Proposed change to Working Together guidance could leave social workers ‘exposed’

The government proposes removing the requirement for social workers and their managers to decide at what speed an assessment is carried out, instead making it solely the social worker's decision

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Photo: Olivier Le Moal/Fotolia

A minor change to the wording of the Working Together to Safeguard Children guidance could leave social workers “exposed”, it has been claimed.

In Annex C of its consultation on changing the guidance which underpins how local authorities and partner agencies must act to protect children, the government has proposed deleting the phrase “with their managers” from the section of the guidance outlining how to carry out assessments.

This deletion would mean the onus is on social workers, rather than social workers and their manager, to decide at what speed an assessment is carried out following a child’s case being referred to local authority social care.

Adam Birchall, the principal children’s social worker for Solihull council, said the proposed change was “significant”.

Changes in full (emphasis added):

The current guidance says about timeliness: “The speed with which an assessment is carried out after a child’s case has been referred into local authority children’s social care should be determined by the needs of the individual child and the nature and level of any risk of harm faced by the child. This will require judgements to be made by the social worker in discussion with their manager on each individual case.”

This will now read: “The speed with which an assessment is carried out after a child’s case has been referred into local authority children’s social care should be determined by the needs of the individual child and the nature and level of any risk of harm faced by the child. This will require judgements to be made by the social worker on each individual case.”

Birchall said: “It places more decision-making responsibility onto individual social workers.

“Assessment timescales are measurable [Key Performance Indicators] – so reducing managerial oversight of this in the guidance is surprising.”

The British Association of Social Workers said it would wait to consult members before issuing a full response, but there were “good reasons” for the original version, which the organisation supported.

“If it is excluded, as seems the case, then there’s a question of social workers possibly being left a bit exposed and vulnerable. We will be consulting with our members again to see if our position remains the same on this.”

Birchall said the arguments for the change would be that social workers should be given more autonomy to make decisions, and recognises they are “trained experts and setting arbitrary timescales can be unproductive, creating a compliance culture rather than a culture of good quality practice”.

“The arguments against the change as I see them is that drift is inimical to children’s welfare. If timescales aren’t set then social workers, who operate under pressure, are more likely to allow drift.

“Also, it seems unlikely that despite the change the government will change the statutory returns which focus on timescales.”

A “middle ground” is that social workers, managers and service users work together to negotiate the best assessments.

“If you read the guidance in conjunction with the Knowledge and Skills Statement, it sets out in more detail what’s expected without the government setting it in stone,” Birchall added.

Supervision

The guidance does say: “It is crucial that social workers are supported through effective supervision arrangements by practice leaders and practice supervisors as defined under the NAAS [National Assessment and Accreditation System] who have the lead role in overseeing the quality of social work practice.”

Elsewhere in the proposed guidance, references to managers have been replaced with references to ‘practice supervisors’, which is the status managers will achieve after completing accreditation tests.

Birchall said this move reflected the government trying to embed the knowledge and skills statement and accreditation into practice, as well as giving more flexibility to local authorities whose job titles for managers may differ from those in the guidance.

“I think [the practice supervisor] will be the manager, but I think the Department for Education wants to embed the knowledge and skills statement across the board, and by changing the statutory guidance to reflect that, it pushes people to be a practice supervisor. What it does do – and the positives are for that – is it takes away from local authority titles. It gives it a broader range, if people are assessed as practice supervisors, it doesn’t matter what their job title is if that’s their role almost.”

Manager/Practice supervisor changes in full:

This: “The social work manager should challenge the social worker’s assumptions as part of this process. An informed decision should be taken on the nature of any action required and which services should be provided. Social workers, their managers and other professionals should be mindful of the requirement to understand the level of need and risk in a family from the child’s perspective and ensure action or commission services which will have maximum impact on the child’s life.”

Will become: “The social worker should receive insight and challenge to their emerging hypothesis from their practice supervisors and other relevant practitioners who should challenge the social worker’s assumptions as part of this process. An informed decision should be taken on the nature of any action required and which services should be provided. Social workers, their managers and other practitioners should be mindful of the requirement to understand the level of need and risk in a family from the child’s perspective and understand both protective and risk factors the child is facing. The analysis should inform the action to be taken which will have maximum impact on the child’s life.”

This: “Social workers, their managers and other professionals should always consider the plan from the child’s perspective. A desire to think the best of adults and to hope they can overcome their difficulties should not trump the need to rescue children from chaotic, neglectful and abusive homes. Social workers and managers should always reflect the latest research on the impact of neglect and abuse and relevant findings from serious case reviews when analysing the level of need and risk faced by the child. This should be reflected in the case recording.”

Will become: “Social workers, their practice supervisors and other practitioners should always consider the plan from the child’s perspective. A desire to think the best of adults and to hope they can overcome their difficulties should not subvert the need to protect children from chaotic, neglectful and abusive homes. Social workers and practice supervisors should always reflect the latest research on the impact of neglect and abuse and relevant findings from serious case and practice reviews when analysing the level of need and risk faced by the child. This should be reflected in the case recording.”

Other changes to the guidance include outlining how the replacements for local safeguarding children’s boards will work, and it puts the children’s principal social worker role into official guidance for the first time.

Birchall said this was an important step for the Children’s Principal Social Worker Network, but the guidance could be “stronger” in outlining the principal social worker role.

“I think we’ve been key in terms of supporting and challenging some of the government’s decision making. I think it’s a positive step forward for the network, but it’s a platform from which we need to develop further.”

Read about some of the changes in more detail here.

The consultation ends on 31 December.

2 Responses to Proposed change to Working Together guidance could leave social workers ‘exposed’

  1. Ivan November 16, 2017 at 1:16 pm #

    It doesn’t look that much different to me to be fair. “Practice Supervisors” include managers or are indeed managers! Not sure what the fuss is. However, what I worry about is that there is so much talk about “Drift and delay” in children’s lives and the removal of timescales from assessments has actually made that worse in my experience. I am currently a children’s guardian and have been a manager and IRO. Some of the assessment delay subsequent drift and the impact of the same on children is absolutely shocking.

    My own view is that statutory timescales for assessments should return. The need for an assessment isn’t always there, but where it is, I consider it necessary to put a time limit on assessing the needs of vulnerable children. Drift, delay, the impact of sustained neglect and abuse were some of the very reasons why timescales were introduced in the first place! Does anyone remember the serious case reviews that led to those being implemented in the first place? Those children seem to have been forgotten.

  2. davcru November 16, 2017 at 2:13 pm #

    That’s the idea of this Gov, is it not! They will not be happy until there are none of us left, driven away by such meddling.

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