An article by Brendan Clifford in September 2017 prompted renewed debate about a topic which has occupied many in the profession – and in government – in recent years; how to improve the effectiveness of practice leadership across children’s and adults’ services.
Much faith was placed in the principal social worker role created following a recommendation – initially aimed at children’s services – in Professor Eileen Munro’s 2011 child protection review. In this, she stated that the holders of this post should be “a senior manager with lead responsibility for practice in the local authority and who is still actively involved in frontline practice”.
However, concerns have grown over the consistency of the effectiveness of this role across the country, particularly in children’s services. Tony Stanley, chief social worker and assistant director at Birmingham council, has warned that the future of the role is uncertain despite praising the work of individual PSWs. According to Stanley, a key problem weakening the PSW leadership role is the number of assistant directors or senior managers who “act as” PSW as an add-on to other roles.
Meanwhile, Clifford, a former chief social worker and assistant director who is now service director for city health in Wolverhampton, argued that the discussion about the PSW role has been obscuring a wider debate about the qualifications and experience the sector’s senior leaders should possess if they are to effectively shape practice.
To address this, he proposed that statutory directors of children’s and adults’ services should be registered social workers, supported by a single career structure with different pathways but with the primacy of a social work qualification “reasserted as the norm for leadership of social work and social care practice for which councils are responsible”.
This would be ambitious, given that many directors and senior managers are not qualified social workers and come from other professional backgrounds, notably education in the case of children’s services.
Indeed, a Freedom of Information request to local authorities by Community Care found only two-fifths of statutory directors of children’s services and just over a third of statutory directors of adults’ services are social workers registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (see box 1).
Box 1: Registered directors
Community Care asked all 152 local authorities in England if their statutory directors of children’s and adults’ services were social workers registered with the Health and Care Professions Council and, if not, if they were registered with other professional bodies. More than 130 local authorities responded.
- 56 statutory directors were registered with the HCPC.
- 10 were qualified social workers but not registered with the HCPC.
- One was a qualified social worker previously registered with the HCPC, but this had lapsed “as it is no longer relevant to the role”.
- Four were registered teachers.
- One was a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA).
- 46 statutory directors were registered with the HCPC.
- 10 were qualified social workers but not registered with the HCPC.
- Two were registered with the Nursing and Midwifery Council, one with the General Medical Council, and one with the UK Public Health register.
- One was a corporate member and fellow of the Chartered Institute of Housing, one a member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, and two were registered with CIPFA.
A separate FOI by the Adult Principal Social Workers Network, on the subject of diversity among local authority board members and senior social work managers in adults’ services, found just 43.7% had social work qualifications, and most of those seemed to be directors of adults’ services. It added: “What was less clear…was whether these senior managers had retained the HCPC registration and by default their CPD and evidence base to practice.”
Licence to practise
Despite these findings, Clifford feels his suggestions have validity. Speaking to Community Care, he draws an analogy between the way his proposed single career path could work and the system for driving licences, where different categories correspond to different types and levels of driving skills and qualifications. He suggests a “category A” social worker would be a frontline worker, and they could aspire to moving through the career path to category J, for example, for systems leaders.
Although all of this would be underpinned by social work values and the activities to be validated through this system would be referred to as social work, he feels the definition of social work has become “too narrow”. He believes his proposal would enable the wider range of professionals involved in delivering services to children, families and adults to be brought in to one structured career path, “and we might as well call it social work”. For example, someone who has initially trained as an occupational therapist could enter this career path at a stage appropriate for their skills and experience.
The current requirements of professional registration need not be an obstacle, he says. “I think registration should follow the requirements of what we need in the sector. We can make the definition whatever we want it to be. It needs to reflect the reality.”
Clifford points to the overlap between different strands of work on practice leadership ongoing in the sector (see box 2), and the shared conversations between the likes of the chief social workers for children and adults, the British Association of Social Workers, Association of Directors of Children’s Services, and Association of Directors of Adult Social Services.
He asks: “Where’s the next stage of the shared conversation?” There are shared agendas – that’s the point of systems thinking too.”
BOX 2: Policy on practice leadership
The government’s knowledge and skills statement for practice leaders and practice supervisors in child and family social work defines practice leaders as “qualified social workers with the day to day operational responsibility across the whole local system for child and family social work practice, and for practitioners and practice supervisors”. The statement will form the basis of the controversial new national accreditation system for practice leaders, which has been criticised by the ADCS.
