Less than a year remains until the government’s National Assessment and Accreditation System (NAAS) for children’s social workers is due to be rolled out across the country.
The scheme has been contentious from the outset, with criticisms from directors and frontline staff leading to it being massively scaled back two years ago, and introduced in two initial phases to select groups of councils.
Since the Department for Education (DfE) awarded contracts in 2018 to deliver and evaluate NAAS in those early-adopter areas – to a minimum of 1,200 social workers by the end of 2019 – there has been little news.
The latest NAAS contract – which saw Manchester consultancy AlphaPlus appointed in February to generate, validate and maintain assessment content to support Spring 2020’s national rollout – said the programme was “on track”.
But a DfE briefing to children’s principal social workers a month later revealed that only 300 social workers, across the 53 phase one and two authorities implementing NAAS, were due to have been assessed by the end of May.
With the clock ticking, we spoke to 15 of those councils to try to get a handle on how NAAS is progressing in different parts of the country.
None reported specific problems with the scheme, but take-up to date among social workers has been far lower than was originally envisaged by the government, with some councils now paying practitioners up to £1,000 to take part.
Under the original plans for children’s social worker accreditation, ministers had wanted to assess all 30,000 practitioners in England by 2020.
That number was slashed in 2017, to between 1,200 and 2,300 “by the end of 2019”, in the wake of a sector backlash. Social work directors questioned the value of the scheme in a time of austerity, suggesting money would be better spent on frontline services, while Unison called on members to boycott it.
NAAS: the story so far
- March 2015: KPMG, Morning Lane Associates and LEO Learning awarded contract to develop assessments for children’s social workers
- July 2015: Isabelle Trowler, the chief social worker, unveils knowledge and skills statements (KSS) for practice supervisors and leaders, to form foundation of new assessment process
- March 2017: Local authority directors criticise social worker accreditation plans as offering poor value
- July 2017: NAAS programme scaled back following consultation backlash from sector bodies
- December 2017: Children’s minister Robert Goodwill reveals private firms have received £8.5 million as part of £11.2 million spent on accreditation development
- January 2018: contracts awarded to Mott MacDonald and Kantar to deliver and evaluate the first two phases of limited rollout
- July 2018: Unison tells members not to participate in accreditation as it begins at phase-one councils
- February 2019: Contract awarded to AlphaPlus to deliver content for national rollout
- March 2019: Evaluation of phase-one councils due to have taken place
- Spring 2020: National rollout due to start
The £445,000 contract awarded in January 2018 to research partner Kantar, to evaluate the two-phase accreditation rollout delivered via a larger £3.6 million deal with Mott MacDonald, said “around 550 social workers in Phase 1 LAs” would be assessed by March 2019.
Mott MacDonald’s agreement said the international consultancy must “endeavour” to hit targets for phase-one assessments, but further details were redacted in the version published by the government.
The Kantar document went on to state that, subject to phase one’s successful completion, “a minimum of 900” social workers would be accredited by January 2020 at phase two councils.
At the time this group was expected to number just 12 to 15, rather than the 48 it has now swelled to.
Speaking to phase one authorities – Bury, Leeds, Manchester, Oldham and Wigan – revealed diverging levels of take-up among children’s social workers, 162 of whom had been assessed.
No authority had wrapped up their programme by March of this year, as per the DfE’s original intention.
At Bury, 28 social workers – a quarter of eligible employees – have completed their accreditation. A spokesperson said the council is “committed to the ongoing rollout of NAAS to the workforce”, with more staff due to be assessed in June.
Among neighbouring North West authorities, Manchester said it had assessed 66 social workers (about 15% of practitioners, according to the most recent workforce statistics, though these figures also include practice leaders who are not yet able to be assessed), Oldham 34 (18%) and Wigan 25 (12%). Manchester said it had a further 36 practitioners in the pipeline, while Wigan said planned assessments would take it to 20% of the eligible workforce.
