Personalisation skills shortfall afflicts social workers

Social workers are still not equipped with the skills to deliver person-centred care, with knowledge about personal assistants considerably lacking.

Social workers are still not equipped with the skills to deliver person-centred care.

That was the overwhelming message from our latest annual personalisation survey, commissioned by Unison.

The results showed a mismatch between the particular skills practitioners said they needed, and those they believed they had. For example, 82% said knowledge about employing personal assistants was a necessary skill, yet just 49% felt they had this knowledge.

This is despite the £520m invested from 2008 to 2011 in setting up systems to underpin the government’s Putting People First agenda in England, which the Labour government said should be spent in part on workforce development.

Helga Pile, Unison’s national officer for social care, identified early on that a “worryingly small” portion of the money was to be spent on training staff.

Pile said this failure to prioritise workforce issues has been impeding change: “There’s huge uncertainty over staff roles and responsibilities, over the liability of local authorities if self-organised care packages fail, and the opportunities for service users to challenge inadequate care.”

As well as this, the Law Commission recently found the legal framework for adult care consisted of “an often incoherent patchwork of legislation, which makes interpretation and application of the law complex and time-consuming”.

Jill Manthorpe, director of the Social Care Workforce Research Unit and professor of social work at King’s College London, said social workers were operating in an area where the law was unclear, which had affected confidence.

Chris Russell, a social worker tasked with delivering personalisation to older and disabled people, said a lot of initial time and energy was spent on getting the system ready, rather than on training staff. But he also noted that training that had been given occurred before anyone knew how personalisation was going to work at a local level.

“We’re learning and discovering more about the reality of putting personalisation into practice all the time,” said Russell, recruited by the College of Social Work to speak on practice issues. “But there are still knowledge gaps on the practical side, including how to work with personal assistants.”

Research has shown that training is essential to the effective delivery of personalisation. “Training and development can support staff to confidently exercise their duty of care,” said Sarah Carr, senior research analyst at the Social Care Institute for Excellence. “Even if someone is arranging and purchasing their own support, the local authority still has the duty to monitor and review the outcomes.”

She added that it was vital for staff to be confident in their own skills, so they were able to assess, discuss and manage risk.

However, many people argue that training alone will not break down the barriers to implementing personalisation successfully.

“More staff training will not be enough to bring coherence to personalisation,” said Pile.

“These things need to be tackled by more open engagement with staff and with service users, and by drawing up clear policies.”

Russell agrees: “Employers need to give social workers space and time so they can build the experience and knowledge required. We can do that by talking to service users and carers and getting feedback from them about what works. Peer learning will also be important.”

The College of Social Work will be able to take a role in pooling good practice and sharing learning when it opens to members next year.

In the meantime, Skills for Care’s workforce development strategy for adult social care in England, published last week, is intended to help employers meet the personalisation agenda through workforce development.

Skills for Care’s work in this area is supported by the Think Local, Act Personal partnership, comprising more than 30 national and umbrella organisations and with a remit to support the delivery of personalisation.

Partnership co-chairs Miranda Wixon and Richard Jones said the message they had heard was that social workers needed more time working directly with service users, regular high-quality supervision and better training.

They added: “The experience of implementing Putting People First has shown patchy progress on [staff training] and wider personalisation implementation issues. Organisations need to ensure professionals have the tools to do the job, but professionals need to take responsibility for ensuring plans are robust.”

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