David Cameron’s government has made reform of children’s social care a top political priority. A sweeping reform agenda, underpinned by a new Children and Social Work Bill, will see social workers get a new regulator, fast-track social work training expanded and the introduction of accreditation tests for children’s social workers.
The reforms have sparked debate in the sector. Isabelle Trowler, the chief social worker for children, has been influential in shaping the changes. Here, in a rare interview, she sets out her take on the reforms and responds to some of the concerns they’ve generated.
Community Care (CC): You’ve worked as a social worker in children’s services. Which of the issues you faced when doing the job will the reforms address?
Isabelle Trowler (IT): The reform agenda is focused on two parts. One is about individual practitioners and their knowledge and skills. The second is about the practice system they work in. I’m passionate about both. If you put good social workers into a dysfunctional practice system they won’t be able to be effective. And it’s almost impossible to create an effective practice system without really, really good people in it.
Social workers are in control of the children’s social care system in this country. We’re the case holders, the practice supervisors making decisions about children every day, and we’re the budget holders too. Another idea of the reforms is that that responsibility of being a social worker, and what it means as a professional, carries on with you as you move through that hierarchy right up to the most senior levels.
What I learnt on that journey, from social worker to senior manager, is that to run an effective practice system the single most important thing is to focus on practice. If your primary focus is on practitioners, the work they’re doing with families and the decisions being made about children, then other stuff that can take up a lot of your time – budgets, agency staff, demand management – actually fall into place. A lot of those beliefs underpin what we’re trying to do with the reform agenda.
CC: So, if I’m a social worker, what does a functional practice system feel like to work in compared to a dysfunctional one?
IT: A good practice system means you’re an individual practitioner who’s properly trained, you’re confident about practice and your direct work with children and families. You’re working in an environment that has a clear sense of purpose, it has a clear practice methodology around it so that everyone is steeped in the knowledge and skills you need to create effective change within families. You have multiple sources of support to draw on, not only supervision which itself is really important.
You should also have a manageable workload. Having overseen these systems for years I actually don’t think caseload management systems are all that. What matters is does that person have the capacity in their head to manage what they are responsible for? That’s always been my barometer.
So, in a good system, people feel confident, capable, they’ve got the capacity to think properly about what they’re doing. They have a career pathway that means they want to stay in the job. They’re also affecting positive change with families each day because that keeps them on the job. If you don’t ever think you’re making a difference, it can become pretty arduous on a day-to-day basis.
CC: The accreditation reforms are part of that pathway. Recently, Professor Eileen Munro said she was slightly puzzled about the need to accredit frontline social workers as their training should ensure they have the skills to do the job. How do you respond to that?
IT: People have very different training experiences. Around 4,000 social workers qualify each year. They come from massively different routes, with different types of placements. And then they move into a whole array of different roles as newly qualified social workers.
The whole point of the assessed and supported year in employment is that there’s then a period to develop your knowledge and skills in a particular context. That’s where the child and family practitioner assessment and accreditation comes in. You’ve an opportunity to demonstrate you have those specialist knowledge and skills.
CC: I’m sure you’ll have seen the ADCS position statement on accreditation. They want to see mandatory accreditation for frontline social workers. Do you agree with that?
IT: I think we’ve some way to go before I would say this needs to be mandatory. In the first instance, probably over the next year, we want to roll out accreditation across whole workforces starting with our partners in practice and newly qualified social workers coming into the system.
We need to see what happens when you accredit a whole workforce because, of course, people are really concerned over whether this will generate instability. There are also questions about what happens if someone doesn’t pass first time, what are the development opportunities for them, and how do you manage that as a practice system?
So I think we’ve got to go through that process first before we take a decision. Ultimately it will be a decision for government about whether it makes this mandatory.
The other issue of course is if you make something mandatory then you have to get into details of which roles and functions you require an accredited practitioner for. A potential downside is that you get into that very prescriptive territory. That may be where we eventually want to take things but we’ve got to consider it carefully.
It’s interesting because on the one hand we’re accused of charging ahead [with the reforms] and on the other side people are frustrated by the time we’re taking to develop and implement accreditation. But it will take time. It’s a major change and we are taking enough time to make sure we get it right, both in terms of design and implementation.
CC: When will the promised consultation on accreditation be launched? The most recent suggestion has been the summer. Is that still the case?
IT: The consultation will happen but I really don’t know when because we have another purdah period coming up. The timing is the department’s call really. It’ll come down to, are we ready to consult? Have we done everything we need to do to understand the results of the accreditation pilot properly and are we clear on what we want the final assessment to look like? We need to get to that point before we consult otherwise people won’t know what they’re being consulted on.
CC: ADCS also raised concerns accreditation in children’s social work could create a ‘second class’ workforce of practitioners who failed the assessments and go into early years or adult social work. What did you make of that?
