What’s it like facing the government’s accreditation test? A social worker’s story

A social worker speaks about his experience when he sat the accreditation test for children's social workers

Photo: John Smith/Fotolia

by David Brown

When I told my colleagues that I had volunteered to take part in the testing phase of the new ‘approved child and family practitioner’ accreditation scheme being produced for the Department of Education (DfE), their initial reaction was a mixture of disbelief and mockery.

They couldn’t believe, firstly, that I had actually volunteered to have my social work knowledge and skills tested, and secondly that I was genuinely excited by the prospect.

I was excited by the thought of contributing to the development of a new gold standard for children and families social work, to get a sneak preview at what it might involve and, if nothing else, by a chance to reflect on my own practice as I had been (rather more) used to doing while completing my training.

The testing involved sitting a digital assessment, including a general social work knowledge test and questions on case examples, three simulated observations with professional actors, and a direct observation of my practice.

I was asked to attend the KMPG offices in the centre of Leeds for the first two, and was told a social worker from Morning Lane Associates, a social work consultancy firm, would come to my area office to observe my practice.


My first impression of the entire undertaking felt like the opposite of the local authority office environment that I was just about getting used to. My, how the other half lived! The KPMG offices were modern, plush, and beautifully corporate. Quite apart from the meeting rooms whose electronic screens told you if they were available or not. There was an entire chest of free teas and biscuits at my disposal. I felt like I was eating my way through far more than my half day’s salary in ginger nuts before I’d even got started.

I was greeted by three KMPG staff who were all fresh-faced, smartly-dressed, and well-spoken, but who- by their own admission- knew little about social work. They appeared more than a little bemused by me in my worn brown boots, jeans, and a tartan shirt.

As I sat patiently waiting my turn to show off the best of my social work skills and knowledge to actors playing service users, occasional bursts of noise from one room with shouts and swearing would erupt, as the next victim, unaware of exactly what level of realism or quality of acting they might face, was shown into that particular scenario.

Orwellian scrutiny

Their scripts were, I must say, realistic and they played their parts well, but the whole experience had a sense of Orwellian scrutiny about it, as if I was being interrogated at Big Brother’s Ministry of Truth with its feared Room 101. The observers, I was told, were registered social workers, who sat in silence throughout the process and gave no direct feedback.

Each simulated observation was just 10 minutes long, and kept religiously to time. In my experience to date, particularly when you’re visiting a distressed or resistant service user, that’s barely enough time to get in the door and ask for the dog to be restrained, let alone provide time in which any kind of meaningful or fruitful relationship can be created. Yet relationship-building is surely a key aspect of social work practice, even in situations when information must be procured and assessed quickly.

Non-social work feel

The digital assessment, too, had an underlying non-social work feel to it. The ‘general knowledge’ section asked questions that even with a first-class social work degree from a good university, I struggle to see how anybody could answer a majority of them correctly. In particular, questions such as how many words a child should have in their vocabulary at a certain age, or what the law says on terrorism prevention, would typically be specialist areas of knowledge that any skilled practitioner would know to research and to ask multi-agency colleagues about. It tested social workers as if they were expected to have an in-depth knowledge of broad topic areas, and regardless of the specific area of their work such as with looked-after children. Indeed some key areas, such as any question on attachment theory, were noticeably absent.

Finally, my direct observation never even got off the ground. It seemed ridiculously inefficient to me in the first place that a London-based social worker came to observe my team manager one day, and two different social workers from the same company tried to arrange to see myself and a colleague on other days. In the end, mine didn’t make their trip to Leeds after all.


So, what was my feeling about the whole experience after helping shape the future testing of social workers? Somewhat disheartened. And most certainly disengaged.

I am not closed off to the suggestion of a rigorous, national standard for child and family social workers. Indeed, I am all in favour of social workers getting used to being observed more as qualified practitioners, and to receiving greater feedback on their practice than they might currently do.

