DfE’s social work accreditation contract reveals national rollout could be delayed

Mott Macdonald's new £3.1m contract to complete testing phase for accreditation mentions possible extensions that would take it beyond planned spring 2020 date for rollout

Image of a pen completing a checklist (credit: JNT Visual / Adobe Stock)
(credit: JNT Visual / Adobe Stock)

National rollout of accreditation for children’s social workers could be delayed beyond its planned spring 2020 start, a renewed contract for running the programme has revealed.

The document, published this week, hands consultancy firm Mott Macdonald a fresh £3.1m deal as the Department for Education (DfE) seeks to put 800 to 1,950 practitioners through the National Assessment and Accreditation System (NAAS) between October and March 2020. This would enable the initial, limited accreditation programme to be robustly evaluated before national rollout.

But, the contract says, the government is building in options to extend arrangements by two extra three-month periods “to take into consideration wider strategic and sector challenges”, potentially seeing the testing phase run to September 2020.

A DfE spokesperson said the extension provisions did not indicate a potential delay to rollout but “have been included to allow for flexibility in shaping the assessment”. They added that national implementation was still planned and that an announcement [would] be made in spring/summer 2020 after so-called ‘phase two’ councils, the second group to trial accreditation, have wrapped up their work.

The spokesperson did not respond to a question about what specific challenges were being referred to in the contract that may lead to extension.

But Claudia Megele, the national chair of the Principal Children and Families Social Worker (PCFSW) network, told Community Care that recent feedback from network members indicated that social workers’ experience of NAAS varied, meaning extra analysis could be required.

Growing participation

The new contract, which was put out to tender in July, supersedes a £3.6m agreement with Mott Macdonald, made in early 2018, to develop accreditation systems and roll them out across authorities participating in the initial phase.

That predecessor deal was intended to cover the programme to the cusp of national rollout, after original plans to accredit all social workers by 2020 were dropped in the wake of a sector backlash.

How does NAAS work?

NAAS is designed to assess children’s social workers and practice supervisors against the government’s post-qualifying standards for each group.
It involves two stages:

  • Employer endorsement – where the employer agrees the candidate has reached the required standard to undertake the assessment;
  • Assessment – which involves four elements: an online knowledge test; two practice assessment simulations with an actor; a reflective assessment; and a written assessment linked to the practice simulations.

Accreditation is voluntary and is not linked to a social worker’s registration.

The 2018 contract envisaged a pool of fewer than 20 early-adopter local authorities putting 1,200 to 2,300 social workers through accreditation by the end of this year.

But, the DfE said this summer, the fact that many extra councils have been recruited to NAAS meant the contract value had already been met – hence the need to re-tender.

Participant employer numbers have swelled to 56, under a two-phase initial rollout, with former children’s minister Nadham Zahawi revealing in July that total spend – before the new contract award – had reached £18.4m.

In May 2019, Community Care revealed that only 300 social workers were due to have been assessed by the end of that month –mostly at a handful of ‘phase one’ councils, the earliest adopters. This appeared to leave the DfE with much to do in order to reach its target accreditation numbers.

‘Diverse experiences and challenges’

Megele, the PCFSW network chair, said the DfE’s latest update to the network, in a meeting in late September, indicated that more than 600 social workers had taken the assessment, with over 80% achieving accreditation. The DfE spokesperson told Community Care numbers were now above 700, with a further 200 assessments booked in during the autumn.

But, Megele warned, feedback from fellow PSWs suggested different participants had had “diverse experiences and challenges around NAAS and its implementation”, with some local authorities embedding accreditation into their career progression while others took a more informal approach.

Mixed picture

Seven phase-two councils who responded to a request by Community Care for an update on their NAAS implementation provided a mixed picture around progress and local arrangements.

The councils – Calderdale, Coventry, Essex, Middlesbrough, Waltham Forest, Wolverhampton and Worcestershire – said they had accredited 140 social workers between them, mostly managers, with a further 137 registered to go forward.

Social workers in Essex – which has almost 800 full-time equivalent practitioners, England’s highest number – accounted for almost half of each of those totals. A spokesperson for Coventry, on the other hand, said the council was “at the start of our journey” and had no figures to report.

Most of the other councils said they had briefed social workers of the benefits of NAAS and had supported practitioners through it. Two, Wolverhampton and Worcestershire, explicitly said they had been offering financial rewards – of £400 per participant – to social workers who completed the NAAS process, something other councils have previously said they have been doing.

But at least one of the remainder, Calderdale, has kept its NAAS implementation separate from formal development structures and offered no incentives. The council said it was “on target” to accredit at least 20% of its workforce by March.

“Given the importance of NAAS and its implications for practitioners and employers, a more detailed dataset and analysis is needed to better understand the themes and learnings from colleagues’ experiences of NAAS and the critical success factors for its implementation,” Megele said. “This can help better preparation and more effective support for colleagues in general and for the 20% who were not successful in particular.”

Megele added that information fed back by colleagues pointed to differences between employers in the levels of support social workers receive prior to accreditation, as well as the sequencing of the pre-accreditation process.

“This can influence practitioners’ experience of NAAS and its outcome,” Megele said. “Therefore, establishing a unified approach and a uniform set of standards of support for social workers can help mitigate some of the anxieties associated with NAAS and have a positive impact on participation while ensuring equal opportunity and more effective support for all practitioners.”

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