‘Improving post-qualification support is key to sustaining a unified social work profession’

We must grasp the opportunity to embed advanced practice skills at different levels and settings, writes adults chief social worker Lyn Romeo

Lyn Romeo
Chief social worker for adults Lyn Romeo

by Lyn Romeo, chief social worker for adults

‘Should we all get our coats and find other careers?’ That was the question from one participant at an open forum event I held with adult social workers recently.

The questioner felt that social work with adults was not as high a government priority as statutory children and family work. They also felt that, in spite of their own experience of closer working between social workers in adults and children’s services, headlines seemed to point to a desire to split the educational pathways.

Could this mean statutory children’s social work being set apart from other qualifying programmes, thus signalling the end of social work as we know it?

‘A whole family approach’

I believe we can survive as a unified profession. I was in Wolverhampton last week and saw the way in which ‘all age’ disability services were taking a whole family approach across the life span. Here, social work services are organised around the child or young person and their family. Relationships are built by taking account of the wider family and social network to which they belong. This is in contrast to a service-led approach more concerned with serving organisational requirements than the people it intends to help.

The social workers I met had previous practice experience in a variety of areas. These included child protection, learning disabilities and mental health. They used their relationship and change skills to work together with others to make a difference.

Elsewhere, in places like Derby, I’ve seen the application of our values, knowledge and skills in the development of community-based social work. Again this involves child and person-centred family approaches. It needs practitioners who are resilient, have strong analytical skills, and exceptional abilities in building relationships to support change.

Effective social work practice demands greater awareness of the communities in which individuals and their families live. It also requires practitioners to identify opportunities and assets that exist within people’s own families and communities. This will help find the solutions that are right and sustainable for people.

‘A focus on post qualification support’

The conversation about whether social work can survive as a unified profession will no doubt continue. However, I believe it is imperative to shift our focus to the post qualification landscape and ways to support the 90,000 registered social workers practicing at different levels in different settings day in, day out.

This was one of the conclusions Professor David Croisedale–Appleby came to in his review of social work education. The best way to sustain a single social work profession is to invest in post qualification continuing professional development and accreditation of specialist practitioners.

We have spent many years reviewing and changing qualifying arrangements for social workers. A qualified and regulated workforce has taken a long time to achieve in England. Now we need to make sure we build upon this foundation by developing social work practice that is world class.

We must grasp the opportunity to embed and recognise advanced practice skills and knowledge in social work at different levels and settings. Doing so will incentivise and inspire colleagues to remain in practice.

I believe this is the outcome the proposed accreditation of child and family social workers should deliver. I will be considering whether the supervisor accreditation can work in adult social care too.

Accreditation for social workers working with adults is already in place for statutory work under the Mental Capacity Act (best interests assessors) and Mental Health Act requirements (Approved Mental Health Professionals). There are proposals in the Law Commission’s consultation on deprivation of liberty to introduce a similar status of Approved Mental Capacity Professional and I hope social workers will respond to this consultation with enthusiasm.

Qualifying programme developments

Of course, there are also key developments in social work training. This summer will see the graduation of the first cohort of newly qualified social workers to have completed courses following the Social Work Reform Board recommendations for improvements to qualifying programmes. It will be interesting to hear whether employers experience an improvement in the quality of this year’s graduates.

The first four Social Work Teaching Partnerships, jointly funded by the Department of Health and Department for Education, have also been announced. The partnerships give local authorities a much bigger role in contributing to social work education, but move beyond this to focus on the whole of a practice-focused career.

Practice issues

For social workers in practice there is no doubt that integration with health and the challenging fiscal environment for social care are uppermost on their agendas.

Both issues raise serious concerns for social work but can also present opportunities. If we want to make sure we have strong and confident professionals operating successfully in multi-disciplinary teams, we need to learn from arrangements that have been in place in mental health services.

Only then we can make sure we have real integration, as opposed to assimilation, that sees social workers’ roles and responsibilities properly supported.

In adapting to the challenges facing the 21st century health and care system, it will also be essential for social workers to work collaboratively with others, especially GPs and allied health professionals.

Social work can be part of a better offer to people in a variety of health related settings, especially in primary and palliative care and working with people with dementia. We also add value in our work with older people and their families, mental health services and much more.

The bottom line for me is that we hold on to social work values, that we continue to learn from practice, that we understand what works for people and put in place the models of practice that support social workers to help people achieve best outcomes.

I am optimistic we can reposition our profession to do what we do best – life changing work which supports children, adults and families to live lives in which they are able to achieve their potential. Social work is extremely valuable work, contributing to a more equal and socially just society

So leave your coats on their pegs for now – we’ve got exciting work to do!

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