How government’s social work reforms will affect adults’ practitioners

While ministers' focus is on reforming children's social work, their proposals for the profession have significant implications for those working with adults

Lyn Romeo
Chief social worker for adults Lyn Romeo

Given that it was education secretary Nicky Morgan who announced the government’s plans for reforming social work last month in a speech entitled ‘Delivering a revolution in children’s social care’, you would be forgiven for thinking there was little in it for adults’ practitioners.

But despite ministers’ focus on reforming children’s social work, the changes will have significant implications for adults’ social workers – particularly through the new body that will be “charged with driving up standards in social work and raising the status of social workers”, in Morgan’s words.

It will take over from the Health and Care Professions Council as the regulator of social work in England and set standards for adults’ and children’s social workers in both statutory and non-statutory settings.

Romeo: ‘Good news’

The plan to create the as-yet-unnamed organisation is good news for social work, says Lyn Romeo, the chief social worker for adults, who is based in the Department of Health, not Morgan’s Department for Education.

“It’s good news because, firstly, it’s about getting all of social work into one coherent body in relation to regulation and standards, and secondly because it gives the opportunity to really invest in and support post-qualification accreditation and specialist practice in different areas across children’s and adult settings,” she says.

The Association of Directors of Adult Social Services has also welcomed the move with its president, Ray James, calling it “a positive step towards continuing to drive up standards and ambition within the sector”.

Information about the body is, however, thin on the ground. The government has yet to decide most of the details of how it will work and the timescales for its creation. But from what’s already known, it appears that the most significant changes for adults’ social workers will be in how they are trained and accredited.

Accreditation

One of those changes will be the introduction of standards and accreditation for practice supervisors and leaders, following in the footsteps of the accreditation systems already being developed for children’s social work managers and leaders.

“We’ve never had in place any accreditation for people supervising qualified social workers, so this is a big step forward in terms of recognising that if you are supervising practice, not just of students but also of qualified social workers, there should be a requirement that sets out the knowledge and skills needed to do that and some acknowledgement that somebody is at that level of capability,” says Romeo.

“Often social workers in adult settings are working in multi-disciplinary environments and the line manager isn’t always necessarily somebody with a social work background or an understanding of social work practice. We want to make sure that we are building the architecture to ensure that social workers receive social work practice supervision as appropriate and that the people who are providing it have the skills and knowledge base needed to do that.”

Accreditation for supervisors should also help establish a career path for social workers that allows them to remain involved in practice rather than moving into managerial positions, she adds.

Differences with children’s services

Unlike for children’s supervisors and leaders, knowledge and skills statements for their adults’ equivalents have not been developed, nor has a system for assessing them been proposed, as with children’s supervisors. Nor is there any indication of whether accreditation will be mandatory or not.

In children’s services, the Department for Education is due to consult on mandatory accreditation shortly, and has set an objective of accrediting all children’s social workers and managers by 2020.

There are also no current plans to introduce accreditation for frontline adults’ social workers, unlike in children’s services.

Instead the new body will validate the quality of assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE) programmes for adult workers, a role that had been due to be carried out by the College of Social Work before its demise.

“I also wanted to wait and see how the accreditation pans out in children’s services,” adds Romeo. “In time we will reflect on that and think about whether that would be appropriate, but at the moment I think it is appropriate to continue on with what we’ve been doing in relation to the AYSE year.”

Specialisms

Instead, accreditation for frontline adults’ social workers is likely to concentrate on specialist roles. While no further detail is available yet, the new body is also expected to develop standards and accreditation that recognises specific specialisms within adult social work, such as dementia or learning disabilities.

The new body will also bring oversight of best interest assessor (BIA) and approved mental health practitioner (AMHP) courses and accreditation under one roof.

“We want to bring AMHP and BIA training together under this new regulatory body, which ensures that the courses are at the standards they should be and also that those who are qualifying or passing those are at a particular capability,” says Romeo. “Then we would have the opportunity for the body to be recognising that and annotating the register to reflect that those people have achieved that level of accreditation.”

The Department of Health, which found itself having to take over responsibility for BIA training following the collapse of the College of Social Work, is already preparing for this transition by beginning work to review and re-assess every BIA course – a task that will be handed over to the new body when it becomes operational.

Accreditation of AMHP courses is currently the responsibility of the HCPC, while it is up to local authorities to approve AMHPs to practice on their behalf, in line with regulations relating to the role that cover training and competence. Likewise, councils may only use BIAs who meet requirements set out in regulations.

‘Uneven approach’

However, there are concerns about the consistency of practice among AMHPs in particular.

In her annual report for 2015, published in December, before the government unveiled its reforms, Romeo said: “The lack of a national system for approving AMHPs, alongside the decision by some local authorities to take their AMHP provision back in house, has created an uneven approach to AMHP services, with authorities free to set their own standards and systems for approval.

“I am working with colleagues in the Department of Health and the Care Quality Commission (CQC) to look at how we can improve the current approach to monitoring AMHP provision, including whether there is a need for greater regulation of AMHPs and their services.”

Challenges

Daisy Bogg, director of Daisy Bogg Consultancy and both an AMHP and BIA, says bringing the regulation of the two roles under one organisation makes sense but has challenges.

“Where they will get into difficulties is when they are trying to look at it from a regulation point of view because there is a difference in being qualified and being approved, and the approval is, in the legislation, with the local authorities,” she says. “The variation in the approval process between local authorities is massive. Now that could be sorted out, but it will require a change in legislation.”

Another issue is that not all AMHPs and BIAs are social workers, says Bogg, whose consultancy won Department of Health contract to provide a number of services previously delivered by the College of Social Work.

“You’re looking at 10% of the workforce being nurses with a smattering of occupational therapists as well. At the moment with BIAs you have to be registered with a professional body and the local authority has to be satisfied that you meet the requirements, basically.”

This means that the Nursing & Midwifery Council and HCPC, which regulate nurses and OTs respectively, will need to be on board with the changes.

Dual role

Another potential challenge for the social work body is that it appears that it is to be both a regulator and a leadership body for the profession.

“The General Social Care Council (GSCC) had that dual role of being a regulator and a sort of champion almost and it isn’t viable to be both,” says Bogg. “You can’t hold your profession to account and lead them, which is what they found with the GSCC.”

Whether the new body will be at risk of repeating history won’t be known, however, until the government decides more of the detail about how the body will function.

“The devil is going to be in the detail of this,” says Bogg. “I’m a bit on the fence not just because of the political wrangling around it but because it depends on what the expectations are and how it fits with everything else. Do we need a regulator? Absolutely. Is this one going to be better than the HCPC? We don’t know yet.”

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