Training considered dispensable despite pressure for better services

When things go wrong in social services and an investigation is
held, it is a safe bet that its findings will cite lack of training
among the key reasons for the system’s failure.

Yet, while most departments recognise training is vital and
underpins the quality of services, there is clear evidence that the
theory is not translated into practice.

Last week, Scotland’s chief social work inspector Angus Skinner
concluded in his third annual report into the country’s social
services departments that training was seen as a “dispensable
extra” rather than a core activity (news, page 14, 5

The picture is similar throughout the UK. In its pay claim, also
published this month, Unison argued that the training and workforce
strategy, which was blocked by the Employers’ Organisation at the
last round of negotiations, should be urgently completed (news,
page 10, 5 February).

This plea stems from years of underinvestment in training for those
working in public services and evidence that middle and top
managers are receiving more development than those on the front

But Unison senior national officer for local government Owen Davies
says the low-priority given to training is not a new

“It is just another symptom of constant financial cutbacks. It has
always traditionally been the training budget that is cut. It is
quite wrong. In the long-term, training is essential,” he

On average, public service workers receive 1.6 days a year
training, but that varies enormously from department to department.

“I am sure social workers get more than that, but home workers do
not get that much,” adds Davies. He points out that although no
“cast-iron” link can be made between competence and training, it is
reasonable to conclude that a lack of training will impact on the
quality of services.

While the NHS has received a large financial boost for its training
schemes through the Agenda for Change programme, councils have not
been treated as generously.

Each council does, however, receive a ring-fenced pot of money –
the training support programme grant – worth £56.5m in
2003-04. This year several new grants have also been made available
via the training body Topss. These include a £15m training
strategy implementation fund to be used for NVQ training and a
£9m human resources development strategy grant.

In 2000, Topss said in its national training strategy that 3 per
cent of social services money should be spent on training after
research revealed that some council departments were spending as
little as 1.5 per cent.

A spokesperson for Topss says that the new money has been a welcome
boost, but many of the problems remain, such as difficulty in
releasing professionals from overstretched departments to do the

Interim director of Ealing social services Mike Leadbetter says:
“In fairness to managers, they are between a rock and a hard place.
The targeted money is keeping training on a reasonable keel and
without it social services would be in a much worse

Davies agrees: “It is a major dilemma. I am not criticising social
services managers. If government insists on putting these pressures
on councils then they will encourage short-term decisions.”

However, a short-term approach to training is not unique to the
public sector. While it may lag behind the private sector when it
comes to developing staff, research by Agenda Consulting, a company
that specialises in management issues affecting the wider social
care workforce, indicates that those employed in the voluntary
sector get the rawest deal of all (news, page 10, 5

Charities spend about 30 per cent less per head on staff training
than the public sector – a worrying fact given that a 2002 report
by the Sector Skills Development Agency (SSDA) found that around 70
per cent of local funding for voluntary organisations comes from
councils, more than half of which is spent on social services

With the SSDA predicting that an extra 1.6 million social care and
health professionals will be needed by 2010, many of whom will be
providing services in a voluntary sector organisation, the
potential implications for the lack of training are obvious.

The huge government push to involve the voluntary sector more in
public service delivery will only add to increasing pressure to
improve human resources issues such as training, especially in
smaller organisations.

Research carried out by the Voluntary Sector National Training
Organisation, which examined 1,000 organisations of different sizes
across England, revealed a lack of management skills within the
sector and skills shortages in a number of specialist areas such as
care workers.

The report also identified “training issues” as among those that
needed to be addressed.

Other research by the National Council of Voluntary Organisations
found that over two-thirds of small to medium-sized organisations
did not have a dedicated human resources department and, in many
cases, work in areas such as identifying training needs was done by
a professional in addition to their normal job.

A spokesperson for the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary
Organisations, which is campaigning to improve the development of
skills within the sector, says all organisations should have a
training budget even if it is small.

People who choose a job in the voluntary sector are forgoing the
financial rewards offered by other sectors and so the opportunities
to develop their skills take on an added importance, the
spokesperson says, adding that “training is seen as a luxury issue
when it should not be”.

Financial constraints and heavy workloads are among the reasons for
the low priority given to training, but so too is the feeling that
it is not worth investing in development for workers who will not
be around for long because many voluntary sector contracts are

In this respect, social services departments and the voluntary
sector have something in common. The large number of vacancies in
social services departments, particularly those in London, are
filled with agency workers. But who takes responsibility for their
training and are they seen worth investing in when they may move on
in a matter of months?

One child protection social worker employed on a temporary contract
by a council in the south of England, who prefers not to be named,
says she has had problems getting up-to-date training because
neither the local authority or agency is willing to pay for it. In
addition, the team cannot afford to cover her absence.

Her qualification is now quite old and, although she does not feel
her lack of knowledge makes her a danger, she relies heavily on
other members of the team, which she feels impedes their work.

But Leadbetter says a local authority is not the employer of
temporary staff and “should not have to pick up the bill” for their
training needs. Not unreasonably, he adds that local authorities
reserve scarce resources for permanent staff. But how can a council
be assured that temporary staff are up to scratch?

Government pressure for a more competent workforce implies more
training will be needed in the future. Yet budget constraints and
service delivery pressures will ensure this will be no easy task.

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