Unison threatens to scupper Sandwell practice pilot

    Union activists have vowed to halt one of the government’s social work practice pilots for looked-after children.

    The Sandwell branch of Unison has been calling on its members employed by the West Midlands council to boycott the independent practice since the authority was chosen as one of six pilot authorities last year. It follows concerns about social workers’ jobs and the threat of privatisation.

    Sandwell Council put the pilot on hold earlier this year after an unannounced Ofsted inspection uncovered significant problems in the its safeguarding services.

    Under the scheme, funded by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, Sandwell was due to contract out services for looked-after five- to 12-year-olds to a social enterprise run by social workers. Other pilots in Staffordshire, Kent, Hillingdon, Liverpool and Blackburn with Darwen have gone live and are being evaluated.

    Sandwell Council has said it still plans to go ahead with its practice pilot in the summer, but Clive Shakespeare, branch secretary of Sandwell Unison, said social workers were “totally opposed” to this.

    “[Social workers] are concerned about whether their posts would still be needed once responsibility for the children had been transferred,” Shakespeare said.

    The council has confirmed that a not-for-profit partner agency would be responsible for recruiting social workers to the practice in Sandwell. But Shakespeare pointed out that recruiting staff from outside the council would result in a lack of continuity for children transferred to the practice.

    He added that there were ongoing concerns about the absence of proper consultation with those affected by the pilot, an issue raised in Ofsted’s inspection report.

    The report said: “A large group of looked-after children potentially affected by the planned social work pilot project has not been fully consulted.”

    A member of Sandwell Unison, who wished to remain anonymous, said foster carers were angry because they had not been informed that children were going to be transferred to the practice until a few weeks before the proposed handover.

    She added that the children were equally disappointed by the lack of consultation.

    Unison is not the only organisation to oppose the practice pilots. The West Midlands Social Work Action Network (Swan) has called on social workers to boycott the practices in Sandwell and Staffordshire.

    It said social workers were being “misled by the official documentation that they will be able to develop closer relationships with children in their care”.

    It is unclear what would happen to the funding made available to Sandwell Council should the pilot be cancelled. The DCSF gave £150,000 to each social work practice pilot in 2008-9 and £240,000 in 2009-10.

    A DCSF spokesman said Sandwell remained “fully committed” to the concept of social work practices.

    He said: “These pilots are not being forced on local authority social work staff. Staff who are involved in the pilots have enthusiastically chosen to be involved.”

    In its recent policy paper on social work, the Conservative Party said it supported social work practices because they gave social workers “greater ownership of their working conditions and professional practice”.

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