Newly qualified social workers and the PCF: a survival guide

What is the Professional Capabilities Framework (PCF), why do newly qualified social workers need to know about it and how can it help them negotiate that tough first year in practice? Social work trainer and academic Hilary Lawson explains

The PCF which sets out what is expected of social workers at all levels has been transferred to BASW but is not mentioned in discussions around accreditation

However good a qualifying social work programme is, when a newly qualified social worker (NQSW) starts their first social work job, the steady learning curve they’ve been used to becomes more like a roller coaster ride. The Assessed and Supported Year in Employment (ASYE), which is being rolled out by many social work employers in England this month, is designed to offer support and development opportunities to help smooth out the bumpier bits.

Guidance on the ASYE recommends that employers continuously review how their NQSWs are doing, preferably with some formal acknowledgement of progress at three and six months. NQSWs will be assessed against the Professional Capabilities Framework (PCF) and pass or fail decision made at the end of the year. It will be the employer who has ultimate responsibility for this decision, although many are choosing to set up assessment panels with local partners such as universities to ensure the process is fair.

What is the PCF?

The PCF was developed by the Social Work Reform Board and is now managed by the College of Social Work. It is comprised of nine areas or “domains”, which represent the different aspects of being an effective social worker, such as working ethically, using judgement and authority and operating in a range of multi-professional contexts. The PCF isn’t just for students and new social workers, but shows the level of expertise expected in each area as they progress to senior and advanced roles. It is therefore important that NQSWs learn how to plan and develop their learning in relation to the PCF. 

Capabilities v competence

Existing students and social workers may be familiar with the six key roles set out in the 2002 National Occupational Standards for Social Work, which list the tasks social workers are expected to be able to do. This competency-based approach to assessing students was introduced 20 years ago to set a consistent standard of observable behavioural outcomes which, when achieved, meant that the student was fit to progress to the next stage. However, assessors have struggled with trying to fit complex professional activities into this tick-box structure.

A capabilities approach focuses not so much on what professionals do, but how they do it. It allows social workers to show, and assessors to assess, how relationships are formed, professional judgements are made and how practice is adapted to the context in which the social worker is working. Working with competencies has been likened to following or reading a map, whereas capabilities introduce the idea that the social worker is the map maker.

What is holistic assessment?

Holistic assessment places the onus on the practitioner to show ways in which they use their personal and professional qualities to bring a range of continually developing knowledge into fluid and unpredictable situations. NQSWs need to provide sufficient evidence of their learning across all nine domains, recognising that there are overlaps between the capabilities within the domains and many situations they encounter will be relevant to more than one. Working holistically can be demonstrated in reflective accounts, e.g. by writing regular entries in a reflective journal and analysing your response to particularly tricky events or encounters.

Using the PCF

If you’re taking part in the ASYE, you will be expected to keep a personal development plan, as you would under normal employment circumstances. It is important to work with your supervisor early on to identify your learning needs (the final student placement report is a useful starting point) and how this learning may be achieved. You may want to suggest sitting in on different meetings, shadowing experienced workers and, of course, signing up for training events. Your workload should reflect the nine domains of the PCF; for example, “professional leadership” (domain nine) requires you to be involved in others’ learning, so you might incorporate mentoring volunteers or teaching colleagues about some recent research into your work schedule.

You will be observed at least twice in the first year of practice and the observer will be mindful of the PCF, so plan ahead and think about how your practice and behaviour could be seen to demonstrate your capabilities in each domain. You will be expected to show how you can adapt what you have learned to new and complex situations. Keep abreast of current issues and pro-actively seek out new and relevant research, perhaps by setting up email alerts from relevant websites (you can sign up to Community Care’s email newletter here).

In August, the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) took over as the registration body for qualified social workers in England. Social workers must demonstrate on-going development of their knowledge and skills in order to maintain their registration and continue practising. The first year of employment is a good time to get into good learning habits – and you will continue to use the PCF to plan your learning as you progress up the career ladder, so it’s worth getting to grips with it properly now.

If you’re a member of Community Care Inform, you can automatically log your reading and build up a record of your continuing professional development (CPD). 

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