Children’s social workers and compulsory accreditation: what we do and don’t know

Ministers say all children's social workers will need to be accredited by 2020. What does the new system mean for practitioners?

Image: Ikon/Rex
Image: Ikon/Rex

This article was updated on 8th February.

After months of uncertainty, it was announced last Thursday that accreditation for children’s social workers will be made compulsory “as soon as possible”.

Education secretary Nicky Morgan has now made clear that by 2020, all frontline social workers will need to have passed the tests for Approved Child and Family Practitioner status, and managers at every level must obtain Practice Supervisor status. Assistant directors, or their equivalent, will also need to be assessed and accredited as Practice Leaders.

So what will social workers need to do and what are the government’s plans for this three tier accreditation system?

Knowledge and skills statements

The first knowledge and skills statement (for approved practitioner status) was developed by chief social worker Isabelle Trowler in 2014. Martin Narey’s review of social work education had recommended the creation of a single concise document setting out what newly qualified social workers need to know and be able to do.

The KSS has already been implemented on ASYE programmes. It will now also form the basis for the assessments of frontline practitioners.

Knowledge and skills statements for supervisors and leaders were developed by a consortium in consultation with the sector (see below). The final versions were published in November last year.

The tests

The assessments will test social workers against the relevant knowledge and skills statement.for their level (see box).

If the system currently being trialled continues, it will be a four stage process:

  1. Employer endorsement: Your employer must put you forward for the next stages based on their assessment of observations of your practice in different contexts and quality of your written work.
  2. Online tests: These will be questions with a single correct answer to test your knowledge of areas such as legislation, child development and procedures.
  3. Online scenario-based assessment: How do you apply knowledge and skills in practice? Video and multimedia simulations will be used to test decision-making in practice situations.
  4. Practice observation: The final stage is direct observation of your response to three scenarios with actors followed by a written exercise and discussing your responses with assessors. This is expected to take place in an assessment centre.

 

One thousand social workers at 26 local authorities and three other employers are currently trialling the online tests and scenario assessments.

Research in Practice (RiP) were asked by the DfE and the consortium to scope evidence of how the observation element could work. Family Rights Group have represented parents’ and carers’ perspectives.

The testing process for supervisor status will follow the same format. Social workers in roles that meet the supervisor level set out in the knowledge and skills statement won’t need to pass the assessments for approved practitioner status first; they will just go through the accreditation process for supervisors.

Practice Leaders (usually one per organisation – the assistant director – although large local authorities may have several) will be tested using  a different model of “continuous assessment”. Plans for this are still being developed. The government has also said it will implement a system for talent spotting and fast-tracking potential future Practice Leaders.

Why is accreditation being brought in?

Accreditation is a key part of the government’s mission to drive up quality in children’s social work – reforms spearheaded by David Cameron.

Accredited status, the government and chief social worker say, will help the profession as a whole and individual social workers “knocking on a family’s door” earn the trust and confidence of the public. Greater respect for social workers’ professional judgement is also intended to make the role more attractive to “the very best graduates in the country.”

With proven skills and knowledge, increased professional autonomy – rather than heavy bureaucracy, prescriptive checklists and “hundreds of pages of guidance” – is promised.

Morgan and Trowler have also championed the idea of a “practice-focused career pathway” that allows progression into senior and leadership roles, whilst staying connected to the frontline. The three accredited statuses are intended to set out this development path and mean supervisors and leaders offer improved support to frontline practitioners.

Social workers’ views

Reaction to the plans from the sector has been mixed. “Don’t I already have a social work degree?” was a typical comment on Community Care’s Facebook page. And Social Work Tutor pointed out at the weekend that the tests could spell many hours revising at home on top of already demanding workloads.
Quality assurance processes already exist, argued academics in an open letter last year, and stretched local authorities are already experiencing serious difficulties in recruiting and retaining social workers.
However, accreditation is welcomed by those who see it as a positive step for public perceptions of social work and say good social workers should have nothing to fear from tests of knowledge and skills that they already have.

Tony Stanley, chief social worker at Birmingham, compared it to the approved mental health professional (AMHP) role and cited the sense of pride AMHPs have in being expert practitioners. “As social workers, we ask incredible things from families. It is right that incredible things should be asked of us before we can do that work with families.”

Mandy Nightingale, Essex’s principal social worker (PSW) and chair of the PSW network, supports accreditation too. However, as PSWs have been involved in the assessment trials and a consultation on implementation was expected, she was surprised at the announcement at this stage. Nightingale said she was concerned about the costs involved and urged social workers to respond formally to the Department’s memo to the education select committee on social work reform.

