Learning the hard way

In 1990, the Central Council for Education and Training in
Social Work introduced post-qualifying awards for social workers to
support high standards of service and care. Two levels were
introduced: the post-qualifying award in social work (PQSW) and the
advanced award in social work (AASW).

Most people take up to two years to complete the PQSW and four
years to attain the AASW. More than 1,100 have been awarded in the
West Midlands alone since 1996. But what do people get out of them?
Do they receive enough support while they study? And does
completion of an award always bring better practice, higher pay and
greater responsibility?

The results of a recent survey of employers and award candidates in
the West Midlands may hold messages for other parts of the UK. The
most common motives reported for undertaking an award were career
progression, recognition and development of skills, and personal
ambition. The awards were welcomed by employees, not seen merely as
extra requirements. More than 80 per cent of award holders saw the
process as a way to develop their skills.

It suggests there is little workload relief offered to candidates,
preventing many using the sparse study leave available. But the
fact that they can complete the awards while managing full
workloads shows how committed they are to their own

Much of the more descriptive feedback stated that completion of the
award increased candidates’ confidence in their own knowledge and
ability. Although the majority felt that the award increased their
competence, less than half reported increased job satisfaction.
This suggests that ability and job satisfaction are not linked in
the majority of cases. With the registration of all social workers
drawing closer, it is positive to note that many reported that the
awards gave them a formal structure for continuing professional
development (CPD).

Less than half the candidates reported an area where their career
had improved. However, the top three responses were linked to
promotion, salary or a new position. This shows that some employers
value the awards as reliable performance indicators. Yet despite
some award holders progressing professionally, most respondents
experienced no increase in responsibility. In fact, many candidates
stated that employers do not value the awards and that they do not
assist with career progression – perhaps a factor in the low number
reporting greater job satisfaction.

Sixty-eight per cent of award holders said they were more likely to
remain with their employer after receiving their award. Some of
those who said they would not remain explained that this was due to
a lack of recognition of the award or a lack of support with

Despite some award holders experiencing little professional
progression, their experience was still sufficiently positive for
96 per cent of them to recommend the awards to others. Reasons
given included:

  • Re-focusing reminds people why they chose that career.
  • The awards develop and improve practice.
  • The need for continuing learning.
  • They encourage reflection and the application of theory to

PQSW and PQSW Part 1 (PQ1) holders listed several ways in which
the award had affected their service delivery, the main themes

  • Re-focusing on important areas of practice.
  • Greater understanding of agencies’ roles and
  • More professional and reflective practice.
  • The incorporation of service-user feedback into practice.
  • Able to use up-to-date theory.
  • Greater awareness of equal opportunities issues.
  • Promotion of social work values with colleagues.

The smaller number of AASW holders also listed ways in which the
award had helped their service development:

  • Improved research skills.
  • Developed evaluation skills.
  • Research assisted with developing services.
  • Strategic planning was more effective.

Support for the AASW is less than that provided for PQ1 or PQSW.
This is most likely because of there being no link between the AASW
and other professional qualifications. The most common types of
support offered are study time, programme attendance, mentoring and
funding. But as less workload relief is offered than study time,
candidates were unable to take advantage of the time that was made

Employers tend to offer more incentives for completion of the PQSW
than PQ1. In some cases, there are no incentives for the
achievement of PQ1. This may be linked to employers requiring that
candidates complete the PQSW before any rewards are offered.
Although there are only limited incentives for those completing the
AASW, it is positive to see that some employers have systems in
place to encourage their candidates to extend their development
over and above PQSW level.

Most employers felt there was an improvement in the social practice
of award holders. Reflective practice is essential to quality
service delivery and it is the responsibility of employers to
ensure that this message is conveyed to staff as an acknowledgement
of what is being achieved.

From analysing candidate and employer results, it is clear that the
awards have raised the standard of service delivery and
development. This is to be celebrated as it shows that the
resources, commitment and expertise within social care
organisations have been recognised. The awards have also
contributed to a more positive workforce.

Adequate support is important to ensure that employees are
satisfied and that employers improve staff retention. By providing
workload relief which is commensurate with the study leave required
to undertake one of the awards, employers might find that staff are
more willing to remain in post after completion. But not all
agencies have enough staff or money to provide this. More
cost-effective methods are needed.

There appears to be a lack of communication between employers and
employees, accredited programmes and awards consortia. Although it
is recognised that access to the awards and employer support are
resource-sensitive, employers might find that effective
communication between all the organisations and individuals
involved in the post-qualifying process would empower their
workforce. This would also help in the collection and dissemination
of up-to-date information and reduce confusion over the processes
which are supposed to support employees.

One aim of the post-qualifying awards is to raise the level of
service delivery nationwide. Have they been a success? That depends
on your experience. It is only after listening and responding to
constructive feedback that employers, the General Social Care
Council and PQ consortia can work towards improving the systems and
support mechanisms that are already in place.

Martin Rowland is consortium manager, West Midlands
Regional PQ Consortium.

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