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.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org