Improving social workers’ literacy

Poor literacy among social workers can sometimes mean they do more harm than good. The Health Professions Council is trying to address the problem, as Sally Gillen reports

Poor literacy among social workers can sometimes mean they do more harm than good. The Health Professions Council is trying to address the problem, as Sally Gillen reports

“I’ve been to more than one child protection conference and cringed as the parents have pointed out spelling errors in a social worker’s report,” says Janet*. “We’re there as professionals, telling people their parenting skills are inadequate, and we can’t even get their child’s name or date of birth right,” she adds. “How are those parents expected to have any faith in us?”

Janet was, until recently, a team manager and says she could “talk forever” about her frustrations in dealing with social workers’ poor literacy. From the social workers who didn’t know the difference between “their”, “there” and “they’re”, to those without basic grammar – she once received a 13-page court report composed of one sentence – and those who struggled with the written and spoken word, Janet came across them all (see box, above right).

Now a reviewing officer, she spends hours reading reports riddled with errors, and is often shocked they have made it into the public arena. But she no longer has the opportunity to rewrite them. Unsurprisingly, then, she welcomes plans to introduce a language proficiency standard for social workers. The standard was published for consultation in July by the Health Professions Council, which will take over regulation of social work next year.

From July 2012, practitioners will be required to meet level seven of the International English Testing System (see right) to be considered fit to practise. Overseas social workers will be tested, while it will be assumed that those trained in the UK are up to standard. Universities will be expected to set admission criteria so that those who are unlikely to make the grade do not win social work places.

Literacy problems among students have been highlighted in high-profile reviews, including the Social Work Task Force report in December 2009, which noted “acute concern that a minority of those accepted onto courses have poor skills in literacy or have difficulty in analysing and conceptualising”. It is a long-standing issue, confirms Jonathan Parker, professor of social work at Bournemouth University.

Pre-university tests

Bournemouth now expects prospective students to do written and verbal tests, as well as a presentation, to assess their all-round literacy. It isn’t a perfect system, admits Parker, but the idea is to “weed out” unsuitable candidates at an early stage.

He argues that good written and verbal skills are crucial for social workers: “They have to be autonomous in their role and able to deliver. So if they have difficulties with literacy, they are going to flounder, which is not good for them, for the profession and, in the long run, not good for their relationship with other professionals.”

CareSpace contributor Grinch agrees. “I regularly come across assessments or reports that border on the semi-literate, which given that they are written by people with a degree or more, is really quite worrying,” he writes. “This does nothing for our status or credibility and certainly doesn’t instil confidence in other professionals or family members who deserve insightful, analytical, balanced and literate assessments.”

Others take a more sympathetic view. Ruth Cartwright, England manager at the British Association of Social Workers, says, as a former team manager, she was happy to help otherwise “excellent” social workers with their reports if they struggled with writing. “I didn’t mind doing it,” she says. “If, however, someone is in a job where formal report-writing is very much part and parcel, this would be a major problem.”

So fundamental are communication skills to the social work role that it is hard to imagine someone with poor literacy surviving in the job. But many do and, furthermore, they have done for years. As a social worker 25 years ago, Parker can recall a judge criticising the standard of some social workers’ reports. “We have only just raised the stakes in terms of initial qualification by introducing the degree in 2003,” he says. “There used to be a number of sub-degree level educated social workers.”

Today the entry level for social work may be higher, but training is also more accessible to those from all backgrounds, via non-traditional routes. But what happens to students who struggle with reading and writing once they leave the cosseted university environment? A social work student may have weeks to write an essay, help along the way and the chance to resubmit if they fail. After landing their first job, in what is likely to be an overstretched and under-resourced team, they won’t enjoy that level of support and will be forced to cope alone.

“Is it really fair to put someone in that position?” asks Parker. “There should be a limit to how far you support people to become social workers; there are some people who cannot do the job.”

Janet agrees. But she has her own theory as to why so many social workers who cannot write well go unchallenged and why, despite the new requirement, they may not be pulled up and forced to address their shortcomings in future. “In the end, managers are scared to come out and say that you must be able to read and write well to be a social worker because they don’t want to be accused of being racist or oppressive.”

* Not her real name

‘Knock-on effect of some errors is horrendous’

Poor literacy is a huge problem – it’s been an issue wherever I’ve worked – but it is only acknowledged behind closed doors because there is such fear that you will be accused of being racist or oppressive, writes Janet*, a reviewing officer and former social work team manager, based in South East England.

But often those who can’t write a decent report have limited assessment skills, too. As a team manager I spent 80% of my time reading reports and hours making sense of some of them. I’ve come across cases where parents have been sent a letter saying “We are now going to remove the children”, when it should have read, “We are not going to remove the children”. The knock-on effect of some of these errors is horrendous.

And it isn’t just some social workers’ writing that is a problem. At times, following what a team member was saying to me was almost impossible because their use of language was so poor. If I had a problem, then how were they communicating with children?

It’s fantastic that the HPC is including a standard on language proficiency, but I’d be surprised if anyone went down the disciplinary route on this. To begin with, it would be hard to prove: you would have to show the person had had regular supervision and we all know that often doesn’t happen; then you would have to show you had provided the right training and support and that often doesn’t happen either.”

* Not her real name

Testing to level seven

From 2012, social workers in England will be expected to meet level seven of the International English Testing System, which has nine levels, to be considered fit to practise.

Level seven is defined as “Good user: has operational command of the language, though with occasional inaccuracies, inappropriacies and misunderstandings in some situations. Generally handles complex language well and understands detailed reasoning.” The test is made up of four parts: reading, writing, speaking and listening.

● An example of a writing test – 20 minutes to write at least 150 words:

You live in a room in college which you share with another student. However, there are many problems with this arrangement and you find it very difficult to work.

Write a letter to the accommodation officer at the college. In the letter,

● Describe the situation

●Explain your problems and why it is difficult to work

● Say what kind of accommodation you would prefer

For more examples visit the website of International English Language Testing System, which offers English language tests

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