The government’s approach to reforming social work is “damaging” for staff and service users, the British Association of Social Workers has claimed.
The professional body, which represents more than 16,000 social workers in England and almost 20,000 across the UK, accused ministers of approaching social work as “failing” from the outset and imposing a reform programme that has left practitioners feeling “done to”.
BASW called on the government to change tack and “work in partnership” to devise changes that would better support social workers. This should seek to build on previous reform efforts, such as the Social Work Taskforce, instead of constant upheaval that depleted morale and risked wasting money, it added.
The comments were made in BASW’s submission to an inquiry by the education select committee on the government’s social work reforms.
In response, the Department for Education said its change programme was “developed hand in hand with the sector” and would raise the status of social work.
A consultation on key reforms is expected in coming weeks.
David Cameron has made reforming children’s social work a defining mission of his second term as prime minister. A series of changes have been announced since last May’s general election victory. The most significant include:
- A new social work body will be set up to take responsibility for all social work standards and training, and to regulate the profession.
- An £100m expansion of fast-track social work schemes will mean they produce a quarter of all new children’s social workers by 2020.
- The national rollout of accreditation in children’s social work will see practitioners “across the country” assessed against the knowledge and skills statement developed by Isabelle Trowler, the chief social worker for children.
- Children’s services rated “inadequate” will be taken over by third parties if they fail to make necessary improvements.
- A child protection taskforce, made up of 12 ministers, will be charged with driving forward “fundamental reforms” of services.
Bridget Robb, BASW’s chief executive, said social workers were “deeply troubled” by the approach to the child protection taskforce in particular, claiming that it approached the profession as “failing” from the start.
She said: “This deficit perspective is both incorrect and damaging for service users, professionals and society in general. It is unacceptable that there is no social worker as a member of this group.”
BASW’s response accused ministers of trying to split social work into children’s and adults specialties. It claimed this agenda, with two chief social workers working in two different government departments, had been “divisive and, at times, contradictory”.
On accreditation, the response said some members questioned the evidence-base behind the knowledge and skills statement for children’s social workers. The statement should be an “add-on” that indicated specialist knowledge, rather than the basis of a test at the start of a social worker’s career, BASW argued.
On social work education, the submission said the Step up to Social Work fast-track scheme was once seen as controversial but was “turning out good social workers”. Frontline had some interesting innovations but, with the scheme “unproven”, it was premature of government to rely on it so heavily for future social workers, BASW said.
Focus on working conditions
BASW called for greater emphasis to be placed on social workers’ working conditions, which it said were being “driven down” by pressure to “privatise” services. Ministers should introduce protected caseloads, better pay scales to bring social work in line with teachers and police officers, and improve implementation of the social work employer standards to boost staff retention, the response said.
Some respondents to BASW’s submission called for social workers to be given greater support from administration staff and personal assistants. This would cut down on “some of the laborious tasks that stop them from doing actual social work”, it said.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Excellent social workers help transform lives by supporting vulnerable children to fulfil their potential and improve their life chances. Our reforms – developed hand in hand with the sector – are raising the status of the profession by investing in and improving training for these dedicated professionals.
“Alongside this we are bringing in brilliant new recruits through programmes like Frontline and Step Up – the positive impact of which has been noted by the BASW.”