Who are the ‘accreditors’?

A new regulatory body for social work will oversee the assessment and accreditation process and, in time, replace the HCPC’s role in social work.

A consortium led by consultancy firm KPMG won a government contract in March last year to develop the pass or fail tests for the three statuses, and the statements of knowledge and skills for supervisors and leaders.

Training company Morning Lane, University of Leeds and LEO (a digital learning company) are also part of the group involved in creating and trialling the assessments.The trial is expected to continue to mid-February 2016 and the aim is to find ‘proof of concept’ of the assessment methods and tests.

Guidance for employers who need to ‘endorse’ social workers as the first stage of the process is being developed by the Daisy Bogg Consultancy, who confirmed on 8th February that they had won a government tender. The consultancy tweeted that it will be working with the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE) and RiP on the guidance.

What if you don’t get accredited?

Social workers who do not have accreditation will be able to maintain their registration as social workers, the government has said. This will apply to people who fail the tests or those working in roles or organisations where accreditation is not required.

What we don’t know

This announcement clarifies the government’s intention that all child and family social workers will need to be accredited but there is still some uncertainty about how this will be implemented. The chief social worker has confirmed that changes to legislation or statutory guidance would be needed to make it mandatory.

If the first stage of the process is employer endorsement to go through to the tests, what will the implications be for both social workers and their employers if accreditation is compulsory? The guidance on endorsement is due to be produced by June.

Last year, a consultation on the implementation was promised for early in 2016 and ‘proof of concept’ of the tests has not yet been reached. The government now says it will consult on plans for implementing accreditation in the spring, once it has the results of the trials. The Department for Education told Community Care that the following questions would be addressed by the consultation:

  • Will individual social workers or their employers have to pay to do the accreditation tests?
  • If a social worker fails the assessment, or one part of it, can they retake it?
  • Will a social worker who fails to gain accreditation still be able to maintain registration as a social worker under the new regulator?
  • How will accreditation be rolled out? For example, will it be staggered by regions, by length of time post-qualification, by Ofsted ratings or some other way?

15 Responses to Children’s social workers and compulsory accreditation: what we do and don’t know

  1. Get me out of here January 20, 2016 at 10:40 am #

    Interesting how improving status never seems to come attached with professional pay. Quite frankly the job is dire now, with extremely poor pay. Also as a Social Worker for 20 plus years does this mean I’m sacked if I don’t pass the tests? I see a very big stick here but as usual no carrot. Let us make no mistake here, this is about control and power and its abuse by David Camamoron and his Tory Government. They want compliant and obedient public sector workers who know they can be fired easily. I also am appalled that KPMG are making money out of this Government contract. Is it not a fact they know the price of everything and the value of nothing? While being on the rat wheel in my employment I am now expected to get back on the rat wheel on my own-time just to stay employed. I say this to my fellow Social Workers, don’t put up with this rubbish retrain and perhaps do something socially less useful and have public respect and better pay. Disgusting rubbish from Nicky Morgan and DC pretending that most of the existing Social Work staff are not fit for purpose. I could say more but I suspect I would be wasting my breath.

  2. Andrea Wilson January 20, 2016 at 1:04 pm #

    how will this be take place with Children Social Worker’s who work for a charity.

    • Joanna Silman
      Joanna Silman January 20, 2016 at 1:46 pm #

      Hi Andrea
      Jo from Community Care here. As far as we understand, this will affect all children’s social workers doing statutory work either in local authorities or other organisations. The NSPCC is one of the organisations taking part in the trial of the tests. It sounds like accreditation won’t be necessary for non-statutory roles but we have asked the Department for Education to clarify exactly who will and won’t be affected and if there will be a separate process to maintain registration as a social worker for those who don’t need/want accreditation so watch this space.

    • Katy s January 24, 2016 at 6:23 pm #

      It only applies to Front Line Practitioners.

  3. Not enough time January 20, 2016 at 7:18 pm #

    Similarly to Get me out’s comment above, I am outraged. As sw’ers we need to keep up to date with policy and law as it affects our practice everyday. Do I need to stress about qualifying gain for the job that I already do? No. I did a degree and do plenty of additional training to improve my practice. To become ‘Acredited’ when I already have my qualification is an insult. And what happens to those who don pass?
    Mind you, I am thoroughly used to this government insulting our practice without looking at the problems with retaining this ‘high calibre work force’ which Cameron so desires. How about improving the pay. We work well over the 37 hours a week in our contracts and don’t get that time paid as overtime or that time back. Resources are scarce, caseloads are high, we have no time to do ‘quality social work’ with our families as every time you breathe, it has to be recorded on the system. Cameron need to understand the problem is the workload, not the workforce.
    I also wonder how this is going to help fill the already high vacancies?

