Helping social workers progress up the career ladder

Councils in England are in the midst of translating the Professional Capabilities Framework into a tool for developing the skills and experience of social workers. Tristan Donovan finds out how.

“We’re trying to kill as many birds as possible with one stone,” says Mary Cooper-Purcell, professional development advisor for adult social services at Coventry, of how the council is approaching the task of applying the Professional Capabilities Framework (PCF) to the realities of frontline social work.

Like most councils across England, Coventry is currently working to turn the College of Social Work’s colourful rainbow vision of social work career progression into something that helps social workers of all levels climb the ladder. Coventry’s assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE) for newly qualified social workers is up and running, but managers are still ironing out the details of the PCF.

One crucial element under discussion is how to give practitioners the training and opportunities they need to progress, without burdening them with another layer of bureaucracy. “We’re trying to use the PCF as the basis of all staff development,” says Cooper-Purcell. The council has piloted using the PCF in supervision. “We’re trying to make it so that people aren’t having to get evidence for their corporate appraisal, their PCF-type appraisal and their HCPC [Health and Care Professions Council] requirements. We want people to be able to build up a bank of evidence they can cross-reference through the lot.”

Anne McCarthy, Cooper-Purcell’s counterpart over in children’s services, agrees that the task of evidence gathering mustn’t be onerous. “The thing that is going to be tricky is social worker capacity to engage,” says McCarthy, team manager for workforce development. “The issue is the operational pressures for staff and making this as easy a process as possible, so people can meet the PCF requirements without spending huge amounts of time providing that evidence. That’s the challenge.”

There is another challenge: making sure the right people are able to move far enough up the ranks. Helga Pile, national officer for social services at Unison, says this is the big question mark over the implementation of the PCF. “We’re seeing the freezing of posts that become vacant, so you have a blockage there,” she says. “At the same time the message is coming through that budgets need to be cut and people start taking out layers of senior staff; you end up with just frontline social workers and team managers and nothing else, which goes counter to the reform ideas.”

None of the councils Community Care spoke to for this article, however, felt budget constraints were likely to hinder opportunities to make progress. Sheffield council is looking at how to ensure social workers gain access to a range of skills and experience. “When individuals have been in an area of specialism for some time they have, just by default, gaps in their knowledge around fieldwork, because it moves on,” says Elaine MacShane, the council’s workforce development lead for children and families. “We’re looking at how we deploy people in specialist areas so that we don’t limit their opportunities further down the line.”

Sheffield has also created ‘pilot manager’ roles for social workers looking to move into management. “Rather than just stepping into it straightaway they get six months to experience it; they get to learn to be a manager and have a reduced number of staff to manage,” says MacShane.

Devon council’s take is that practitioners may need to gain experience at the same level, but in different roles, before they can reach next stage in the PCF. “Sometimes you need to move sideways,” says Tom Woodward, acting human resources operations manager. “That’s not unusual outside of social work; to move up to the next step sometimes means doing two or three jobs at the current level to broaden your experience.”

One benefit of the PCF is that social workers will no longer be in the dark about their skills gaps, says McCarthy. “Social workers are now going to come into a workplace where it is clear from the off what they need to demonstrate to progress,” she says. “Staff who are established, but haven’t for whatever reason progressed up the salary scale, are going to have a much clearer idea of what they need to do and what we are able to provide in support to enable them to do that.”

Linking PCF progression to job roles

But even if practitioners rise up a level, what then? Will they get a promotion and a pay increase to match?

The approaches being considered vary. Coventry takes the view that progression is progression and must be recognised as such. “What we’re not planning to do is say there needs to be a vacancy before a experienced social worker can move up,” says Cooper-Purcell. “If you demonstrate that you are working at that level then you will move through. We’ve had discussions around funding pressures and whether there should be a vacancy before people move up, but it was felt that that would be inequitable, because you could have four or five people showing that they are working at that level, but there isn’t a post. So we’ve decided against that.”

Devon has reached a different conclusion. “After the ASYE, it’s a case of if a new opportunity arises you will apply and hopefully you will have developed the skills to be successful in that job,” says Woodward. “There are opportunities, but are there enough opportunities for everyone? Probably not. But then I would be surprised if any organisation, no matter what it did, could provide everyone with all the opportunities they want or need.”

One thing councils do agree on is that the PCF is a boon for the profession. Says MacShane: “It’s very good in helping practitioners and managers look at what training opportunities need to be put in place and where individuals’ strengths lie so when new workers are allocated cases you know where the skill base is.”

Related articles

Community Care’s guide to continuing professional development in England (free, requires registration)

Newly qualified social workers and the PCF: a survival guide

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