The government’s social work reforms do little to address “endemic” retention problems in the sector and risk destabilising a “fragile” workforce, MPs have warned.
The education committee found the children’s social work reform programme in England, championed by David Cameron during his time as prime minister, failed to tackle the issues of high caseloads and poor working conditions that are pushing staff to quit the profession.
These issues should be prioritised with limits placed on caseloads, a national workforce planning system created and councils forced to undertake annual ‘health checks’ of working conditions for social workers, the committee said.
Profession pulled ‘in contrary directions’
The committee raised concerns over the pace of change being pursued by the government and found the “different agendas” of the Department for Education and Department of Health were pulling social work in “two contrary directions”.
That problem was exacerbated by the decision to appoint two chief social workers, one for children and one for adults, rather than a chief social worker for the whole profession as recommended by Eileen Munro’s landmark review of child protection, the committee said. That move should be reversed, and one chief social worker appointed, it recommended.
The government reforms include plans for a new government-controlled organisation to replace the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) as social work’s regulator and dictate professional standards, the introduction of accreditation for children’s social workers, an expansion of fast-track training schemes for children’s social workers, and a commitment to strip “persistently failing” councils of control over their children’s services.
In a report published today, the committee said it welcomed the government’s focus on social work but delivered a scathing verdict on the way changes are being pursued. It said:
- The splitting of the profession into two separate strands “has been unhelpfully divisive” and more joined up thinking on social work across government was needed.
- There are too many unanswered questions about the accreditation proposals given the potential for the programme to “destabilise an already fragile workforce”. Consultation on the changes should be brought forward as a priority.
- The proposal for a government-controlled regulator and standards body “will further marginalise the voice of social workers” and should be abandoned.
- Instead a new independent professional body should be established to address a gulf in “high profile leadership” left by the closure of The College of Social Work last year.
- The government has shown a “distinct lack of collaboration with the sector” and is replacing previous sector-backed changes before they’ve had a chance to bed in.
- Moves to expand fast-track specialist children’s social work training risked narrowing social workers’ understanding of issues affecting children and adults. Government should increase “generic elements” in fast-track training curricula to tackle this.
- The “lack of cooperation” between the Frontline fast-track programme and universities “was unhelpful”. The routes should work more closely and any future contract with Frontline should include a university partner.
- Moves to take children’s services out of local authorities and place them under the control of independent trusts are “untested” and should be evaluated before further expansion.
- Existing career pathways were confusing and current provision of CPD “inadequate and inconsistent”. A national career development framework is urgently required and the ASYE should be made mandatory for all newly qualified social workers.
- Negative media coverage of social work and a “blame culture” had contributed to problems in the profession. The government should consider launching a national awareness campaign “celebrating the positive aspects of social work” to tackle this.
Neil Carmichael MP, the committee’s chair, said: “The government’s new reforms do not focus enough on tackling the endemic retention problems in children and families’ social work and ministers must now make it a priority to fix this issue.
“Improving post-qualifying prospects, increasing the voice of social workers at a national level, and changing the ‘blame culture’ persistent in social work, are important steps which can be driven forward by a strong professional body.”
Ruth Allen, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers, said the report raised “important concerns about the nature and pace of change” from the Department for Education which, she said was impacting negatively on the whole of social work.
She said: “We appreciate the report’s recognition that social workers need specialisation but also need to work across the lifespan and crucially with whole families.
“We need to ensure the great work that is going on – and which will be needed in the future – in adults, criminal justice and mental health social work is not undermined by the DfE’s unilateral focus on child protection priorities, for instance, [by] radically changing university training and education.
“BASW is pleased to see the recommendation that the current proposals in the Children and Social Work Bill for a new regulator under direct government control are not acceptable. There is recognition that regulation of social work should have equal status with other professions and should be primarily about public protection, with a separate, independent professional body promoting excellence for the long term.
“The description of a professional body within the report is from our written submission to the committee. That is the role we see the association fulfilling in the future – enabling social workers to practice excellently through CPD and professional development support.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We agree with the education committee, both that social work is one of our most important public services and that work is needed to improve its quality.
“Excellent social work transforms lives – that’s why the government has invested over £700 million in training and recruitment, why we have committed a further £200m to innovation projects intended to increase the quality of social care practice and why we intend to accredit every children and family social worker in the country to a high standard.
“We know from experience that any new professional body needs the support of the workforce. Despite investing over £8m of public money, the College of Social Work could not get the membership it needed to succeed. The proposal to set up a specialist regulator will be developed in conjunction with the profession, and responds to the need to raise standards.”
The ‘split’ in social work policy
During the education committee inquiry both Edward Timpson, children’s minister, and Isabelle Trowler, chief social worker for children, rejected suggestions there was any split between the Department of Health and Department for Education agendas on social work.
However, the committee concluded that “despite the confidence” of Timpson and Trowler, it was concerned that the DfE and DH agendas “are not coordinated, and the profession is being pulled in two different directions.”
The committee pointed to the following examples:
- The proposed accreditation system will only be for children and families social workers.
- The two departments each commissioned separate reviews of social work education that came to different conclusions.
- The proposed new regulator for social work will cover all social workers but its powers will be determined by regulations from the education secretary, not health.
- The DfE has published a social work reform policy paper, but there is no comparable document by DH (hours before the committee’s report was published, the DH released a report outlining its ‘vision’ for social work with adults).
- The appointment of two chief social workers has “exacerbated” the split in policy making.