A new government-controlled regulator for social workers is “controversial but essential” to building public confidence in the profession, the chief social worker for children has said.
Speaking at the Association of Directors of Children’s Services conference in Manchester, Isabelle Trowler defended the government’s plan to bring social worker regulation under the control of ministers from 2018.
The new regulator would be established as an executive agency in the Department for Education, supported by the Department of Health and accountable to the education secretary. The body will be tasked with overseeing accreditation of children’s social workers, developing a new set of professional standards for children’s and adult social workers, and redefining the requirements of social work courses.
The move has sparked concerns from social work bodies that the system underpinning the profession could be dictated by short-term political priorities.
Trowler acknowledged the plan was contentious but said giving social work “a closer relationship” with government was necessary and offered an opportunity to get ministers to understand, invest in and promote the profession.
She said: “When push comes to shove it is the best chance all round to get us to a position of rebuilding public confidence in the social work profession. No matter how unfair you think it might be that this is the public narrative – that we need to get better – we are stuck with it until we do something about it.
“For every social worker who comes out qualified that is not up to the job, for every social worker who becomes a supervisor but can’t supervise for love nor money, for every practice leader that can’t manage the complexity or pressure of running children’s social care, is another nail in our professional coffin.
“But for every social worker that can do these things and do them with confidence and flair in ways that are both effective and ethical, then that is another brick in our wall.”
The regulation changes are part of a package of reforms included in the Children and Social Work Bill. The bill also includes a clause handing ministers the powers to exempt children’s services from certain statutory duties for up to three years. There have been calls for the so-called ‘innovation’ clause to be scrapped, with campaigners fearing it will undermine children’s rights.
Trowler said the clause was designed to promote innovation and could help challenge rules that have been built up over years “for which there is little evidence of positive effect and lots of evidence of money and time poorly spent”.
She said the reform programme had its “enemies”, but stressed: “I appreciate that most don’t get to hear the detailed dialogue between the department and ministers, which gives me reassurance that the bill is entirely honourable.
“I do think there should be debate. But contrary to the media headlines this is not some kind of sinister political plot to overthrow public authorities or a ruse to wipe out decades of children’s rights. We need to think a little deeper about what is really being offered here.”
On accreditation, Trowler said the changes had the potential to provide social workers with a “practice-focused” career pathway and represented an overdue investment in post-qualifying training. The changes could also help address some of the challenges facing the social work workforce, she added.
“Retention as we know is a major issue. The national infrastructure assessment and accreditation creates will generate much more structured investment in post-qualifying CPD, a key incentive for why people want to stay in the profession.
“Accreditation can also begin to help tackle concerns over the use and quality of agency staff. So when you’re paying over the odds for agency, you know you’re getting high quality practice in return. For agency social workers requiring employer endorsement, it might encourage them to stay a while.”
The Children and Social Work Bill is currently going through parliament. The British Association of Social Workers and other social work bodies have called for the government to delete the innovation clause and proposed changes to regulation as they stand.