As notable as the flurry of policy announcements in education secretary Justine Greening’s first speech on social work was her tone in delivering them.
Her department, she said, wanted to work with the social care sector in delivering reforms. There was recognition of the challenges facing social workers and the shared stake ministers, the profession and practice leaders have in improving care. There should, said Greening, be no “us and them” relationship.
Notably absent was the more abrasive approach of the education secretary’s immediate predecessors, Nicky Morgan and Michael Gove. Morgan largely sidelined social workers and their professional representatives in key decision making. Gove went further and actively attacked them – famously slamming social work courses for producing too many practitioners full of “idealistic” left-wing dogma who weren’t up to the job.
Greening’s warmer words will be welcomed, albeit cautiously. The test will be whether they translate into action, particularly given there was good political reason for her to appease social care leaders last week.
Children and Social Work Bill controversy
The Department for Education has been rocked by the fierce opposition to measures in the Children and Social Work Bill, particularly controversial proposals to allow councils to apply for exemptions from statutory duties to test new ways of working.
When the DfE rushed the bill out prior to the EU referendum it knew it wouldn’t win over social workers en masse, and it didn’t particularly care. But it hadn’t bargained for its plans being so unpopular elsewhere, with a lack of universal support from the major children’s charities presenting a significant headache.
With momentum against the clauses building in the Lords, the DfE has been scrambling to shore up backing from all quarters and amendments to the bill have been tabled in a bid to win over critics.
In the case of social workers this has led to a commitment to ditch plans to bring regulation of the profession under government control. Instead a new independent regulator will be set up. On the wider controversy around the exemption clauses, a tighter approval process for any exemptions has been introduced in a bid to allay fears the powers will erode safeguards for children.
The bill faces a key vote in the Lords today. It remains to be seen whether the government concessions will be enough. One certainty is that they should never have been needed in the first place.
After all, the problems the DfE say these contentious reforms seek to address are remarkably uncontentious. Firstly, social workers face too much bureaucracy. Secondly, they might be better served having a dedicated regulator.
Confusion and mistrust
The problem is that DfE never asked social workers for the solutions, it simply told them. Like the revelation that children’s social workers would face pass or fail accreditation tests, there was no consultation on the plans before they were announced, and poor communication around them in the months that followed.
At best this fostered confusion over the DfE’s proposals. At worst it fed a deep suspicion of ministers’ motives. The debacle of this year’s delayed social work bursary allocations – in stark contrast to the smooth announcements of funding for fast-track schemes, and the department’s mishandling of the chief social worker for children’s potential conflict of interest when awarding a major contract, did little to help.
There are signs of a more constructive way forward. The DfE has stepped up its engagement with the British Association of Social Workers in recent months. It has also invited the Association of Professors of Social Work and JUCSWEC to be part of an advisory group to steer the development of a new social work regulator. Feedback from practitioners is also being sought on what they want from their professional bodies.
If the talks are to work, they will require efforts from both sides.
The DfE needs to acknowledge its role in having deepened the “us and them” split Greening warned of. It should make good on promises to consult on accreditation, and soon, given it first pledged social workers would have a say on the proposals ‘within weeks’ back in January.
The department must also be prepared to listen to views outside its partners in practice councils and others who champion its reforms. Their feedback is important, but not representative. Criticism from elsewhere should not simply be dismissed as paranoid, negative, or both. Doing so creates exactly the issues the department currently faces with the bill.
For their part the sector bodies must go beyond simply calling for broad asks for CPD frameworks, lower caseloads, better supervision and more resources, and instead evidence and articulate their own vision for reform. The ‘how’ must be addressed, as well as ‘what’ is needed. Appeals for ministers to revisit the recommendations of the 2009 Social Work Taskforce will, rightly or wrongly, largely fall on deaf ears. This government wants to make its own mark on its own priorities.
The organisations must also use the strength of their memberships to identify the bureaucratic hurdles social workers face every day and how they can be eradicated. Likewise to spot the issues with the current regulator that might be avoided when the new body is created.
Because for all the mistakes the DfE has made in driving this reform programme, in the department’s defence it is investing in social work. This is in stark contrast to the Department of Health, which, aside from the good work of the chief social worker for adults, appears to have largely lost interest in social care and social work at ministerial level.
The temptation is to argue that the hundreds of millions the DfE is spending on its reforms could and should have gone to local authorities. The problem is that the sums involved – split between the 152 councils in England – wouldn’t amount to much and would be quickly swallowed up by the system. The DfE instead is trying to target its spend on projects it hopes will have a lasting impact.
The best chance of achieving that will involve listening to social workers about what they need, not simply railroading them into reforms with little warning. But if and when the invite comes, social work’s leaders must also have their own answers ready on how the funding might be better spent than what’s currently on the table.