The making of star wars

Next month, the government’s increasingly
labyrinthine procedure for evaluating social services departments
moves on, with publication of the first “star ratings”.

In many authorities, several full-time
employees are gathering performance information. Anxiety levels are
high – not surprisingly, given that when a parallel system was
introduced in the NHS, some of the “failing” trusts were under new
management just six months later.

The system is now like a monstrous contraption
which shudders and grinds for months, consuming all manner of
detailed and complex data, finally coughing up something small into
Mr Milburn’s eagerly waiting hands: a result so bafflingly simple
that any independent observer wishing to interpret it accurately
would have to take the whole machine apart.

The end result may be a useful tool in
Whitehall. But it is claimed to be a useful tool for service users
and local stakeholders. In reality, the true meaning of the star
ratings will be inaccessible to non-specialists. But that will not
stop the headlines and the damage they cause to morale,
recruitment, relations between departments and communities, and
anxiety among service users and potential service users – who can’t
shop around on the basis of a poor rating for their local

Let’s be clear: assessment and performance
management are necessary. But the effort spent in feeding this
out-of-control machine is distorting the priorities of vital
services. And while the star ratings themselves will inevitably be
over-simplistic labels which – ironically – conceal the complexity
and potential variety of the original data, that original
service-level information is also flawed. So if you take the
machine apart, you still won’t find the answer. The performance
indicators themselves are in desperate need of review, if they are
really to point the way to a responsive and professional

Realistically, ministers are unlikely to
accept that star ratings are meaningless. But they might at least
feed their monster something genuinely nutritious.

Time to open the wallet

The news that the number of people applying to
become social workers has fallen dramatically over the last seven
years comes as no surprise to those desperately trying to fill
vacant posts.

One reason for the fall is that social work
students are being forced to struggle financially through their
courses and end up having to repay substantial loans from
relatively low starting salaries.

The Department of Health provides £18m a
year to social work students – which works out at about £4,000
on average for each student, with higher sums for those with
disabilities or dependants. The catch is you have to have a primary
degree to be awarded a grant and therefore many potential
applicants are excluded.

Contrast this parsimony with the financial
support for other would-be public sector workers. If any of them
decided to train as nurses instead, they would receive about
£5,300 a year while training outside London and approximately
£6,200 in the capital.

The current grants system needs to be
extended. Everyone who is accepted on to a social work course
should receive a bursary to ensure they can complete their training
without facing additional financial hardship.

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