IT: I understand the risk. There are a number of things to say about it. First the people that will fail, and there will be some, should be a very, very small group. Those that fail first time will have other chances. It won’t be one hit and you’re out. But we have to be assured that people do have the knowledge and skills to do the job that we want them to do.
In many ways adults’ social workers have led the way in terms of post-qualification accreditation, with the longstanding approved mental health professional role. Some people don’t pass that but it doesn’t mean we’ve created a two-tier profession.
I know Lyn Romeo [the chief social worker for adults] is watching the developments in children’s closely and thinking about how practice accreditation for supervisors etc. might move over to the adult space. We’re talking to various people about how we focus more on post-qualifying accreditation. We’ve made a head start in children and families but that doesn’t preclude it being broadened out.
CC: Where will the pass bar be set for accreditation? Surely there needs to be a credible fail rate, otherwise it risks being a rubber stamping exercise?
IT: We’re still in the process of looking at what the scores from the accreditation pilot mean and the feedback from practitioners. We’re really in the thick of that so that’s all I can really say at this point.
CC: Is there anything you can say about the pilot? A lot of social workers will be anxious about what the assessment is like to go through.
IT: I was looking at practitioner feedback yesterday. I have to say that overall the people that have actually taken the assessment were really positive about it. The closer the assessment got to the practice interface – so the scenarios or simulated practice observation – the more practitioners liked it as they felt they could relate to it more readily.
I think a lot of people were surprised at how they felt about it. I know lots were very, very anxious about taking it. I understand that but there was quite a lot of pleasant surprise around the assessment I think. It gives people an opportunity to reflect on what they know and don’t know. After the practice observation they’ve an opportunity for reflective dialogue and we also prepare a report for people on their knowledge and skills. This has some really good potential for being a useful development tool for people.
CC: Accreditation will be overseen by the new social work regulator. The signs are that the new regulator won’t be independent of government and that’s sparked concerns from BASW among others. All other health and care professions have an independent regulator. Should social workers really tolerate government setting their professional standards?
IT: Government won’t be doing it on its own. It will have to work in partnership with the sector and the profession and it will want to. The second thing is that of course the bill leaves it open as to what the new body will look like – it’s important to make that point at this stage – and those decisions will be made later on.
CC: So there is a possibility the new body will be made independent of government?
IT: There is a possibility, yes.
CC: The mood in the sector is that government is not looking to set up an independent body here. It looks like the DfE wants to repeat its reform of teaching regulation where it closed an independent regulator and set up its own agency.
IT: I think that is one model but it’s not for me to second guess what the final arrangement is. What I think about it is the government has a real interest in social work. Social work is never going to be independent in the way it might want to be because it carries out so much state function, so the relationship with government is always going to be there.
The government has a really major interest in the social work profession and I think that’s clear now. As you know, we’ve an awful lot of activity in this area. I think it is a genuine attempt to want to help the profession and make sure it’s an integral part of public service.
CC: So you don’t think social workers should be concerned by the idea that government could have more control over standards and other fundamentals underpinning what they do?
IT: I think they’re right to ask the questions and there’s a debate to be had. All I’m saying from my end is that I’m not fearful of it, not least because I think we undersell our own influence.
The profession will have many opportunities to be involved in the debate about professional standards. It’s really clear that BASW are positioning themselves as the professional body. I think they’ve got some way to go to get total buy-in from everyone around that but they are a 20,000 strong organisation and they will be a really important part of the debate and consultation around professional standards. I’m not fearful about it.
CC: Is this partly happening because of the College of Social Work closure? The government simply doesn’t want to fund another body that it doesn’t control?
IT: I think government’s got a real interest in the social work profession. The fact we had the HCPC and the College running two different quality assurance arrangements for social work education says something about the difference of opinion around what good social work education looks like. I think something had to happen to fill the gap that the College left.
But the need for the new body also reflects our move towards quality post-qualification standards. We were rapidly moving to a position where we had a regulator (the HCPC) focused on initial qualification, and we were going to have to set up something to manage post-qualification accreditation. I certainly didn’t want there to be two different things going on. That would have made it even more confusing.
CC: Social work education is a key part of the reforms. The DfE has been highly critical of social work education in recent years. Michael Gove, when he was in charge, said social workers were being taught “dogma” that viewed people as victims of injustice. Do you agree with that assessment?
IT: As far back as I can remember the government of the time has been critical of social work education. It’s not a new thing. It has been going on the whole of my career. There’s the debate about whether it’s a profession or an occupation, the tension between academics and employers.
The government is investing about £100m every year in social work education. I think it is right that different providers have a freedom around their curriculum and how they’re organised. At the end of the day it’s up to the providers how they organise themselves but they’ve got to be able to consistently produce really good social workers that feel like they’re ready to be social workers.
