Social work assistants expected to work beyond their skills

Social work support staff are increasingly asked to undertake tasks that are beyond their skills and knowledge. Gordon Carson reports on the need to define roles and tasks in social work

Social work support staff are increasingly asked to undertake tasks that are beyond their skills and knowledge. Gordon Carson reports on the need to define roles and tasks in social work

Undervalued, underpaid, and under-trained; these are three of the key messages that have emerged from UNISON’s survey of people working in social work support roles, including social work assistants and community care workers.

With no centrally defined list of roles and tasks that can only be carried out by fully qualified social workers (see below) – though this is being developed by the College of Social Work – support staff, 42% of whom earn less than £21,000 per year, are being asked to take on jobs that can lie beyond the limits of their professional expertise and training, leading to concerns over risk, stress and burnout.

For example, two-thirds of the 354 respondents (drawn mainly from local authorities and the NHS, and from children’s and adults’ services) said they sometimes or regularly did work that they felt unqualified or lacked experience to do. In addition, less than 40% said their employer had a system for grading the complexity of cases to aid decisions about whether to allocate cases to social workers or other staff.

Although many professions operate with a “well-defined ‘paraprofessional’ tier of workers with established role definitions and demarcations”, says UNISON, these jobs have developed ad hoc in social work under a variety of titles. Meanwhile, rising demand for services has combined with funding cuts to put more pressure on support workers to take on complex cases.

To tackle these problems, UNISON would like to see a “national paraprofessional programme” across adults’ and children’s social care to clarify the roles of assistants, as well as career structures and training and development opportunities.

This programme would need to recognise that many assistants – 41% of those surveyed – do not have designs on becoming fully qualified social workers, says Helga Pile, UNISON’s national officer for social care and social work. “We have to make sure that there are opportunities for those who wish to qualify, and for those who don’t, the role is well defined and well respected,” she adds.

There are already examples of greater structure being brought to similar roles in other professions, notably teaching assistants.

The national agreement on raising standards and tackling workload in schools was signed by the Labour government, employers and school workforce unions in January 2003. As well as acknowledging the need to tackle teachers’ workloads, it highlighted the roles played by school support staff and led to the establishment of higher level teaching assistant (HLTA) status, which is granted to school support staff who meet national standards.

Importantly, the agreement recognised that teachers and HLTAs were “not interchangeable”, but that some staff without qualified teacher status could carry out “specified work” related to teaching and learning, including planning, preparing and delivering lessons, and assessing and reporting on the development, progress and attainment of pupils.

Bruni de la Motte, UNISON’s national officer for education services, says the agreement professionalised the non-teacher workforce and was important in creating a defined role for assistants who didn’t necessarily want to become teachers. “The majority of them want to be teaching assistants rather than teachers,” she says. “They particularly like the relationship they have with pupils.”

Employers are not so keen on a similar agreement in social work. Debbie Jones, vice-president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, says ongoing work to define and describe the role of social workers will “inevitably give better definition to the work done by assistants.

“However, we don’t think it is necessary to have hard-and-fast rules, but to ensure that all staff are well supported, trained and supervised so that they feel confident in their ability to do the tasks assigned to them.

“Employers must have the flexibility to deploy their workforce as appropriate to best meet the needs of children and families, alongside their extensive regulatory responsibilities. We are not convinced an additional burden of a national agreement would add value.”

Some individual local authorities have helped unqualified workers to gain social work qualifications through grow-your-own schemes, while others have brought recognition and clarity to the role of assistants and support staff. One is Brighton & Hove, which introduced the role of social work resource officer 10 years ago.

These workers do not have social work qualifications and typically undertake initial enquiries with families referred to children’s services, but some activities are off limits: child protection investigations, for example.

More experienced resource officers may also be paid as much as newly qualified social workers, says Diana Leach, UNISON convenor for children’s services at Brighton & Hove. “There’s a need for positions like this,” she says. “There are people who want to come in to this profession but don’t want to be social workers. They might come in from other disciplines, like youth work or mental health work, that offer different experience from that of young graduates.”

Developments like those in Brighton & Hove may ensure that assistants are given more clarity over their responsibilities and career development. But, with wide-ranging reforms to social services likely in the next few years, including the potential for greater employee control over the services they deliver and the impact of personalisation in adult care, it will be a challenge to design a coherent and effective national framework.


Defining a list of tasks that can only be carried out by registered social workers – and, by extension, those that cannot be done by support workers – is being considered by the College of Social Work.

College public affairs adviser Owen Davies says it is likely to propose a new definition of social work and, as part of that, will ask members whether there are tasks that they think should be reserved for registered workers.

“For the time being we would urge all authorities providing social work to ask themselves the question: ‘Is the safety and wellbeing of service users and carers promoted or threatened by allocating this task to a support worker without the skills, knowledge, and expertise that the qualified social worker has?’,” Davies says.

CASE STUDY Laura*: “There’s a great deal of blurring of boundaries”

Laura*, who works in a support role in a Scottish local authority’s generic social work team, says she realised “very quickly” on taking the post that she lacked the skills and knowledge to take on complex social work tasks.

Laura has an HNC in social care but no social work qualifications, and says she lacked the knowledge of the theory behind social work practice.

“You are reliant on having senior social workers or managers who have the willingness, time and knowledge themselves to pass on to you. When there’s a large shortage of social workers you are expected to get on with it. If you are seen as capable you end up being given more work.

“Because you’re in a caring profession, you care about what happens to clients so you’ll take on more challenging situations to provide them with a service, rather than them being put on waiting lists.

“As resources are cut, the risks we are expected to manage will be considerably higher. Local authorities will make redundancies or delete social work posts, and either they won’t replace these people or they will replace them with people like me. That makes clients and the worker vulnerable. There’s a great deal of blurring of boundaries already.”

*Name has been changed

What do you think?Join the debate on CareSpace

Keep up to date with the latest developments in social care. Sign up to our daily and weekly emails

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.