However, my reasoning for doing so is constructive, not destructive. It is to build up social work skills and to develop the ‘confidence in practice’ from the public that the DfE has so euphemistically named this whole charade. The great irony here is, I don’t believe it will win the confidence of the profession.

Where is BASW to be seen in the development of the accreditation? Where are the universities, who continue to play a major role in social work training? Where are the local authorities and the voluntary sector agencies who actually employ the social workers we are so keen to accredit?

All of these need to be involved as equal partners in agreeing the overarching goal of accreditation, and in its development, not just in its testing. Instead this process has sought to create an accreditation for social workers that ministers could have confidence in, not the profession.

The sad result is that this process, with its potential for promoting higher standards, feels imposed on the profession and linked to a continuing governmental rhetoric of social work failure with a desperate need for change.

David Brown is a pseudonym, he is a children’s social worker

Have you sat the accreditation test? Community Care is interested in hearing about your experiences, email: andy.mcnicoll@rbi.co.uk

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21 Responses to What’s it like facing the government’s accreditation test? A social worker’s story

  1. michael dwilliams May 5, 2016 at 10:45 am #

    I have no hope at all for directors who might try the accreditation test- most would fail GCSE examinations. Are all the intellectuals in Social Work at the lowest and poorer paid level?

    • Vicky May 7, 2016 at 1:08 pm #

      I think there’s a fair few in front line services. My experience is that many who go into management do so because they’ve lost interest in the job and the people we work for.

      I along with a lot of my colleagues have chosen to remain at the front line but I get increasingly more frustrated being patronised and treated like I’m stupid constantly by managers who haven’t had client contact in years or a director who has never practiced as a social worker!

  2. Old School May 5, 2016 at 1:22 pm #

    Thanks ‘David’ for informing us all about this process you sound like the majority of people I have worked with in the real world of Social Work and I trust your word for the quality of these assessments far more than the Secretary of State for Education or the Chief Social Worker – who both need lessons on what happens in the real world outside of the corporate structures of KPMG and Morning Lane Associates.
    Looking at the article in Community Care today in respect of Trowler’s comments on the accreditation of Children’s Social Workers it is clear that both she and the government are full of rhetoric and idealism and shortsighted of what is pragmatic, already exists and works well in practice. I wish they would stop meddling in a profession they do not understand and wish to target for self promotion or idiotic notion.

    • David Brown May 11, 2016 at 10:00 pm #

      Hi Old School, thanks for your comments. I’m glad to hear my account echoes the sentiments of others. Unfortunately, I think there will always be government meddling in social work, just as there will be in education, health, and the police services. But I do think that social work is, perhaps not unique, but certainly at the extremer end of the spectrum when it comes to the level of trust placed in its own practitioners, leaders, and thinkers to develop new ways of working. Every new administration seems to rehash the same story, that social workers aren’t doing a good enough job and need to have improvements forced upon them. I’m sure our colleagues in primary schools and junior medicine might share this feeling right now!

  3. Social Work Champion May 5, 2016 at 3:38 pm #

    I was very interested to read David’s account, having also taken part in the Digital Assessment part of the testing at KPMG in Leeds. I am rather longer in the tooth however, but despite many years in the profession, all in children’s social work, and also a degree and MA from top-class university, was bemused to say the least by the scope and tenor of many of the questions. It would seem that the Govt – or its allies in KPMG/Morning Lane, or both – are under the impression that social workers are required to work in total isolation, without recourse to Legal Services, health and education professionals, and need to know more about their fields of expertise than they perhaps do themselves.

    One may wonder if the whole enterprise is rather designed to “show” that social workers are all incompetent, in order to legitimise the introduction of the private sector into child protection services. After all, we have seen this course of action in the fields of health and education already, and they are nothing if not consistent in their views of the public sector. Please try harder Ms Trowler!

    • Richard May 11, 2016 at 12:41 pm #

      Theres a theme here across all public sector services I feel. In my experience the closer you get to central government the less sence things make. I sadly believe that the public sector including our nhs is under very real threat including the profession of social work.

