Graduate focus: should there be a ‘provisional licence’ for social workers fresh out of college?

After passing my driving test, I kept a set of provisional plates stuck to my car for a further 12 months. The big green P reassured me that it would signal my inexperience to other road users who, I hoped, would give me some leeway.

Newly qualified social workers may find similar reassurance if a proposal made in Options for Excellence is taken up. The review, launched in 2005, considers how the social care workforce needs to develop by working in innovative and different ways. One longer-term suggestion is to establish a newly qualified social worker (NQSW) status for social workers in their first year in practice after qualifying. The review states that this would provide “a full induction programme to build on initial training and set the tone for future career development”.

Any such move would place social work on a par with teaching and nursing. In September 1999, the Department for Education and Skills introduced a compulsory period of induction for newly qualified teachers. During this period, new teachers have to show they have continued to meet the standards of a qualified teacher and all induction standards. In their first year, newly qualified teachers also have an individual programme of support from a designated induction tutor.

Details on how a newly qualified status would translate to social work are scarce, although the children in care green paper Care Matters says introducing an NQSW status would help “define and support the training, supervision and mentoring requirements of new social workers”.

Andrea Rowe backs the notion of NQSW status. As chief executive of Skills for Care she says new social workers would get the additional supervision and support they need to carry out their demanding roles.

“It is important for new social workers to be protected from case-overload, and especially complex cases, and to also protect vulnerable service users,” says Rowe.

She believes that although some social workers may be wary of being labelled with a “provisional” status, as they may see it as a further assessment of their skills, most will welcome the extra support.

Trish Hafford-Letchfield, a senior lecturer on the MSc social work course at London South Bank University, has noticed over the past two years more newly graduated social workers expressing their surprise at the challenges they face once they start in practice. She is certain that new social workers can benefit from further support.

“It is a huge cultural shock for them,” says Hafford-Letchfield. “Lots of former students contact me and say working is very difficult and stressful compared with when they completed their practice placements.”

But she is not convinced that creating a newly qualified status is the way forward. Hafford-Letchfield says social work students are already assessed against “very specialist standards and the system is robust enough as it is”. And she points out that, from September this year, the new post-qualifying framework will enable new social workers to spend a year consolidating their practice in a specialist area.

“One of the theories behind this consolidation is that people are on a continuous path of learning. So why is a probationary year needed when the PQ framework and Skills for Care national induction standards should be sufficient?”

Introduction of any probationary year would obviously have implications for employers, who would have to fund support that is given to newly qualified social workers by senior colleagues.

Anne Harrison, social care national development manager at the Children’s Workforce Development Council (CWDC), says many local authority employers would be able to link up their existing good practice with the new requirements to support new social workers with this status.

Harrison adds that the children’s social care workforce also has the new CWDC induction standards to draw upon for guidance on how children’s social workers should operate.

A good induction of new social workers should ensure they are:

  • Aware of the code of practice relevant to the social care council in their country.
  • Aware of the national care standards, where applicable.
  • Understand their duties and who they report to.
  • Understand their organisation’s history, background, purpose and structure.
  • Have knowledge of the names, responsibilities and roles of colleagues.

There may also be cost implications associated with introducing a newly qualified social worker status.

Rowe would like induction and ongoing support of social workers with the newly qualified status to be funded by the government. She warns: “I am sure councils will want to do it. But I am sceptical that it can be done without additional resources.” Rowe warns.

Case Study 1
Barbara Crossan, social worker, Glasgow Council
“Get as much hands-on experience as you can”

Barbara Crossan worked for 10 years as a support worker with Glasgow Council’s community care team as well as spending three years as an addictions worker.

She had an HNC and SVQ3 and so was able to join the council’s fast-track training programme that sees care workers upgraded to qualified social workers.

She has now been a social worker for 18 months in children and families, based within the Glasgow East Community Health and Care Partnership in the Easterhouse area.

Crossan recommends prospective social workers get some life experience behind them because it will prove invaluable once in the job.

“Although theory goes hand-in-hand with practice, no books give you the experience – you have to do it hands-on. Get as much experience as possible (and that can be working on a voluntary basis), and broaden your knowledge so you are not coming into the social care world thinking that it’s black and white. These life experiences make you understand the reasons behind people needing services.

