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 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:
- 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.
- Online tests: These will be questions with a single correct answer to test your knowledge of areas such as legislation, child development and procedures.
- 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.
- 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?