    • David Brown May 11, 2016 at 10:06 pm #

      Yes! Social Work Champion, I think you make a very real and salient point that is being somewhat overlooked in much of the discourse concerning our profession. Every social work student knows that an important part, although some might say a dwindling part, of a social worker’s role is to advocate for the marginalised and the oppressed. BASW and the HCPC even mandate this in their various codes and standards! Yet our own chief social worker, who I’m sure has been a fantastic social worker in her time, not only appears to be reluctant to call out the government on its undermining of the profession but is even supporting it in doing so. What’s more, the private consultancy firm that she founded is being paid to help out! She may have given up all financial interest in them, but it certainly smacks of nepotism to me.

  4. jane. May 5, 2016 at 8:09 pm #

    I am genuinely worried about this test.I have been a practitioner for 28 years .I have done the management bit and now am back to the ‘coal face’ partime to enable me to have a work/home life balance. I am seriously thinking about trying to delay my test for the 3/12 years i have before retirement.I dont want my last years dogged by this. I want to share my good practice ,continue to develop skills and above all HELP CLIENTS. I have seen so many unecessary changes money spent on the latest ‘fad.Nothing changes things like good solid team work,secure workers. motivated workers..As the advert says ‘simples’. As it is I see this as just another waste of money. Like the poll tax ?
    Thank goodness my stint is nearly over.Good luck all that follow.

  5. Freya Barrington May 5, 2016 at 9:07 pm #

    This was an eye opening piece of writing. Informative and candid, it gives a clear idea of what social workers can expect if they go for the accreditation test. The examples of questions seemed diverse and somehow non-related. Maybe if we were asked more realistic questions like;

    1. How would you react if you were on a home visit speaking to a mother whom you strongly suspected was the victim of domestic abuse, and her male partner came in drunk and began to verbally abuse you, while making threatening gestures? In the room are a frightened 2 year old, a crying 8 year old and the mother – also in tears.

    2. What would your response be if while on a home visit, you were kept hostage in a house by a man who you knew had served prison time for violent offences. He is blaming you for the removal of his children, despite the fact that this was not your case and you have no knowledge of it.

    3. Explain your actions when faced with a 14 year old teenage boy who is 6 feet 2 inches tall and armed with an 8 inch blade serrated edged hunting knife who has burst into the room and says he is going to kill you. You are there to speak to him about his 6 year old sister’s allegations that she has suffered sexual abuse from him.

    All the above are real scenarios I have had to deal with; In these and many other scenarios too numerous to mention I had split seconds to make my decisions and act appropriately. Adrenaline coursing through my veins, shaking with emotion and usually alone, it was simply part of the job. I wonder how the suits in London would cope and if they’d pass the REAL test of being a child protection social worker on the front line!

    • David Brown May 11, 2016 at 10:10 pm #

      Freya, you’re quite right! Of course I suspect you have picked the most extreme examples to illustrate your point, but the point stands nonetheless. My biggest concern with this process was to me the direct observation aspect of the accreditation test was the one that could bear the most fruitful and constructive analysis, as well as individualised feedback, for practitioners. What better way too to get a sense of how an organisation conducts itself on the frontline, than to get out there and witness it! What I learnt recently, is that the accreditation developers originally intended to have no such on-the-ground observations occur at all! Frankly I rest my case on why a private consultancy firm like KPMG shouldn’t have come anywhere near being allowed to develop this.

  6. Kathy May 8, 2016 at 11:33 am #

    Thanks David for your article. I also took part in the digital testing in Leeds at the KPMG offices. Despite both management and the facilitators being advised that I have a level of disability, reasonable adjustments were not made and I struggled with the whole process.

    The general knowledge questions were manageable although certainly did not reflect my working skills or experiences. The second part of the test was given in a format I was unable to access. I felt demoralised and undervalued, then angry, with the immediate expectation that I would be failing the test from that point.

    How can a so-called caring profession give no thought to disability or equality and be so insensitive when looking at their own staff?

