England’s congested landscape of workforce bodies in social work is under growing scrutiny as experts question whether the current structure can deliver lasting improvements.
Over the past 10 years, the UK government has spread responsibility for raising professional standards in England across four organisations: a regulator, the General Social Care Council; two workforce development bodies, Skills for Care and the Children’s Workforce Development Council; and an organisation to spread best practice, the Social Care Institute for Excellence.
But last week’s reports by the Social Work Task Force and the House of Commons’ children, schools and families select committee questioned whether the existing structure was fit for purpose.
The taskforce’s interim report highlighted “the lack of a single focus of responsibility for promoting the profession, improving public understanding, spreading best practice and driving up standards”.
In its review of children’s social work training, the MPs say many believe there are “too many cooks” and recommends the “streamlining of the national sector bodies and rationalisation of their remits” as an urgent priority.
Both reports recommend the creation of new institutions, the taskforce backing a national college for social work, and the MPs supporting a social work development agency.
Based on the “royal college” model in medicine, the national college would give the sector a powerful voice to speak to the media about the profession, represent frontline professionals in policy debates and develop practice and training standards.
The proposed development agency would take responsibility for social work recruitment, workforce planning and the delivery of training, absorbing the social work functions of the CWDC. By implication, it could also absorb Skills for Care’s responsibilities for developing adult social workers.
GSCC chair Rosie Varley agrees that the roles of national bodies should be clarified, describing the landscape as crowded.
Celia Atherton, director of Research in Practice, which provides information about best practice in children’s services, says responsibilities for the supply, in-work support and training of social workers are spread around several organisations “with little clarity about how they fit together”.
Atherton, a taskforce member, but speaking as “an active member of the children’s services improvement sector”, says this causes confusion among social workers, employers and the public.
Support for national college
Of the two proposals, the national college has received the most support, with backing from the British Association of Social Workers, the Local Government Association and the Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee (JUC SWEC), which represents providers of social work degree programmes.
In their response to the taskforce report, health secretary Andy Burnham and children’s secretary Ed Balls indicated their support for the idea.
And the GSCC, whose remit in regulating social work training could be altered by the introduction of a college, backs the idea, along with Skills for Care. The leaders of both agencies share concerns raised in the reports about the need for stronger leadership.
However, Varley rejects the select committee’s recommendation to give the GSCC a new role of national advocate for the social work profession, reiterating the regulation’s position that its primary purpose is to protect the public. To adopt an additional role of championing the profession would risk a “potential conflict of interest”, she says.
The taskforce has promised to consult on the proposed organisation’s specific roles and powers, and possible relationship with existing organisations such as the GSCC.
Regulation of practice
Potential roles include regulation of professional practice, training and education, which the GSCC now holds, and “bringing coherence” to the professional standards underpinning social work training and practice.
Hilton Dawson, chief executive of BASW, wants all responsibility for regulating training transferred eventually from the GSCC to the national college (see left).
But Varley says: “In my view it would be for the college to identify excellent practice in social work that the universities would be training towards. But it would be for the regulator to accredit the training providers against the delivery of those standards.”
Skills for Care chief executive Andrea Rowe questions the government’s decision in 1999 to split responsibilities for workforce development and the regulation of training between two bodies: the GSCC and Topss England, which later became Skills for Care.
Elsewhere, those roles are held jointly by the Scottish Social Services Council and Care Council for Wales.
However, Rowe argues against the need for a social work development agency.
Defending the records of Skills for Care and the CWDC in improving social work, she says these bodies were “set up with specific remits in social care and social work and I don’t think another one is going to be able to do the job any better”.
A central aim of the proposed development agency is to improve workforce planning.
The committee’s report highlights the lack of an “overarching strategy” to allow employers to tackle staff shortages by influencing the number of student places available on social work degree programmes.
However, Rowe says Skills for Care and Development, the UK-wide alliance of sector skills councils and regulatory agencies in social care, already has mechanisms in place to carry out this function for both adults’ and children’s social work.
“We already do this for domiciliary and residential workers and we ought to be commissioned to do this in social work on a national level,” Rowe says.
Prof Jonathan Parker, vice-chair of JUC SWEC, says the strategy suggested by the MPs, based on a model of regional recruitment used in education, “could destroy the number of [degree] programmes available”.
“This would suggest that social work programmes only supply or service their region which, fortunately, they don’t.”
Evaluation of cost effectiveness
The future of Scie, GSCC and Skills for Care could be further affected by a Department of Health evaluation of the agencies’ cost-effectiveness, which is now due to report after the taskforce’s final report in October.
The GSCC is also facing the scrutiny of a review of its conduct function, which is due to report in September and was ordered after a backlog in cases was identified, some of which involved potential risks to the public.
In addition, Department of Health plans to establish a body to determine the cost-effectiveness of adult social care interventions are likely to have implications for Scie, whether it takes on the role itself or it is given to a new organisation.
Radical change unnecessary
Rowe and Varley insist that radical change is unnecessary, and believe the existing bodies should be allowed time to mature and develop. “Politicians always want to change things,” Rowe says.
“But current arrangements in sector skills councils haven’t had a chance to develop; we’ve only started tackling the issues together in the past couple of years and turning a workforce around takes at least five years.”
• Read a profile of the existing national social care bodies and of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and the Training and Development Agency, which provide models for the proposed national college and social work development agency.
Published in the 6 August 2009 edition of Community Care