’s always a debate – are standardised tests or a moderation process the best way of doing this? The idea here is a continual learning year where you are building evidence to a point where an assessor can say you have demonstrated a level of capability and can be compared to other social workers at the same stage.”
Assessment for supervisors and possibly practice leaders is being considered, depending on the outcome of the pilots in children’s services. Romeo argues adult social workers are already familiar with the idea of exams and accreditation to develop their career in roles such as best interest assessor and approved mental health professional.
She says it is time supervisor roles were given the same weight as accredited specialist positions and the skills and knowledge needed to supervise qualified staff or students are developed within a framework.
Romeo’s vision is of social workers becoming specialists after having taken a generalist social work qualification, with a clear framework for how careers can progress and a focus on practice-based evidence of what works. This would include more specialisms such as working with people with dementia and learning disabilities, and supervisor and leadership roles.
Accreditation for practice leaders may not be so straightforward she agrees. And in adults’ services, where integration with other professions is increasingly becoming the norm, it would probably perform a different function to children’s services.
“A practice leader would be very much focused on social work practice rather than managing organisational arrangements. We see this in other disciplines we work with – practice leaders for nursing or medicine, who are responsible for practice governance and ensuring focus on good quality practice is sustained. That’s where there’s been a bit of a gap for social workers.”
Can social workers afford to ignore accreditation?
If accreditation was not mandatory then could it be ignored? Current council resources over the next four years suggest that anything not statutory is likely to fall by the wayside.
Stratulis points out BASW intends to actively promote the professional capabilities framework (PCF) which it inherited from the former College of Social Work and which is owned by the profession.
“The PCF matches the profession’s value base. We would look at work being done on how it aligns with the KSSs. We know that students and practice educator value this in making sense of theory and practice.”
Ultimately it may come down to weighing up costs and benefits. While both chief social workers are motivated by improving standards and outcomes for service users, many council leaders will be more heavily influenced by the potential impact accreditation might have on Ofsted inspections and costs such as recruitment and retention.