Write offs?

The Victoria Climbié Inquiry highlighted poor
standards of literacy among some social workers. Is this problem
being addressed,
asks Ruth

It’s a familiar refrain from employers: job applicants
these days are increasingly inarticulate, illiterate and
innumerate. Standards of spoken and written language are
plummeting, they argue, even among graduates fresh from degree

Whether or not you subscribe to this pessimism, the inquiry into
the death of Victoria Climbié highlighted the fact that some
qualified social workers are unwilling or unable to use written
information fluently in their professional lives.

In her evidence to the Victoria Climbié Inquiry, Haringey
director of social services Anne Bristow aired what many other
directors have known for some time: many departments have some
members of staff with literacy and numeracy problems.

But how have people who struggle to write reports and interpret
data managed to get through two years of higher education to
qualify as social workers? Why have their difficulties not been
addressed? And how will the new minimum entry-level standards,
proposed by the Department of Health, affect those interested in
undertaking the new social work degree?

Observers suggest that the majority of newly qualified social
work students coming forward to take up posts are not now likely to
have literacy and numeracy problems. But this has not always been
the case. Bill McKitterick is spokesperson on human resources and
training for the Association of Directors of Social Services and
director of social services at Bristol Council. He says: “There is
a small but significant proportion of social workers who have
managed to achieve a diploma in higher education who, when they get
into employment, clearly have some problems around literacy and
analysing complex problems, and around presenting things in written
and verbal forms.

“In Bristol we have introduced a literacy test for social
workers [at the application stage] because we had a small but
significant number of people who clearly had problems with it – and
some of them needed a significant amount of help.”

McKitterick speaks for many when he says: “I cannot understand
how those people have managed to get a diploma in higher
education.” But he adds: “Once we’ve appointed them we have a
responsibility as an employer to do our very best to help them
overcome those difficulties. The problem comes when after a lot of
input they don’t improve.”

Several observers suggest that part of social work’s
problem with literacy is historical. They argue that for many years
basic literacy and numeracy standards for social work
qualifications were actively reduced as training organisations
sought to attract a wider range of people into the profession and
into education – notably those from ethnic minority backgrounds and
older students.

But while people from these backgrounds are essential to a
diverse workforce, one former academic suggested that admission and
employment standards had been allowed to slip, to the detriment of
the profession as whole. He adds: “In my experience the problems
were disproportionately greater among ethnic minority students; for
instance those whose first language wasn’t English. We
weren’t doing anyone a favour by ignoring the issue.
Fortunately, there has been a retreat from that particular policy.
A competent workforce is more important than a diverse workforce –
although you want both.”

McKitterick acknowledges that standards have sometimes been
allowed to slip, but points out that similar broadening of
acceptance criteria for higher education did not have a similarly
negative effect on other professions. “The reason for that was that
we accepted the social work qualification as evidence of a good all
round educational achievement. I suspect other employers have
tended to conduct their own checks on top of that. We trusted the
qualification more than we should have.”

Blame can certainly be attached to institutions that allowed
students with poor literacy and numeracy to gain qualifications
without additional help. But the situation, certainly in relation
to the new social work degree, is about to change. The Department
of Health has introduced a handful of compulsory minimum
requirements for those who apply to complete the new social work
degree – among them the requirement to have C grades at GCSE level
in Maths and English. The education provider must also satisfy
themselves that applicants “possess appropriate personal and
intellectual qualities to be a social worker” and “can understand
and make use of written material and are able to communicate
clearly and accurately in spoken and written English”.

At the other end of the process, the occupational standards
drawn up by the Training Organisation for the Personal Social
Services and the DoH will form the basis of the assessment of
students as they reach the end of their degrees. These standards
refer to being able to “manage, present and share records and
reports” and “research, analyse, evaluate and use current knowledge
of best social work practice”.

The hope is that by tightening up acceptance criteria and by
creating a new top-tier professional qualification, social work
will once again start to be regarded as a skilled and respected
profession in its own right. But given the deepening recruitment
crisis, is this really the time to be introducing stringent entry
criteria that may discourage or “weed out” people who could have
made excellent social workers, given some extra help with literacy
or numeracy?

Arthur Keefe, chairperson of TOPSS (England), is not worried. He
says: “I don’t think that’s going to be a problem. The
general level of education is better now. And accepting people onto
courses who are going to struggle doesn’t help anyone. It
doesn’t help clients and it doesn’t help them.”

Keefe also suggests that the current emphasis – highlighted by
the introduction of the new criteria for the degree – has been
spurred on by the changing nature of social work. “The demands on
workers are rising all the time. Whereas a few years ago someone
could just about get by without good literacy, now they are
involved in constructing care plans. There’s a need for
accurate written records, and there’s an expectation that
social workers will be able to write concisely and accurately.
Numeracy is important because staff are having to handle budgets
and construct care packages.”

The Department of Health is also clear about the importance of
key skills. A spokesperson admitted that “some applicants may need
input on their literacy and numeracy skills before being accepted.
The time to address these needs is before undertaking the course.
This means that employers may need to support their staff to
improve basic skills before supporting them to undertake the degree

Unfortunately, it’s often not quite as simple as that.
Identifying people who have problems can be difficult and
it’s a sensitive subject to broach. And while the entrance to
the new degree can be highly selective, the government’s
emphasis on a well trained social care workforce will effectively
expose the people already employed within social care who have
numeracy and literacy difficulties.

The new training requirements will have a direct effect on
people who have difficulties with literacy and numeracy, from those
with dyslexia who find writing a struggle, to people who have been
working for 20 years without wanting to undertake further
education. Some staff may find themselves having to take further
courses to avoid having their pay and their opportunities for
career progression diminished. Given this, perhaps the most
far-sighted thing an employer can do is to set up literacy and
numeracy screening for job applicants, and arrange training for
employees who have problems. Without this, people who have already
been failed by the education system will be out of a job, too.

For more information about the new degree, see www.doh.gov.uk/swqualification

and www.topss.org.uk

Next week the Child Protection In Focus series looks at the
challenges facing social workers when working with families from

Do some social workers have poor literacy and numeracy skills?
Is this a problem you have experienced? Have your say by emailing
us at comcare.haveyoursay@rbi.co.uk by 11 July and your comments
will appear at www.community-care.co.uk
on 12 July.

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