Government plans for children’s social workers to take accreditation tests offer poor value for money at a time frontline teams are under “considerable strain”, directors have warned.
The £23m cost of setting up a national assessment and accreditation system (NAAS) would be better spent on frontline social work and early help services, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services said.
The group said if ministers intend to plough ahead with the scheme they must make it mandatory and fully fund it. If this does not happen councils, particularly those in poorer areas, will be forced to prioritise funding on more pressing frontline needs.
The Department for Education (DfE) plans to introduce accreditation at three levels: frontline social workers, supervisors and senior managers described as “practice leaders”.
Ministers want all of the 30,000 frontline social workers in children’s services to take the assessments, which involve a digital test, practice observation and written assessments, by 2020. The DfE is consulting on how the system should be rolled out.
Risks of voluntary accreditation
In its response to the consultation, the ADCS said ministers must make the tests mandatory for frontline social workers and supervisors and fully fund the costs to councils.
Allowing accreditation to be voluntary for frontline staff “posed a number of risks” to services, the association added. These included:
- Creating workforce “turbulence” at a time councils across England are working to increase the stability and quality of social work.
- Creating a ‘two tier’ workforce that divides social workers into those accredited and those who aren’t.
- Forcing social workers to specialise after qualifying and breaking the link between children’s and adults social work.
- Turning social work with adults into a “Cinderella service” for practitioners who fail to pass accreditation.
- The government failing to achieve the policy’s stated aim of improving consistency of practice across the country.
Rachael Wardell, ADCS’s workforce policy lead, said: “In a tiered profession, a social worker’s professional judgement could be questioned if they are unaccredited despite there being no statutory requirement for this. This is concerning and will do nothing to help raise the confidence of the profession or consistency across the workforce.
“In the context of austerity and rising demand for our services, the association questions whether the NAAS, at a cost of £23m to the public purse, represents good value for money. Instead, this money would be much better spent on supporting front line and early help services that we know are currently under enormous strain given the deepening pressures on children social care.”
‘Fragmented’ reform agenda
ADCS argued that accreditation for practice leaders should not be mandatory. The pool of social workers able to take on such roles “is not large” and government has failed to consider the impact of accreditation failure among this group, it said.
The association accused the government of pursuing a “fragmented” approach to reforming social work that lacked any “coherent oversight”. It pointed to the split between adult and children’s services policies, with accreditation only applying to children’s social work.
It also questioned why ministers were prioritising accreditation over work to establish Social Work England – a new body the government wants to oversee social work, including accreditation.
“If the regulator’s objectives are, amongst others, to promote and maintain public confidence in social workers; and professional standards and conduct for social workers, it does not make sense to plough on with implementation of assessment and accreditation before the regulator is established,” said Wardell.
“Social work is at the heart of systems that support children and families, and social workers are central to this work so it’s absolutely vital that we get this reform agenda right.
“This is important not only for our social workers but more importantly for our children, young people and families too. The Association would welcome further discussion with the Department about the points raised in our consultation response.”