The Department for Education’s move to introduce accreditation of children’s social workers risks being ‘punitive’ to practitioners rather than developing their skills, MPs have been told.
Professor Brigid Featherstone, chair of the Association of Professors of Social Work, told the education committee’s social work reform inquiry there were more supportive and cost-effective ways of promoting professional development.
The government has announced social workers “across the country” will be assessed for a new approved child and family practitioner role by 2020.
The assessments are being developed by a consortium led by audit firm KPMG under a £2m government contract. Social workers will be tested against the knowledge and skills statement produced by Isabelle Trowler, the chief social worker for children.
Featherstone told the committee social workers recognised the need to develop their skills. She acknowledged the accreditation process was in its early stages but questioned whether the “seemingly one off” assessment model was the right way forward.
She said: “I do think in the current climate, in the context of austerity, more economically sustainable ways of developing our workforce might have been looked at without the punitive ethos of an assessment and accreditation.
“Even the term assessment and accreditation signals maybe a more punitive ethos than maybe a support and continuing professional development ethos.”
In January Trowler told social workers the government would consult “within weeks” on details of accreditation, including whether the assessments should be made mandatory, but this has not yet happened.
Planning ‘a little bit chaotic’
In her evidence to the committee, Samantha Baron, chair of the Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee, said “a lack of clarity” on the approved child and family practitioner role had created uncertainty.
She said: “They have designed a process [for accreditation], and they’ve designed an operating model, and a method of organisation for it to be developed nationally. But what they haven’t decided is what the role will be and where it will be located in practice.
“It seems a little bit chaotic to have designed a system of assessment and a system of organising that tests that assessment, without knowing what level of staff or where it’s going to be positioned within an organisation. That needs further clarity.”
Dame Moira Gibb, who chaired the Social Work Task Force in 2009, said the task force had recommended the introduction of a licensing system for social workers but the potential costs led to it being dropped. This would have involved social workers being periodically tested on their competence in order to remain in practice.
“When we moved into reform programme development we did not do any work on licensing, [after we were] encouraged really to consider that it would be extremely costly. In the present times that’s a vital consideration,” she said.
The DfE’s assessment and accreditation process, which includes online tests and simulated practice observation, is currently being trialled by 1,000 social workers at 26 local authorities.
Josh MacAlister, chief executive of Frontline, the fast-track children’s social work training programme, told the committee he felt the accreditation model could bring a number of benefits to the profession.
“It’s early days, I believe it has been piloted in a number of local authorities and I don’t know the outcomes of those pilots.
“But one big benefit could be helping the system to define what good social work, or great social work, practice looks like. I still think that’s a widely disputed, and in many senses it should be, question. [But] I think there’s a big benefit of it not looking simply looking at a paper or bureaucratic process.”
The committee heard that the retention of social workers was a major issue. Dame Moira said she felt the government’s reform programme paid too little attention to how to keep experienced staff.
“We have plenty of people who join the profession and don’t stay. We don’t need people who only do a couple of years at the frontline of child protection, we need people who have a long experience and knowledge to pass to others.
“It seems to me that the focus has been overly on the training of the social worker. We were very clear in the taskforce that the opportunity for them to do the job [is also important]. However skilled they are, if they are not able to work in an environment that is conducive to good practice you will not be able to retain them.”
Baron said social workers were missing a “national CPD framework” that offered practitioners the chance to develop in practice. Evidence also suggested that protected caseloads and good supervision could enhance retention, she added.
“We very much as a profession want to work towards a national, generic post-qualifying programme that’s well funded because what we know about the impact of austerity on local authorities is that one of the first budget restrictions is around CPD and training.
“And because [CPD] isn’t mandatory, people end up focusing on their own workload rather than professional development.”
Call for partnership working
The committee asked each of the panel what one recommendation they would make to government in developing its reforms.
Dame Moira urged ministers to “not introduce lots of new things” and instead support the reforms set out by the task force and give them a chance to “bed down”.
Baron called on the government to “slow down” and “work in partnership” with the sector in planning changes.
Featherstone said the recommendation to come out of the task force process, which she said was “bought into at every single level” and “very honest” about social work’s failings, should be heeded rather than “dismantled”.
MacAlister said the challenge of boosting social work’s image to make it a more attractive career could not be overstated and said the government should consider launching a similar programme to the ‘get into teaching’ teacher recruitment drive.