By Alex Turner
The government’s plans to introduce accreditation for children’s social workers by 2020, confirmed by education secretary Nicky Morgan in January, have received a mixed reaction from the sector.
On the one hand, accreditation can be seen as highlighting professional status and a hallmark of quality way for practitioners at all levels. On the other, some argue that the planned four-stage process – encompassing employer endorsement, online testing and assessment and practice observation – could place a significant burden on the shoulders of overstretched workers who’ve already passed degrees and partake in existing quality assurance processes.
The system is being trialled with over 900 social workers in 26 local authorities and with three other employers. After confusion over whether government announcements meant accreditation would be mandatory for all children’s social workers, in January Isabelle Trowler, the chief social worker for children, told a British Association of Social Workers (BASW) debate that an “extensive consultation” will be carried out before any decision on this is taken.
It’s been suggested that an optional (i.e. non-mandatory) system could help those employers that implement it to attract and retain employees, and thereby reduce their dependence on temporary staff. But even if in time this leads to fewer locum posts, how will accreditation work for the thousands of social workers currently working via agencies or as independents?
‘Lack of clarity’
The short answer is that it’s hard to say. “There’s a lack of clarity about the status of agency social workers within this new framework,” says Maris Stratulis, England manager for BASW.
Many of the general questions that need to be addressed during the consultation are particularly pertinent for locum workers. Who, for instance, is going to foot the bill for accreditation?
“If local authorities need locum staff, there needs to be a debate as to whether they will fund accreditation, or whether it will be the responsibility of agencies,” says Stratulis.
This issue isn’t going to be easily resolved, agrees Debbie Smith, CEO of social care agency Caritas and chair of the social work sector group at recruitment industry body APSCo.
Impact on training and CPD offer
Agencies, Smith says, are “fully supportive” of accreditation’s aim of driving up quality. But she warns that with margins getting tighter and agency pay being capped in many areas of the country, if they – or locums themselves – are expected to pay for accreditation, theoretical support would come up against some tough practicalities.
“The reality is that if agencies were asked to fund this, it would impact on our ability to fund continued professional development and other ongoing training – this could create a situation where people would need to choose between the two,” Smith says.
“But if it gets to a point where local authorities are paying for permanent staff [to get accredited],” she goes on, “what happens to locums? It could present a huge cost to them as individuals.”
Will employers invest time in locums?
Money isn’t the only resource that accreditation will demand – time is another key concern. Before social workers get to the online tests and practice simulation stages of accreditation, they must first gain endorsement by employers, based partly on practice observation.
From a local authority’s perspective, diverting managers’ scarce time to assessing agency staff members’ suitability may not represent a valuable use of resources. We made enquiries around how this might work with Sanctuary Social Care, which is involved with the accreditation pilot scheme, but the agency declined to comment.
Highly sought after
Such reservations are not restricted to employers. Among Caritas’ temps, Smith describes a split reaction to the prospect of accreditation, mirroring the response in the wider profession. Some social workers, she says, are in favour of something that could identify high-grade candidates. As Stratulis points out, a pool of accredited practitioners is likely to be highly sought-after for temporary contracts.
“But it feels to others that it’s making them jump through hoops, especially when it involves an assessment centre rather than a real case that they’re working on all the time,” Smith adds. “Locums may weigh up whether to go for it in first place if it’s not compulsory.”
The prospect of reducing stress and escaping from layers of bureaucracy is, of course, one of the main factors that drives many social workers towards agency work in the first place.
“We’re concerned the pressures that contribute to increasing numbers of social workers leaving permanent employment will not be tackled by the new assessment scheme,” says Matthew Egan, Unison’s assistant national officer for local government. “Our members are telling us they want caseload levels reduced, better supervision and more resources to carry out their jobs, none of which will be tackled by the government’s reforms.
“It could be that the new assessment scheme will create significant difficulties for existing agency workers,” Egan adds, “while the government’s continued failure to address the fundamental problems facing social workers will only serve to increase their numbers.”
How things pan out will of course depend on the outcome of the consultation including, critically for permanent as well as locum staff, whether accreditation ends up being compulsory. The consortium led by KPMG which developed the tests and trialled them with the pilot local authorities and organisations is due to evaluate whether it has ‘proof of concept’ of the system in the spring.
But both Smith and Stratulis agree that with locum social workers playing such a significant role within the sector, the practicalities of accrediting them must be factored in if the government’s ambitions to drive up overall quality are to stand a chance of being achieved.
“They’re an important part of the workforce,” concludes Stratulis, “and we need to have discussions in terms of where they sit within national assessment and accreditation.”