Here we go again. For the second time in seven years social workers face a dramatic overhaul of their profession.
The change programme set in track by David Cameron’s government differs markedly from the reforms that emerged from the 2009 social work taskforce. Back then the profession was asked what was needed to raise practice standards. This time it is being told.
With no warning, social workers found out they’ll get a new regulator and improvement body. Every children’s practitioner will face accreditation tests without promised consultation (see page 13 of this report) having taken place on whether they should be mandatory. Before an evaluation of the Frontline scheme has been published, ministers have pledged £100m for fast-track programmes so they can produce a quarter of new children’s social workers by 2018.
Meanwhile a child protection taskforce, made up of 12 ministers and zero social workers, will set about accelerating the ‘transformation’ of local authority children’s services. Those deemed failures will be taken over by third parties, while high performers will be given ‘academy style freedoms’.
The detail on many of the changes is muddy. Clearer is the government’s narrative behind them.
Look past the praise of social workers as ‘unsung heroes’, and ministers are selling a story of remedying failure. Of rooting out weak council-run services and sorting out a broken social work education system accused of churning out too many poorly trained graduates.
Notably absent is any desire to strengthen social work’s ‘national voice’. That was a key driver of the 2009 reforms, and led to the establishment of The College of Social Work and the chief social worker roles.
The government withdrew support for the College last year, after the organisation ran into financial problems. The chief social workers have given social work a presence in Whitehall but some fear ministers have used this to effectively replace, rather than aid, consultation with the wider profession when it suits.
A daunting task
Social work’s representative bodies, particularly the British Association of Social Workers, face a daunting task in responding to the changes.
Gone, at least on the children’s side of policymaking, is a strong desire for consensus building. The government has lost trust in the idea social work can reform itself.
The financial mess The College got itself into hardly helped. But before its demise ministers were already looking elsewhere for solutions to social work’s problems – the Narey review of social work education one high profile example.
Since The College closed, another reform symbolic of professional-led change – the Professional Capabilities Framework – has effectively been put out to pasture. There is a new game in town.
The views of a narrow, but trusted, group of advisers and pro-reformers now holds greatest sway. Consultation with the wider profession is often piecemeal and limited to scraps of reforms, rather than the fundamental direction of travel.
Opportunities and dangers
Many social workers’ initial reaction to Cameron’s changes has been to point to the realities of practice, the unsettling effect of constant upheaval and the financial context facing staff and those they support.
The truth is the profession must play the hand it has been dealt. Its representatives must keep a cool head, weigh up the potential opportunities and dangers of what is on the table, and present a confident case for the measures they can and cannot support.
That will involve keeping an open mind. Yes accreditation is causing anxieties among many practitioners but could it offer avenues for the post-qualifying development many social workers have long craved? In adult social work the approved mental health professional and best interests assessor roles have brought welcome recognition of advanced social work practice.
In regulation, social workers have plenty of misgivings about the Health and Care Professions Council, particularly because of its wide multi-professional remit. Could the creation of a new body focused purely on social work offer the chance to address some of these issues?
And while legitimate questions surround the growing inequity in financial support between fast-track and traditional social work education, the trainees graduating from Frontline and other schemes could prove a real boon to the profession. They should not be written off, nor should those graduating on the traditional routes ministers have criticised.
There will also need to be strong critique and challenge. But any opposition must draw extensively on the knowledge that comes from day-to-day practice. It should be evidence-based, focused, and seek to build alliances with service users to ensure it does not lose sight of what matters to the people social workers support. Little impact will come from simply decrying austerity or claiming ‘back door privatisation’.
A starting point could be to push for transparency on many of the unanswered questions from last week’s announcement.
For example, why less than four years after the government disbanded the General Social Care Council, is it proposing setting up a new regulator? How much will this cost? Is it the best use of money given the cuts frontline services face and the recruitment and retention problems facing many local authorities?
Why didn’t the government wait until an evaluation of Frontline’s effectiveness was published before investing another tranche of public money into the scheme? Likewise, why were ministers quick to give so much weight to largely anecdotal evidence of traditional education routes failing? There are issues with social work education but a report out this week also suggests more students are actually graduating with good degrees and getting jobs.
What will happen to social workers who fail their accreditation tests? How much will accreditation cost to deliver? What is meant by ‘academy style’ freedoms in the context of children’s social work, beyond a soundbite that plays well with the Conservative grassroots?
And given these reforms are largely driven by the Department for Education, what do they really mean for social workers in adults services or those working outside statutory services altogether? Is the government genuinely committed, or simply paying lip service, to the idea of a unified social work profession?
There may be good answers to these questions. Social workers deserve to know. Education secretary Nicky Morgan said “it is on the shoulders of social workers that the success of the system rests”. That’s why they need to be involved properly in reform plans, not blindsided by announcements every few months from a government that claims to value them.