    I’d be interested to find out how much this consultancy cost and how many sw’ers that could have paid for. But I suspect that information will not available.

    Am thoroughly dissapointed by this and feel that the government really have got this wrong. It could backfire and they’d be left with no one, or even more vacancies than there are now.

  4. Sharon Fisher January 20, 2016 at 9:50 pm #

    Just wondering how this affects agency social workers?

    • Joanna Silman
      Joanna Silman January 21, 2016 at 9:10 am #

      Hi Sharon
      It’s a really good question. I think it’s one of the things we don’t know yet. Sanctuary is also one of the organisations involved in trialling the assessments so it seems this question is being considered. The issue of whether there are fees to pay to be accredited and if it’s social workers themselves or employers who have to pay will presumably play a part in this. Some agencies currently offer CPD and training for social workers on their books so we could perhaps see an extension of that to accreditation? We’ll continue to cover developments and look at what this means for agency workers.

  5. T January 21, 2016 at 4:46 pm #

    I don’t understand the point of the practice observations in an assessment centre – surely an observation of a real case with real people, where the SW has all the background knowledge and a relationship with the family, would be a better reflection of their practice? Even with a first visit would still be useful.
    A written exercise and discussion afterwards is fine, but it seems like a waste of time to do it for a random scenario with no prior knowledge.
    When I was newly qualified I had a number of direct observations as part of my ASYE, and they were helpful. But importantly, I didn’t have to prepare anything separate and irrelevant, or take time out to pretend to do something that I was doing every day!!
    Doesn’t seem very well thought out to me…

  6. Ian Lynch January 25, 2016 at 7:43 am #

    Brilliant, we’re all trapped in an overly bureaucratic system that prevents workers having the time to build relationships with families that enable them to engage and make changes, and give children the confidence to disclose, and the solution is a pack of insulting bulls##t that will eat up even more time. Is it any wonder virtually every experienced worker goes agency or gets out of front line children’s teams?

  7. Hels January 25, 2016 at 11:26 am #

    So just what is the definition of a ‘front line practitioner’ can this question be answered please, I am very confused

    • Joanna Silman
      Joanna Silman January 25, 2016 at 12:50 pm #

      Hi Hels. I think there has been a lot of confusion. ‘Frontline practitioners’ has been used in policy documents and in the above article to talk about those working directly with children and families, and not in a supervisory role. But see this article we published today http://www.communitycare.co.uk/2016/01/25/social-workers-will-get-say-mandatory-accreditation-says-trowler/ Isabelle Trowler says there has been confusion about what ‘mandatory’ means and there will be an extensive consultation about accreditation.

      • Katie February 9, 2016 at 3:29 pm #

        I am very annoyed about this. I have just finished my ASYE, which was introduced half way through my degree, which I didn’t sign up for! The NOS’s also got changed changed half way through to the PCF & then the Skills & Knowledge got added, all in a short space of time. It felt more like a 4 year degree.

        I am a mature student who is now £38,000 in debt due to my studies & now I am being told there are more hoops. I have never worked in an industry like this. I am already feeling demoralised & undervalued.

        I agree with the above comments regarding high case loads, poor pay & long hours. I work with such hard working, dedicated colleagues. The reality is so different to what is reported.

  8. Killiana Machengete February 9, 2016 at 9:55 pm #

    I should have studied nursing. Social work is too political and such a dead end professional.

  9. Emma S February 13, 2016 at 9:42 pm #

    I am a social worker working in CAMHS, employed by the NHS, job title is mental health practitioner so not social worker job title but am still required to keep up my social work registration for the role.

    I would say I am working in the ‘front line’ with children and adolescents, but perhaps not in the way suggested by the guidance so far…

    There are quite a lot of social workers in CAMHS nationally, some employed by the NHS, some employed by the local authority.

    How is this likely to affect us?

  10. Jayne February 15, 2016 at 11:28 pm #

    As a practising children’s social worker looking to move into the adult sector I wonder how this will affect me should I wish to return to children’s services in the future?

    Will it mean social workers have to make the choice between adult and children services and as such will the degree no longer be generic? I want to experience adult social work but do not want to narrow my options in the future.

    Neither can I see the benefit of using actors when assessing social workers in such an artificial environment. The cost alone to implement this will be significant. Observations of practice within the work environment have been satisfactory until now and at least with that route you have the opportunity of gaining valuable feedback from actual service users.