Leeds, by contrast, said it had accredited just nine people – less than 1.5% of its qualified social workers – with another five to follow in June.
Richard Whiskin, a local Unison convenor, said the union had run a “big campaign” against NAAS but that this had not soured relations with council leaders. He said the ‘outstanding’ authority “has its own picture of what good social work is like” that was unlikely to be bettered by accrediting staff. We have approached Leeds council for comment on its relatively low numbers and will update this article when we get a response.
Several phase-two councils – Hackney, Waltham Forest and Calderdale – said they had already accredited more social workers than Leeds, or were due to do so imminently. But three others, Islington, Bradford and Cornwall, are still at the planning stages, with the latter two due to start accrediting social workers in September.
A DfE spokesperson declined to comment on the total numbers accredited and the cost to date, or say whether targets had been revised or if there were any concerns over the robustness of evaluations in light of them being based on fewer people.
‘We put a perimeter around it’
As well as assessing social workers at different rates, councils have taken different approaches to implementing accreditation, which at this stage is voluntary.
In Oldham, the principal social worker (PSW), Bernie O’Brien, told Community Care the council had “put a perimeter around it”, separating it from progression pathways, until evaluations of the early phases had been completed. She said this had helped get all those affected, including unions, onside with the council’s involvement.
“We’ve promoted this as a development and training opportunity, to be the first accredited social workers – that prestige – and for them to demonstrate professionalism as well,” O’Brien said.
Testing times: social workers reflect on the NAAS experience
Two social work managers from phase-two councils, who asked not to be named, shared their recent experiences of taking the NAAS programme.
The first, at a northern council, said her employer had a good track record at supporting and developing staff that had carried over into its approach to accreditation.
“I did a mock day at a local university and spent an hour or two looking at theories and the knowledge and skills statements (KSS),” she said. “What it said to me really was, once I’d done the mock, it’s what you do day in day out. I came away thinking, ‘I know that – we are good at what we do’.”
She described the testing itself as “quite intense” but said it had gone smoothly.
The second manager, based in the south, said he had chosen to be one of the first to be assessed in order to set an example to frontline staff.
“If I am leading and doing workshops, talking about KSS, the professional capability framework, CPD and assessment then I need to have done it so can share my experience and understanding,” he said.
He added that there was an understandable “level of anxiety” among social workers in his authority but said NAAS, while not perfect, was a “fair system [with] no surprises or trick questions”.
Echoing the opinions expressed by directors, both social workers said NAAS needed to be properly evaluated and then implemented purposefully, backed with proper resources in order to get councils’ buy-in.
“If it was rolled out nationally and not tied into anything [in terms of progression] I would question what that is about,” said the northern manager.
Her southern counterpart said he felt that social workers should have to resit the desk-based multiple-choice element of NAAS every couple of years as part of re-registration.
“If all I ever want to be is a social worker and NAAS says, ‘meet the standards at 23 and that lasts until you are 65,’ that doesn’t make sense,” he said. “It needs to be mandatory – not to redo the whole assessment, but do the questions online and if you don’t meet the standards, you can log back on until you do.”
In contrast to the tone struck by Oldham, a spokesperson for Manchester council – alone among phase-one authorities – confirmed accreditation was being built into its social work career progression structures.
But some phase-two councils have gone further, with sources telling Community Care that at least three – Stockport, Trafford and Bexley – are offering payments of between £500 and £1,000 to social workers taking part in NAAS.
These payments have come out of grants paid by the DfE, which authorities said they have mostly been spending on paying for project leads, learning materials and administrative support for running their local programmes.
Stockport and Trafford did not comment on what had influenced them to pay social workers to put their names forward for NAAS.
But a Bexley spokesperson said: “We took the decision to reward the honorarium to recognise our participants’ part in the early development.
“We hope their involvement will ultimately help shape the national rollout for the profession,” the spokesperson added.
