The government has been warned its social work reform programme does little to address a retention “crisis” facing the profession.
The warnings come in written evidence to the education select committee’s inquiry into the government reforms. The plans, a key plank of David Cameron’s second term as prime minister, include:
- An £100m expansion of fast-track social work training schemes so that they will produce a quarter of new children’s social workers by 2018
- The introduction of a system of accreditation of children’s social workers based on the chief social worker for children’s knowledge and skills statement
- A commitment to takeover “failing” children’s services if they do not address problems within six months of an inadequate inspection and;
- The creation of a new body to take on responsibility for social work regulation from the Health and Care Professions Council
Plans offer little for experienced staff
In its evidence to the inquiry the Local Government Association (LGA) said ministers’ plans offered “little” to tackle retention problems facing the sector or attract social workers who had previously left back to the profession.
It warned: “These experienced workers cannot be replaced by NQSWs (newly qualified social workers) without some risks. We would urge the government to focus as much attention on this issue as that of attracting new people into the profession.”
The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) questioned whether experienced social workers could be left behind by the Department for Education’s (DfE) drive to introduce its accreditation system.
If accreditation was required for existing practitioners this could impact “long-serving staff who have developed particular specialisms over time and no longer have the breadth of knowledge as described within the knowledge and skills statements”.
The response added: “The introduction of an assessment and accreditation system could potentially result in a cohort of the workforce being unaccredited (due to a lack of employer endorsement or failure to pass the assessment) yet still be registered to practice. It remains unclear what implications this will have on the profession as a whole.”
‘Relentless pressure’ of child protection
In a separate submission, Colin Green, former safeguarding policy lead for ADCS and ex-director of children’s services at Coventry, told the inquiry social work faced a staffing “crisis” and retention was “the central problem”.
He pointed to DfE figures showing that 17% of children’s social worker posts were vacant in September 2015, compared to 14% in 2013. The number of agency social workers had also increased, with 30% of children’s social workers employed by agencies in the outer-London region, he added.
Green said the reasons behind the crisis included the “relentless pressure” of child protection work, with high thresholds leaving practitioners working almost exclusively with difficult cases and exposed to blame. Another issue was poorly designed IT systems that made good child protection work “more onerous” than it needed to be, he said.
“The reasons for the serious difficulties in retention are not well addressed by the reform programme,” said Green.
He added: “The proposed progression for social workers as yet lacks a clear programme of training and development to accompany the description of knowledge and skills required for each level…This kind of programme, which requires significant time out of practice as well as expert input, will have substantial costs to it.
“The programme of advanced social work qualifications which was in place some years ago has been dismantled.”
Evidence from local authorities
The inquiry received submissions from three individual local authorities.
It said the Cameron government’s reform plans represented “an unnecessary and confusing over-layering of reforms” at a challenging time for services.
Cornwall said: “Continuous criticism, new calls for change, and short term funding for initiatives or ‘innovations’ that have no evidence base to support them detracts from the progress and improvement that is being made.
“It is our view that the government should, instead, support local authorities to implement the existing reforms, hold them to account for progress in implementing those reforms and demand evidence that those reforms are achieving the intended outcomes.”
Call for greater transparency
Hackney council said it welcomed the government’s “clear drive” to give social work a higher status but was concerned the accreditation programme “will not deliver the expected outcomes”.
“Our misgiving is that, contrary to the Eileen Munro report recommendations, the assessment and accreditation system might add to the level of bureaucracy and regulation inherent in the child protection system. This seems contrary to the Munro Report’s findings in respect of bureaucracy,” it said.
Essex council told the inquiry it was concerned by the government’s “lack of communication with the sector” over its accreditation plans despite education secretary Nicky Morgan having announced social workers “across the country” would be accredited by 2020.
Essex called for “full, meaningful and engagement” from the DfE prior to it implementing the new approach.
Regulation changes ‘risk disruption’
The LGA and the ADCS expressed concerns over the government’s proposals to hand control of “failing” local authority children’s services to third party providers if they did not deliver improvements within six months.
Both organisations said there was no evidence that removing children’s services from council control was an effective tool in delivering improvements and warned that the six-month timescale proposed by ministers for improvements was unrealistic.
The LGA also questioned the government’s decision to set up a new social work body to take on responsibility for regulating the profession from the HCPC. It said the HCPC, which regulates 15 other professions alongside social work, had the advantage of “forming the basis for a one-stop-shop” for regulation of all professions in local government.
“The latest proposals suggest that responsibility for social workers will once again move to a single specialist regulator, fewer than six years after the abolition of the General Social Care Council. This carries risks of further disruption, uncertainty and increased costs to employers, and potential confusion for social workers themselves.”