A Devalued Workforce

Whatever the political complexion of the government after 5 May,
children’s services will remain one of the most significant
challenges. Getting on for two years since the Every Child Matters
green paper was published, many of the reforms it heralded have
either stalled because of unforeseen problems or been lacklustre in
their implementation. The big picture is there: children’s trusts,
a children’s minister and children’s commissioners. But, as two
more official reports on the subject suggest, much of the detail is
still missing.

The children’s workforce, underpaid, undertrained and understaffed,
will need considerable investment if it is to do all that has been
asked of it. The green paper itself set the tone: “Our goal must be
to make working with children an attractive, high status career,
and to develop a more skilled and flexible workforce.” But the
Children’s Workforce Strategy, just published by the Department for
Education and Skills, fails to do justice to this aim. The sheer
lopsidedness of the report – the early years workforce gets far
more attention than its social care counterpart – owes more to the
government’s continuing love affair with nursery provision than it
does to the interests of children as a whole. In classic government
style it avoids the critical issue – how to recruit and retain more
children’s social workers – by promising a ministerial project
group to look into the matter.

One reason for ducking the question is evidently money. National
occupational standards and a common core of skills and knowledge
will help to establish a career structure and build a solid
foundation for work with children. But any serious proposal for
attracting more recruits into children’s services must deal
seriously with the issue of rewards and incentives. Low pay and
status continue to deter anyone contemplating a career in
children’s social work, especially as it still labours in the
shadow of a poor public image.

In the second report, the House of Commons education and skills
committee criticises the government for failing to cost the
implications of Every Child Matters adequately. There are many
senses in which this is true, but the bargain basement price tag on
the children’s workforce cannot be sustained for much longer.

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