MPs on the education select committee will today begin examining the government’s plans to reform children’s social care by holding an oral evidence session in Parliament.
The hearing is part of the committee’s inquiry into the social work reform plans set out by prime minister David Cameron and education secretary Nicky Morgan earlier this year.
Changes planned by the government include creating an accreditation system for children’s social workers, a new social work regulator, a commitment to take over failing children’s services that don’t improve fast enough, and an expansion of fast-track social work training schemes.
Ahead of today’s session the cross-party committee asked sector leaders, social work employers and academies to give their views on the proposed reforms. Here’s what the sector had to say:
Accreditation is the pass or fail assessment process all children and family social workers, after consultation, could have to go through to be able to practice. This will create three new statuses: the approved child and family practitioner; practice supervisor; and practice leader.
Social workers will be assessed in line with chief social worker Isabelle Trowler’s knowledge and skills statements for each of the three statuses. Nicky Morgan said in January that by 2020, “children’s social workers across the country, at every level, will be fully assessed and accredited”.
- It could be costly and over-burden social workers warned social work academic Ray Jones. He adds that it could also “dis-empower employers from shaping, structuring and quality controlling their workforce”. Local authorities are concerned about how the process will be funded and who will run the test.
- The knowledge and skills statements do not include reference to the values aspect of social work, leading the Service User Carer Forum, University of Bristol to become concerned that values will not remain an integral part of social work.
- The Association of Professors of Social Work noted that, other than support for newly qualified staff going through the assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE), “there appears to be no plans to support other candidates or indeed employers with the learning resources required to prepare for what appears to be a highly complex examination”.
- If the test was made compulsory, the Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee (JUC SWEC) feels it “is likely that many already over-worked and under-valued social workers may opt not to remain in child protection work leading to further worsening retention problems and service delivery”.
- The government’s plans do not reference accreditation for practice educators, says Frontline, and there are concerns that the current practice educator professional standards (PEPS) are inadequate.
- Ministers have not specified which staff will need to be accredited, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) said. There are concerns that there could be a gap between those who are accredited and those who are only registered as social workers. Also the implications for individuals on not meeting the standards have not yet been set out.
- It is unclear who is responsible for achieving the accreditation, employers or individuals, the ADCS questions.
- Accreditation could add to the levels of bureaucracy and regulation in child protection, Hackney council said.
- Directing reforms at individual social workers might not answer systemic problems facing social work, such as demographic change, Hackney council said.
- It could be overly focused on statutory sector experiences, rather than voluntary sector needs, the NSPCC said. There’s also a question of how this applies where social workers cross boundaries into devolved nations like Wales or Scotland.
Taking over children’s services and encouraging innovation
In December 2015, David Cameron outlined plans for a more standardised system for taking over failing children’s services. If a local authority shows persistent failure it will immediately be taken over by high-performing councils, charities or child protection experts, and if a service fails to show improvements in the six months following inspection, it will face a similar intervention.
- An increase in the number of services not under direct local authority control could harm public accountability for services, Ray Jones said.
- “Little evidence” exists that says removing children’s services from council control helps drive improvement, according to the Local Government Association (LGA).
- It’s unclear whether private or voluntary sector organisations have the expertise and capacity to take responsibility for complex child protection, the LGA said. The ADCS added that appropriateness of approaching organisations with limited experience of delivering statutory children’s services to act as sponsors for failing authorities, or form trusts to take them over is also questionable.
- The government is judging performance purely through the lens of Ofsted, which the LGA said has a history of being “inconsistent”.
- An inconsistent national arena for the delivery of statutory social work duties could lead to confusion and a divide in practice, Essex council said.
- Cornwall council did not accept that innovation requires the input of third parties.
- A six-month timescale for improvement, as set out by David Cameron last year, seems unrealistic, the ADCS said. Focuses on structural change could risk being a diversion at a time when services need stability and investment.
- A pressure to privatise is driving down quality, the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) said.
A new regulator
In January, Nicky Morgan announced the creation of a new body for social work, focused on raising the quality of social work, education and training, eventually taking the place of the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) as the profession’s regulator.
- The new body could create increased costs to employers, and confusion for social workers, Cornwall council said.
- A host of changes to social work bodies in recent years, including the abolition of the General Social Care Council and demise of the College of Social Work, raises the question over who is the voice of social work and where does accountability for the profession lie.
- The succession of reviews and changes to social work in recent years “depletes the morale of the profession” BASW said.
- Given the need for a closer relationship between health and social care, there is a question over whether removing the regulation of social work from the HCPC would support this, the Professional Standards Authority said.
Fast-track social work schemes focusing on children’s social work are expanding rapidly, and will receive a £100m expansion so they can produce a quarter of all children’s social workers by 2018.
- Specialisation, into children and adults’ social work, is being introduced “too early”, when social workers working with children need to know about the experiences of adults who live with them, according to Ray Jones. It is widely recommended by JUC SWEC and the Service User Carer forum that social work training remains generic.
- Reducing the time it takes to qualify could give responsibility for social work cases too early to students “who have not built the confidence to have difficult and distressing discussions”, Ray Jones added.
- Fast-track programmes “attract a far less diverse cohort of potential social work students”, said the University of Bristol’s Service User Carer Forum, and there is need to maintain diversity in the profession.
- Fast-track programmes channel education and resources through statutory services, so may impact on the voluntary sector’s ability to recruit social workers, the Service User Carer Forum and NSPCC said.
- A “narrow focused and untested pathway” into the profession could restrict entry into social work, Essex council said.
- The current approach to draw people into the profession and deliver training is “fragmented and confusing”, Cornwall council said, and fast-track schemes risk narrowing the range of learning.
- Current university-based programmes are “facing severe cuts to spending and in some cases closure”, BASW said.
- New fast-track programmes are making a “valuable contribution” to driving up the quality of newly-qualified social workers, the ADCS said.
- Issues of retention are not really addressed in the Department for Education’s (DfE) proposals, the LGA said, nor is the progression of social workers who may not wish to pass through the three levels of accreditation, the ADCS added.
- The reforms are focused on children’s social work, raising concerns that reforms to both this and adults’ social work are being carried out separately, the Service User Carer Forum and BASW said. The accreditation planned for children’s social workers is not yet being mirrored for adults’ services, the Association of Professors of Social Work pointed out.
- A memorandum from the DfE to the education committee setting out its position on social work reform makes no reference to involving service users, the Service User Carer Forum said..
- The reforms are limited to only one section of the children’s workforce, social workers, and are not being extended to other people involved in the lives of children like foster carers, The Fostering Network said.
- The proposed ‘What works centre’, which will collect and share best practice on social work, does recognise the sector’s role in leading the development of innovative and creative solutions to meet needs, the ADCS said.