The government has promised to address potential bias against older and black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) social workers during accreditation after a trial found they did less well in the tests than other practitioners.
A report on the accreditation pilot, published this week alongside the long-awaited consultation on the roll-out of accreditation of social workers in England, showed that ‘white’ staff outperformed BAME groups and older staff generally did less well than younger counterparts.
In his foreword to the consultation, children’s minister Edward Timpson said: “The analysis of this phase showed differences in performance between some groups of social workers and this is something that I take very seriously. As the assessment is developed further we will pay close attention to ensure that particular groups of social workers are not disadvantaged by its design or delivery.”
Action to tackle potential bias
In an equalities impact assessment, the Department for Education said it would seek to address this concern by having representative groups on panels drafting questions for the tests and asking psychometricians involved in the question development to pay particular attention to reducing bias for older social workers and those from BAME backgrounds through the language and subject matter of the questions.
The report also found that social workers with fewer years of service did better on digital assessments, and the average score of participants reduced after five years of service. Yet experienced workers were more likely to be highly rated by their employers in the trial. The government said it would explore “the relationship between employer assessments and test performance”.
Elsewhere in the consultation document, the DfE confirmed that a social worker’s registration would not be affected if they did not achieve accreditation. Social workers who failed the test would instead receive a report after the assessment identifying areas for development.
“This will allow them to work with their employers to address the areas identified before they retake the assessment,” the consultation said. There will also be an independent review process for social workers and employers who feel the outcome was incorrect.
How accreditation will work
Accreditation will operate at three different levels: frontline child and family social workers, those in supervisory roles and senior managers responsible for child and family social work delivery defined as “practice leaders”. Under the plans, child and family practitioners and practice supervisors will need to be endorsed by their employers as ready for accreditation before undertaking three assessments: a digital test of their knowledge, a simulated observation of their practice and a written assessment to demonstrate their analysis skills. There will be an expected performance standard for each element of the test and then two independent panels of professionals will agree the pass mark.
A different system will apply to practice leaders, likely to involve an assessment day and a process of drawing feedback from social workers, elected councillors and peer managers. However, this will be developed under a separate contract, yet to be tendered, despite practice leaders being one of the first groups to undergo accreditation.
Accreditation will be rolled out in two phases with all practice leaders in all local authorities, practice supervisors and child and family practitioners in 31 volunteer local authorities, and people who have started their ASYE from November 2014 taking the tests in 2017-18. The remainder of all social workers operating in statutory roles will take the tests in 2019-20.
The DfE will not make accreditation mandatory before 2020 and intends to fund the roll out “to 2020 at least”. However, the consultation hints employers and individual social workers will be expected to contribute after this.
“The National Assessment and Accreditation system will trigger a more focused investment in continuous professional development. Individuals and employers will be motivated to invest in activities that will develop social work practice so that accreditation standards are met.”
During phase one, the government will also consider “when and how a more formal national requirement to have an accredited workforce might be brought into force” and consider how to balance this with the issues council’s face around the recruitment and retention of social workers.
Key questions for sector
The DfE is seeking views on how the accreditation scheme at all three levels should be rolled out across the country, including the roles and functions for which social workers will be expected to be accredited, and when social workers who are undergoing the assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE) should be assessed.
It also wants the sector’s views on when a social worker who moves into children’s services from other roles, or another country, should be accredited. How agency social workers should be accredited is also covered by the consultation. The DfE said it wanted locums carrying out statutory functions to be assessed and proposed that the pre-assessment endorsement of their practice is done by the organisation where they are working, rather than by their agency.
Whether social workers should be reaccredited periodically, after gaining accreditation, is also considered.
Those who will be assessed in phase one (this year and next year) will include all practice leaders in all local authorities, practice supervisors and child and family practitioners in 31 volunteer local authorities, and people who have started their ASYE from November 2014.
Between April 2015 and March 2016, almost 1,000 social workers took part in a ‘proof of concept’ trial of the assessment. The full results of this were released alongside the consultation, and the government concluded the current model “is deliverable at a national scale” and the assessment provided “a sound measure of knowledge and skill”.
However, the assessment of practitioners’ responses to digital case scenarios, which was included in the pilot, will be removed from the system, as it was difficult to implement due to the requirements on time and IT facilities. It was also found that the scenarios could have over-simplified work with children and families. The written assessment is designed to test the skills that would have been assessed using the digital scenarios.
Social workers also expressed concern about the difficulty of questions in the general knowledge part of the test during the pilot phase.
“Approximately 50% of social workers rated the general knowledge questions as ‘somewhat or very difficult’, a figure which fell to 40% for applied knowledge and 30% for scenarios,” said the report on the proof of concept phase.
“Nearly 40% of social workers, especially those in specialist teams such as fostering and adoption and leaving care, questioned the relevance of some of the knowledge questions to their job role.”
New career pathway
The DfE said the career pathway for social workers would be more structured as a result of accreditation.
The path outlined by the government is for social workers in children and families to follow the following pathway:
- Initial training to become a social worker
- Assessment to become an accredited child and family practitioner
- Support and development
- Assessment to become an accredited practice supervisor
- Further support and development
- Assessment to become an accredited practice leader.
The consultation is long awaited. In January this year, chief social worker for children Isabelle Trowler said a consultation on accreditation would be published “over the next few weeks”.
This followed confusion after a speech by the then education secretary Nicky Morgan stated that social workers “across the country, at every level, will be fully assessed and accredited by 2020”.
The government later confirmed mandatory accreditation would not happen until 2020, after “all child and family social workers have had the opportunity to be accredited”.
Accreditation was one of the key planks of the government’s reform agenda set out at the start of 2016. But it then seemed to fade from prominence as the wait for the consultation rolled on, and the debate over the Children and Social Work Bill’s measures to create a new social work regulator and to allow councils to opt out of certain social care duties began to dominate.
But in her introduction to the consultation, Trowler affirmed that accreditation was “a central part of the government’s reform agenda”.
In a statement, she added: “The National Assessment and Accreditation system will help us to build a more highly skilled, capable and confident workforce, trusted by the children, young people and families with whom we work.”
Timpson said supporting child and family social workers to develop “is at the centre of our plan to transform the quality and impact of children’s social care”.
“Our reforms are raising the quality of social work across the board and … improving training and support will enable social workers to deliver high quality care to vulnerable families and children.”
Rachael Wardell, chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) Workforce Development Policy Committee, said: “Social work is at the heart of systems that support children and families in need and social workers are absolutely critical to this, that is why it’s vital that we get this reform agenda right, for our professionals and for our children, young people and their families too. The Association looks forward to the reading the specific details of the consultation and will be formally responding after discussion with our members in the New Year.”
The consultation will run for 12 weeks and close on 14 March 2017.