Practice leadership is a core element of the Professional Capabilities Framework (PCF), the overarching professional standards framework in social work.
The inclusion of the adults’ PSW role in statutory guidance on the Care Act 2014 has been credited with giving it greater influence. The guidance says adults’ PSWs should, among other things, “lead and oversee excellent social work practice” and “support and develop arrangements for excellent practice”. Proposed changes to the statutory Working Together guidance could provide similar impetus in children’s services, stating that “designated Principal Social Workers have a key role in developing the practice and the practice methodology that underpins direct work with children and families”.
He also suggests the creation of Social Work England, which will take over the regulation of social work from the Health and Care Professions Council, could be an “opportunity” to reconsider the whole system of continuing professional development and the requirements for practice leadership in social work.
‘System leaders, not social work leaders’
Rachael Wardell, chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services’ workforce development policy committee, does not think it’s important that statutory directors are registered social workers or have social work qualifications.
“The reason is because directors of children’s services and directors of adults’ services are not social work leaders,” says Wardell, who is not a qualified social worker. “We are system leaders across the whole system of services to children and families.”
Social work practice leadership is most likely to be vested in the assistant director of children’s services, a role which she says is “expected to be held by social work qualified staff”.
Wardell, who is also corporate director for communities at West Berkshire council, a role which covers both children’s and adults’ services, says she hasn’t heard those directors who are registered social workers “talk strongly about the benefits to their directorship from continuing registration.
“But for many it’s important to them professionally and personally that they are still social workers.”
Although the landscape in children’s services has changed significantly since the DCS role was created through the Children Act 2004, particularly with most schools now self-governing and employing their own staff rather than being under direct local authority control, Wardell stresses the role involves building relationships with a variety of non-social-work agencies.
“I would say the Department for Education has focused more on social work practice in the recent past quite deliberately and obviously as directors we’ve needed to be involved in that,” she says. “But you can’t take your eye off the ball in relation to all of the other areas of practice we cover.”
Whether or not they have a social work background, Wardell says it’s “really important for directors to be connected to the quality of practice”.
She adds: “I wouldn’t prescribe what any other local authority does, but I would observe that in those places that do well, everybody takes the quality of practice seriously, whether or not they have a social work background.”
In her case, she has been working closely with West Berkshire’s assistant director for children’s services and principal social worker as the authority implements its family safeguarding practice model, which was developed by Hertfordshire council through the government’s innovation programme.
“I’ve been engaged in that with our AD and PSW, taking professional advice and having the personal interest that I would expect any director to have,” she adds.
‘Practice leadership in action’
Like Wardell, Stanley does not feel that directors must be qualified and registered social workers. However, he says they should be “absolutely able to articulate the practice system and what practice leadership means”.
Stanley advocates an approach where senior leaders are focused on “where services are involved with families and how we’re practising to bring about change”, not one that’s “about the what, the when and the who. That doesn’t drive the practice system”.
In a paper to be published soon in Practice: Social Work in Action (co-authored with Dr Steph Kelly, a lecturer at Whitireia, Aotearoa New Zealand), he is critical of an environment where quantitative measures such as organisational timeframes and key performance indicators “dominate notions of practice ‘quality’”, and argues that there is too much focus “on senior people and the qualities and attributes they hold”.
Instead, he proposes that practice leadership should be “something everyone sees themselves contributing to”.
Underpinning this vision are the values outlined in the International Federation of Social Workers’ definition of social work, with “explicit links” to these values “promoted at all levels of the organisation”. Stanley also highlights the importance of practice leaders holding and developing ethnographic research skills and using findings from service users to inform practice improvements.
Key to this is the promotion by senior leaders of an agreed practice framework, which
links their leadership activities to frontline workers. A logical development from this, says Stanley, is the use of a practice leadership framework. This approach is being developed by the West Midlands social work teaching partnership, chaired by Stanley and involving 11 local authorities in the region and Birmingham University.
Stanley has described this model as “practice leadership in action”, and in his paper
says that it “places the organisation’s practice framework at the centre, so wherever you are in the system you start by asking what this is, how do I use it, refer to it, draw on it etc.”
This approach is at a very early phase in its development, a stage which Clifford’s proposal for a single career path hasn’t even reached. However, with such senior figures in the profession willing to challenge and suggest alternatives to predominant models and thinking, the debate about practice leadership shows no signs of abating any time soon.