CC: The balance of that government investment is changing. Funding for traditional routes is being cut and more is going into fast-track schemes. That’s led to concerns over an “unprecedented” level of inequality where you’ve fast-track students funded to train and guaranteed a job, while traditional students could see bursary support cut further or even withdrawn. Do you recognise the concern?
IT: I do. I recognise the concern but I think we’ve always had inequality. For years and years we’ve had employers who run grow your own schemes where people have been paid a salary and qualified at the same time, so it’s not new territory in that respect. There is a difference of course in the numbers that are now going through employer-based routes. We’ve now got the teaching partnerships too.
I think we do have to watch the impact of all the changes very carefully. Some universities are saying applications for MA courses are down, others haven’t seen a change. Some people are suggesting that may be due to uncertainty about bursaries or because people are pursuing the fast-track options. It’s really important both departments keep a very close eye on the impact of the reforms on the system as a whole.
CC: Would you like to get a place where all the demand for new social workers in children’s services is met through teaching partnerships, Step Up and Frontline rather than traditional degree programmes?
IT: My view is that it’s important to have a diverse range of routes in to the profession. I don’t oppose in any way the continuation of the traditional university route. They have huge value and we need to support them. There’s no plan to get rid of that.
CC: But there’s only so much funding to go around. In terms of the money going into fast-tracks and teaching partnerships, is it not inevitable the traditional social work education provision will have to shrink? Are there too many courses?
IT: We’re not looking to train fewer social workers. We still the need the supply of social workers coming into the system. I think that the universities, as I’m learning, are competitive beasts. They are businesses and they will do whatever they can to be the institution that gets the most students or is recognised as having the highest quality of social work education. That competition is there.
I personally don’t have a view on whether there are too many [traditional courses]. What I want is enough good providers to make sure there are sufficient numbers of social workers coming into the system each year who are really well trained and well supported.
CC: The Children and Social Work Bill allows government to ‘exempt’ some children’s services from certain statutory duties. Can you give an example of what kind of things that would allow social workers to do that they currently can’t?
IT: This is a really classic example of how anxious everybody is because actually what we have been saying, particularly on the children’s side, even before the Munro review and subsequently is that we’ve too many rules in the system, we need to be allowed to exercise our professional judgment and all these rules are getting in our way.
Now, what the bill will hopefully enable us to do, is where authoriites request that [exemptions], they can innovate and do things differently. We’re working with partners in practice now to think through what some of those things might be.
One example is the role of the Independent Reviewing Officer. Is that the best use of those 2,000 or so practitioners, in a very prescriptive role? Often some of our most experienced, talented practitioners are IROs. Could we use that skill, resource differently?
I’ve discussed this with the national group, it’s not news to them. I’ve certainly been in authorities where if you are really struggling then the role of the IRO is really, really important. It can be the most stable part of your system and the children in care have solid relationships with them.
But at a different point in that organisation’s journey, where you have really strong relationships between social workers and with looked-after children, and really good checks and balances and supervisors, then having that third pair of eyes is sometimes, but not always, necessary. It’s about being able to manage your professional resource in the way you need to depending on your local circumstances.
CC: The bill talks about testing ‘new ways of working’. Some have said the DfE essentially wants an academy-style model for children’s social care, where independent trusts that may be not-for-profit are able to be backed by a mix of public and corporate funding. Do you have a problem with that kind of corporate involvement in these services?
IT: It depends what you mean by corporate involvement. I think we as a sector have had corporate involvement for donkey’s years. We work with private providers all the time in residential care, fostering agencies, social work agencies. So that’s not new.
It’s quite interesting because the power to innovate is very focused on professional judgment and trying to test what happens when you’ve got a strong workforce who know they’re a strong social work service. They should be allowed to get on and do the job without having to follow lots of process. That for me is what the power to innovate is all about.
I’m interested in the trust model because I think it creates institutions that are properly practice-focused. You can run really effective children’s services within local government, and I indeed did for years, so it’s not that I don’t think that’s possible. But I’m interested in those totally focused institutions that have children and families at their heart and are social-work driven with all the values and principles that come with that.
CC: Laing Buisson, the market analysts, recently released a report that said the government was “frustrated” more providers hadn’t entered the market to run children’s services and it left independent trusts as the only real alternative to local authorities. Has government been disappointed the market hasn’t developed?
IT: What’s really interesting in that whole debate is that children’s social care, and the social workers who run these systems, we hold such high risk. My view is not just the private sector, but all other parts of the system too, would be extremely cautious about taking on some of that work because it is high risk stuff. I don’t know whether you’d describe government as frustrated but I think it is an area where the rest of the market has been very slow to take up.
CC: What’s in this reform programme for social workers in adult services? Some practitioners feel the agenda is too narrow and focused on children while adults is a bit of an afterthought.