“You have to work with a broad range of people because problems can be intertwined in families’ lives. Also, you can apply the skills you learn from one client group to another.”

Case Study 2
Tracey Morton, children’s rights officer, NCH, Hounslow
‘Ask about the level of supervision you will receive’

Sixth formers at the college Tracey Morton was working at inspired her to train as a social worker. “They used to tell me their issues and said I was good at listening and a couple said they wished their social worker was as good,” she says.

After leaving that job she worked in a secure children’s home. “I enjoyed being a key worker, supporting them to develop skills so that when they were reintegrated into society they had a more positive outlook.”

Since qualifying in October with first class honours, Morton has been a children’s rights officer for children’s charity NCH at its family resource centre in the London Borough of Hounslow. She says every social worker should have a variety of experience, including in the statutory and voluntary sectors. “I would expect somewhere in my career to work in a statutory environment.”

Her advice for newly qualified social workers at a job interview is to ask about the level of supervision they will receive. “Whichever role you take on, this is paramount. It’s one of the biggest and most important factors in personal development. If you have a supervisor who can see your potential and the skills you need to learn they will guide you to appropriate courses and further training. Otherwise you get bogged down with work, you haven’t got anyone to speak to, and you make mistakes.”

Being prepared for the responsibilities the role of a social worker brings is also crucial, she says. “I didn’t really understand how much of a skilled profession it is,” Morton says. “There are lots of responsibilities that aren’t so obvious through legislation, policies and procedures. So it’s about knowing what your role is and what you are responsible for. You need to read all the relevant policies and procedures and make sure you are up to date with legislation. It’s quite frightening to begin with.”

Case Study 3
Konce Balkaran, social work assistant, Ealing Council
‘Don’t forget your training – reflect and analyse’

Konce Balkaran has been working at Ealing hospital as a social work assistant for the west London council for nearly a year, since she went there for her social work degree final year placement.

“One of my university tutors recommended that we carry on with a team we were happy with from a placement,” she says.

So she returned as an agency worker pending an opening for a permanent position. That opening came and she will start as a social worker in the hospital’s referral and assessment team for children and families as soon as she’s registered with the General Social Care Council.

Essentially she has been doing the job for the last year – she just isn’t entitled to call herself a social worker yet. “But I’m carrying my own caseload and, if my cases go to child protection, a social worker is allocated but I still take the lead with their supervision.”

She admits the first year has been a shock to the system. Before studying for the degree, Balkaran had worked in the voluntary sector for eight years.

“I had never worked in the statutory sector before and it’s different from what I expected. Working in the voluntary setting is a lot more flexible you can develop procedures and make team decisions. But there are a lot of policies in the statutory sector and more structure.”

For those who have had experience of the social care sector before qualifying, she says: “Don’t let your experience govern your work. You can start thinking that you know it all and you just need the qualification. That’s not the case.”

She also advises continuing as though you are still a student when you start a job, by asking questions if you are not sure. “Don’t forget your training – when I work on cases I reflect and analyse as though I am going to write a work summary. That way I know I’m looking at all angles as my training taught me to do.

“Be somewhere that you know personal development is important, where they will improve your skills and they are going to support you – and use the support that’s there. If you don’t have support then you need to go somewhere else.”

Tips for Beginners 

● Get some life experiences under your belt and work with a broad range of people so you have some understanding of their needs and how you fit in.
● Be prepared for the degree of responsibility involved in being a social worker.
● Ask questions whenever you are unsure of something.
● Use the support that’s there – if you are unsupported, start looking for a new job.
● Make sure you’ve read and understood the relevant policies and procedures and are up to date with legislation.
● Go somewhere personal development is important and there is the right level of supervision.

Further information
Options for Excellence – Building the Social Care Workforce of the Future
Care Matters: Transforming the Lives of Children and Young People in Care
CWDC induction standards
New Post-Qualifying Framework
Skills for Care common induction standards

Contact the authors
 Anabel Unity Sale

 Natalie Valios

This article appeared in the 24 May issue under the headline “Easing into the job”


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