    • David Brown May 11, 2016 at 10:13 pm #

      Quite right too Kathy. I can’t really say it better than you, other than to add that my concerns about this process stemmed from the fact that it was disempowering to those whom it is meant to serve, namely professionals themselves, as your experience illustrates best.

  7. Get me out of Here May 9, 2016 at 10:31 am #

    Yes, clearly KPMG are in this to make money. The Tories hate Social Workers and feel at their very core that harsh treatment and punishment is necessary to subordinate them to Tory values. Social Workers are considered to leftish generally and have to be subjected to re-education. All this stress for what reason? But don’t worry if you fail you will still be allowed to work according to the chief Social worker?

  8. Alex Knapp May 9, 2016 at 5:36 pm #

    What a fabulous article about the joys of assessment…

    I think a Continuous Competence Record would be better!

    I wonder if the millions spent on this could have been delivered differently and achieved a worthy outcome?

  9. Stuart May 10, 2016 at 3:03 am #

    Sounds to me like they’re planning to build a wall and make the Mexicans pay for it.

  10. Fizz May 11, 2016 at 1:08 pm #

    Yes, again, it appears we have people setting up such testing of a profession they have never done themselves. The case examples provided above about ‘real SW’ were easy to respond to as most SW’s deal with these type of situations on a daily basis, or have done. I bet that if the KPMG staff, mentioned in the article, had to do the job they would run a mile. It usually shows in questions that someone is trying to impress that they understand another professionals job, when irrelevant ones are asked, that they do not.
    I hope the pilot shows that the way forward is not how the main article writer experienced his test.
    I think it right that the testing of Social Work practice should apply to all levels of worker; if you are a manager you need to know, so that you can ensure your staff are supported and ‘doing the right thing’. I am sure there will be some job vacancies up for grabs if this happened.
    Maybe we need to clone Social Workers now before they become a dying or even extinct breed!

    • David Brown May 11, 2016 at 10:54 pm #

      I certainly hope, Fizz, that my experience will inform those who are involved in the actual development of these tests. My concern is that, as I think it is hard to argue this exercise doesn’t have the narrative of “social work as failing” behind it, such feedback will be given less of a priority over others…

  11. T.Boyce May 11, 2016 at 3:15 pm #

    Interesting that Isabelle Trowler said : “The results are fascinating. We’ve had 940 social workers who’ve undertaken different parts of the assessment. Overwhelmingly people are saying ‘this is okay, this reflects the kinds of decisions I need to make, the practice context I work in and how I am at work.”

    • David Brown May 11, 2016 at 11:03 pm #

      Hi T. Boyce. Being honest, I can agree with what Isabelle Trowler said, but I think the devil is in the detail with this. A lot of the test did reflect the general type of decisions needed to be made, such as a disclosure from a young person, and how one might have to respond in our work, such as dealing with possibly hostile parents in response. But I wanted to highlight in my account how it didn’t give practitioners the credit by taking account of key aspects of the profession, such as the role of social workers in being able to find out information from other sources and pool together information, or the fact that our responses might well be different depending on the context and timing of the events. The absence of some key areas of knowledge, such as any questions on attachment theory for example, and the lack of precedence direct observation of practice and on-the-day feedback was given was also of particular disappointment.

  12. Bec May 26, 2016 at 11:24 am #

    Thank you for a very insightful piece.
    You raise the question that there are key people missing from the accreditation process. There is of course, another group which is key to the whole profession – the reason why most of us come into the profession – SERVICE USERS AND CARERS! Where are they in all of this development from the government?

  13. CC May 26, 2016 at 8:27 pm #

    Fascinating. As a Canadian who practiced child welfare in England some years ago. We have a College of Social Work which is responsible for accreditation discipline and continuing competence.

    The orwellian aspects are scary indeed. How can you take social justice out of social work. With all the cuts that have been going on with disability benefits etc. Social workers have been very vocal on behalf of clients…a thorn in Cameron’s side. So just ban social justice…which might become a criminal offence. Have social workers doing the government’s agenda…or else. The same notions are happening everywhere. So glad to be close to the exit ramp!