IT: The new body is about developing the post-qualification arena across the whole profession. The reason the reform agenda you’re describing is focused on child and family social work is because the reform agenda is actually about children’s social care and we [social workers] happen to run that system. It’s absolutely right that this is a point of concern and interest for government.
Changes around teaching partnerships, the new body, the post-qualification arrangements all cross over into adult social work. But the reform programme you’re talking about is not just about social work, it is about the children’s social care system.
CC: There are areas where the two departments have different stances. One is on the Principal Social Worker role (PSW). In adults the PSW role is backed strongly and written into statutory guidance. In children’s support has been more qualified and you’ve said the jury’s out on the PSW role’s future. Why the difference?
IT: Well, I think we’re organised differently. Adult social work is most often part of an integrated agenda with health, so it has a very distinct role within a multi-disciplinary context.
On the children’s side it’s not quite like that. You know the point of the principal social worker is to be able to effect change within the practice context but because children’s is much closer together there’s not that same integration across agencies. Social work is in control of that system. You know it’s this debate about the practice leader role and how that will interface with the PSW role.
CC: Do you think they can co-exist or is it going to have to come down to one or the other?
IT: I think they can. I’ve watched, particularly in the last year, the PSW network really grow. They’ve been really useful and contributed a lot to the accreditation and assessment system in particular, but also a whole range of other policy groups.
The network’s bringing that practitioner perspective into policymaking which I think was part of its purpose. They’re very useful to me and it’s great to have them but are employers convinced because they pay the salaries? Are PSWs a useful addition to them? So I think the PSW network over the next year or so has to think about how it demonstrates its impact.
CC: And the role should be evaluated?
IT: Yes, I think so.
CC: Do you think the same should apply to yourself and Lyn as chief social workers. Should your impact be evaluated?
IT: If somebody would like to, that’s fine. That would be really interesting. Obviously I’d have no objection to that at all.
CC: These reforms are high on the government’s agenda. There has been a lot of government rhetoric about things like social workers not being trained properly. A lot of practitioners have found that rhetoric unfair. Could the communications around these reforms not have been handled better?
IT: Well I think, in fact, it was Eileen Munro at the lecture you mentioned earlier who said that actually the government had stopped being so negative about social workers…
CC: I think she said government had stopped coming down immediately on social workers when there was a child death. But that’s a slightly different thing to the rhetoric about too many social workers not being up to the job. Some social workers feel quite angry about that.
IT: It’s hard because the fact is there is government concern about the quality of services being provided to children and families. There are some really good authorities but not everybody is doing it well.
From my perspective, we have ministers onside and they want to see social work succeed. But at the same time they can’t ignore the fact we have some really profound systemic problems and the social work profession is part of that because we run those systems. We have to understand that this isn’t just about the junior members of staff in those systems. We have to be responsible for what we have responsibility for.
CC: Is there anything you’d like the profession to approach differently about the reforms and likewise is there anything you feel the DfE and yourself could do differently?
IT: There was an article in Community Care recently I liked. It wasn’t in any way saying everything is great but it did say come on let’s get on board with this, let’s engage with it constructively. My sense is that there’s more and more of that, of people coming forward and wanting to participate in a positive way which is great.
I suppose from the DfE end, one of the frustrations I know has been about our communications. But we have been on a particular journey doing a lot of the piloting of assessment and accreditation and also developing the policy agenda. We are clear that if there are other opportunities to communicate what we are doing and the direction of travel then we should take them. It’s about building that relationship.
CC: What if people disagree with the reforms? I saw one social worker on Twitter saying that working with something you think’s a bad idea isn’t engagement, its compliance.
IT: When I say engage I mean you have to influence. There’s no point in critiquing if you’re not influencing as a result. You need to be solutions-focused as well and come up with solutions that are realistic and work within the realities of our social and economic context.
CC: On the economic context the reforms are going to cost a lot. A lot of practitioners reading this will be working in services that have been hit hard by cuts with more to come. Is this reform programme really the best use of money?
IT: Without any doubt. If you understand how you run an effective practice system then you know the most important thing is to have well supported, well skilled social workers who are making good decisions about children and providing effective direct work. That’s how you create the right context for effective work with children and families. I’ve no doubt about that but it costs to get there.
CC: What’s your vision for what children and families social work will look like under these reforms compared to what we have now?
IT: I could reel off 10 or 15 children’s social care services that I think are really good. I’d want it to feel like that everywhere. I want us to really understand how you run an effective practice system and how you support and develop social workers to do effective work. That’s what I think will be different.
It takes time, I know there are huge challenges, but I think it’s perfectly possible to do. I think over time we will build a critical mass of people that are doing really focused, effective child and family social work and that will be the tipping point. There’s some way to go but I’m very hopeful.
I think it’s an exciting time for social work. We have got political buy-in, we have resource to do this well. We shouldn’t fight it, we should find a way of working with it.