The Social Work Reform Board’s eagerly awaited first progress report, published in December, sets a high bar for the profession.
At the heart of the reform programme lies the Professional Capabilities Framework, setting out the national standards for social workers which outline what they should know and do at each stage of their careers.
These are not the minimum standards of professional conduct expected of social workers, which are set by the regulator, but rather they represent an ideal – values social workers should aspire to.
This means work will have to be done to ensure practitioners understand which standards of excellence apply to their particular work environment.
Alongside the Professional Capabilities Framework is a set of standards for employers and a new framework for supervision.
Proposals for this include 90 minutes of regular, uninterrupted supervision for all social workers, annual “health checks” to assess team working environments and transparent caseload management systems.
But practitioners have questioned the lack of sanctions for employers who fail to meet the standards.
Hilton Dawson, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers, which represents 13,000 social workers across the UK, attacked the proposals for lacking “conviction and any power to ensure higher standards are met”.
He added: “The recommendations to raise employer standards in the report are essential but there is no mechanism for enforcing them, so how will they be implemented?”
Dawson’s views were backed by Helga Pile, national officer for social care at Unison, who said the union was “very concerned that employers are only being encouraged to take up these reforms on a voluntary basis”.
The reform board’s report states that the standards should inform revised inspection frameworks for public services in future, but there are no proposals to force employers to implement them at present.
In a recently-published strategic vision document, the College of Social Work said it intended to clarify what actions social workers or other professionals should take if the standards were not in place or not being met by employers.
The document stated: “The College will work with the organisations that regulate employers (i.e. the Care Quality Commission and Ofsted) to recognise employers who meet these standards.”
Official discussions have not yet begun, but the CQC and Ofsted have confirmed they will consider the standards and their implications for the way future inspections are carried out.
Moira Gibb, who chairs the reform board, played down any concerns about meeting the national standards for social workers and employers. In an interview with Community Care last month, she said many people were already meeting them. “The frameworks [in the reform board’s report] are about giving more consistency,” she explained.
However, where the standards are not currently being met, there will inevitably be cost and training implications.
“Additional resources would help in terms of management to staff ratios, appropriate admin support and decent IT and systems support,” confirmed John Nawrockyi, secretary of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services’ workforce network.
But he admitted that, in the current climate, “that is not realistic”.
Instead, like Gibb, he argued that the standards were about doing things more systematically and consistently, rather than employing more staff: “It’s a case of improving ‘how’, not a case of ‘how much’.
“Endorsement by Adass and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services will be an essential component for implementation,” Nawrockyi said.
“And positive local industrial relations will be enormously helpful, in terms of linking standards and performance to career satisfaction and progression.”
The progress report also sets out the principles that would underpin a national framework for continuing professional development (CPD).
But these did not include a set amount of protected time for training and learning.
Pile said Unison would be pushing for more clarity on protected time.
“The Social Work Task Force said there should be an entitlement to CPD; that’s the key word,” she said. “That’s the only way to make this stick.
“We’re going to pursue that and try and get a number attached to it, otherwise the framework is just a bit of paper.”
The framework “remains a work in progress” and the themes will be developed during a consultation period.
● Anyone interested in commenting on the proposals should email: email@example.com, ask their representative organisations to submit them on their behalf, or visit www.education.gov.uk/swrb for more information.
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