Given social workers’ understandable nerves about stepping into an exam-like environment that could put their professional competence on the line, councils said they had been putting measures in place to make things easier for volunteers.
At Wigan, the director of children’s services, James Winterbottom, said social workers who put their names forward receive a “robust package of support”, including training from Salford university.
How the NAAS process works
NAAS is split into three strands – for frontline practitioners, practice supervisors and practice leaders – with the last still under development and so not operational just yet.
The accreditation process takes part in several stages. Before they take any tests, social workers who volunteer must first have their practice endorsed by a manager, who signs a statement to say they are ready.
Social workers then prepare for their assessment and select a date at a nearby assessment centre. Participating councils are using a range of methods to help practitioners, including support from experienced peers, study time off work and mock assessment days organised by local universities.
On the day of the assessment, social workers complete three separate tests – an online question and answer test, an online scenario-based assessment and a simulated practice observation. They have four hours in which to complete these. Results are shared only with the endorsing manager, and do not affect practitioners’ registration, with employers expected to support those who do not pass to retake tests. Several councils indicated that local pass rates were near-100%.
“We also encourage our staff to take study days prior to their assessments, so they can fully prepare,” Winterbottom said.
At Oldham, O’Brien acknowledged there had been apprehension among social workers – including as to whether NAAS could affect their future pay and grading – but said feedback had been “mostly OK”.
“When they’ve done it, they are quite enthused about it – some enjoyed it as a way to demonstrate or remind themselves about how skilled they are,” O’Brien said.
She added that Oldham was now helping nearby phase-two councils to prepare for putting staff through NAAS, and had been offering feedback on the programme – though she declined to share what had been said.
‘Baseline of standards’
Claudia Megele, the chair of the children’s PSW network, said the national picture to date tended to bear out Oldham’s experience.
“From what I have observed nationally and regionally, the NAAS is creating a baseline of standards for social workers and supervisors,” Megele told Community Care.
“It articulates clearly to employers about the importance of embedding effective social work practice across the workforce and what’s expected at any given career point,” she added. “It encourages employers to extend their training and development offer to support social workers to achieve accreditation.”
Megele said that in many local authorities, PSWs had taken the lead on implementing NAAS – with some taking “creative and innovative” approaches to learning – and that there was a fruitful ongoing dialogue with the DfE.
But she warned the support and time off employers must give to social workers for NAAS to succeed could still prove an issue as the programme expands, given the extreme strain many councils are under.
“Although NAAS and [the knowledge and skills statements] have refocused attention on the importance of continuous professional development, it is important local authorities and social workers are supported so this process does not aggravate the persistent challenges of recruitment and retention exacerbated by continued austerity,” Megele said.
‘Issues around long-term sustainability’
At the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), England national director Maris Stratulis said the organisation’s policy of supporting social workers who choose to do NAAS, without endorsing the programme, remained in place.
“BASW consistently promotes high professional standards of practice underpinned by investment in the workforce, continuous professional investment and conducive working conditions,” she said.
“Our concern is that there are issues around cost and implications for national rollout, especially in light of the recent report from the communities and local government select committee about the funding crisis facing children’s services,” she added.
“The key issues in terms of the NAAS system are around long-term sustainability, financial investment and value for money, as well as the evaluation process, given the small sample of social workers who have been accredited so far.”
Meanwhile Rachael Wardell, chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) workforce development policy committee, also said her organisation’s concerns had not changed.
“We look forward to the findings of [the independent] evaluation,” Wardell said. “As yet there has been no commitment from government to fully fund any further rollout of the system nor to make it mandatory and to implement at pace if it is taken forward.
“This is crucial if we are to avoid the creation of a two-tier system in which some high quality social workers are accredited and others aren’t,” she added. “ADCS believes the amount spent to date on NAAS would be better spent on developing a national recruitment and retention strategy to encourage more people to into the profession, and in particular to want to stay.”