Concerns over uptake of employer standards despite inclusion in Ofsted inspections

Ofsted has incorporated the standards for social work employers in England into its inspection framework and will begin formally training inspectors on how to assess against them this month – yet it is thought only around half of local authorities have taken the standards on board so far.

When it was revealed that the Social Work Reform Board’s standards and supervision framework for social work employers in England would not be mandatory, unions and professional bodies all but wrote them off. Eighteen months later, these bodies paint a gloomy picture of uptake of the standards, claiming their concerns have proved to be entirely justified. But the Local Government Association (LGA) says the message is getting through in the statutory sector, with around half of local authorities showing signs of taking the standards on board.

And get through it must – in children’s services at least. For Ofsted has incorporated the standards into its inspection framework and will shortly begin assessing local authorities against them. So far, it is unclear what weighting inspectors will give to the standards, but inspectors will look for evidence that employers have understood the basic principles.“Supervision, caseloads and workforce development form part of the judgement of leadership, management and governance and the standards provide a helpful framework in which to consider the professional environment and support that is available for social workers ,” said a spokesperson for Ofsted.

However, unions and professional bodies do not appear reassured. The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) and Unison said anecdotal evidence from members suggested the vast majority of employers have so far failed to take on the standards – and they fear the standards will continue to take a back seat while austerity measures are in place.

“The information has not spread as far as we would have liked, mainly because directors and employers have other things at the top of their in-trays,” said Ruth Cartwright, manager of BASW in England. “Anecdotal evidence from BASW members suggests they are not benefiting from their employers implementing the standards. It is suspected that some employers will say they adhere to the standards, but their staff may be having a different experience.”

Cartwright said many social workers are reluctant to take their managers to task on the standards when there is so much uncertainty about their jobs. She added that the low take up was despite the best efforts of the Advisory Implementation Group (AIG), co-ordinated by the LGA, which she says has done much to publicise the standards through the media, roadshows and leaflets.

‘What we feared has come to pass’ 

Similarly, feedback from Unison branches across England has found restructuring, cuts and job freezes within local authorities, together with the government’s reluctance to introduce strict regulation of the standards, has had a an impact. “We were concerned about the take up because these standards were not mandatory, and what we feared has come to pass,” said Helga Pile, Unison’s national officer for social care. “Our representatives are often told by employers that the ‘time is not right’ to embark on reviewing and addressing the standards. They get the impression that managers know working conditions are bad for social workers, but, because of staffing shortages, budget cuts and rising demand, they are relying on the social workers to carry on coping.”

She continued: “Sadly, in some cases, it appears to be nothing more than a tick-box exercise. Some authorities say they have audited themselves against the standards and found they are OK, but their social workers are telling us that they are unaware of this. It’s hard to tick the supervision box if the employee is unaware it has happened.”

In some cases, councils are scared of what they may find, said Pile. “Employers are reluctant to lift the lid and look into whether the standards are met and talk to the social workers about the problems they’ve got, because it will mean admitting they’re falling short and that they haven’t got the resources to bring what they find up to standard.” But she pointed out that the standards cost nothing to implement and could save money in the long term by making social work more efficient.

Pile thought NHS and private, voluntary and independent sector employers were even less likely to have paid attention to the standards. She said there was little awareness of their existence within the health sector, while the PVI sector does not have the capacity to deal with them.

Getting the message through

However, the LGA says the gloomy picture painted by Unison and BASW is out of date. Suzanne Hudson, senior workforce adviser for the LGA, who also sits on the AIG, said the tide has already turned: “In terms of response to the standards, a year ago I would have said 10% of local authorities would have done something. Now that figure is more like 50-60%. The message is getting through.” Over the next few weeks, the AIG will survey employees and employers in an effort to gauge whether the standards are being adopted in a meaningful way.

Ultimately, said Pile, amid recession and social work reforms, there has never been a more opportune moment for social services departments to start performing well. “It’s even more important to get teams working well, to be effective and feel supported. Ofsted will help because employers might get pulled up on it. Employers need to foster a culture of openness, where social workers can raise concerns before terrible situations get out of control. It’s needed now more than ever.”

Take part in the AIG’s survey on employer standards (for social workers)

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