The Department for Education has scrapped its national assessment and accreditation system (NAAS) for children’s social workers.
It plans to introduce a replacement accreditation programme later this year, designed to be “more sustainable” and deliver “a better overall experience for social workers” that was “more meaningful” for them and employers. This is likely to be based on remote testing, rather than the in-person model delivered through NAAS assessment centres.
The decision to end the controversial scheme was welcomed by the Association of Directors of Children’s Services and UNISON, with the latter saying that it had “needlessly piled extra pressure on social workers”.
More than 1,700 accredited
Since being introduced in 2018, more than 1,700 frontline practitioners and practice supervisors have been accredited across 69 local authorities and children’s trusts. This is equivalent to just over 5% of the children’s statutory workforce. As of 2020, the scheme had cost the public purse £24m.
The DfE’s original plan was for all children’s social workers to be assessed by 2020, which it later revised to rolling out the scheme from that year following a series of trial phases.
However, since its conception in 2014 as a means of assessing social workers against core knowledge and skills requirements, it has been beset by a lack of buy-in from sector bodies and lower-than-expected engagement from practitioners. It was also stalled in 2020 by the pandemic.
No more assessments
Announcing the closure in an email to local authority NAAS leads this week, the DfE said it would hold no further tests at its assessment centres. It had already cancelled assessment centres it had planned to operate this month in order to minimise non-essential journeys as part of ‘Plan B’ Covid measures. Social workers booked for January assessments will not be able to rebook.
The NAAS online portal will close at the end of February, after which candidates enrolled in the scheme will not be able to access their results and certificates.
DfE said it would write to candidates to encourage them to download their certificates and results before the February deadline and that the NAAS site’s knowledge hub would continue to be available until 31 March.
Shift to online testing mooted
The department said it remained committed to assessing and accrediting social workers against the post-qualifying standards (formerly the knowledge and skills statements) for child and family practitioners and practice supervisors, as under NAAS.
It indicated to NAAS leads that its decision to scrap the scheme was partly motivated by the challenge and cost of delivering tests through in-person assessments.
In a Q&A seen by Community Care, it said ending the scheme would “allow us the opportunity to develop a new approach and deliver assessment on a more sustainable basis, while offering more flexibility and a better overall experience for social workers”.
“This decision has been informed by feedback from social workers and local authorities, as well as learning from other professions that have moved to remote assessment during the pandemic,” it added.
In developing the replacement scheme, the department said it would “explore the possibility of moving towards assessments that can be taken outside of traditional centres, instead making greater use of digital technology”.
“We will be ending the current model of NAAS to develop a revised approach that takes account of feedback from the sector and learnings from the pandemic, while retaining the same rigour, consistency and user-focus,” a DfE spokesperson said.
The department encouraged the 69 local authorities that had piloted NAAS to continue to embed the post-qualifying standards (PQS) into their learning cultures.
“The PQS remain an important part of understanding the expectations of the knowledge and skills child and family social workers need to carry out their roles effectively,” it told NAAS leads. “Social workers felt that having the mechanisms to evaluate performance against the PQS was one of the most beneficial aspects of NAAS. We would encourage local authorities/trusts who have embedded the PQS to continue to do so, and to build their learning cultures locally.”
It also confirmed that accredited social workers would still be able to use their status.
Mixed evaluation of scheme
In the briefing to NAAS leads, the DfE said that while an evaluation of the scheme published in November 2020 showed some benefits, “it also found that we must do more to make assessment and accreditation more meaningful to social workers and their employers”.
The study, by analytics firm Kantar, surveyed social workers that had been through NAAS. Just under a quarter of those in the first two pilot groups said, before their assessments, that they felt NAAS would improve their ability as a social worker, rising to 36% of those in the third group.
Practitioners viewed assessment against the PQS as the most beneficial aspect of the scheme, while leaders felt NAAS had accelerated the embedding of the standards in local areas. However, while practitioners found assessments a positive experience, they “often felt that there was very little support and reflection from their employers post-assessment for those who had met the accreditation”.
And only between 10% and 17% of practitioners in successive surveys felt that NAAS would have a positive impact on staff morale, with 38% to 55% of respondents saying it would not.
Controversial value-for-money claims
The report also made tentative claims – based on findings from the first five pilot authorities – that implementing NAAS had saved between £2.03-£2.28 for every £1 invested in implementation, through reduced use of agency staff and numbers of children on child protection plans and in care. It said this potentially overestimated the impact because the analysis did not control for the impact of other interventions that might have generated the same results.
Last year, social work lecturer Robin Sen raised concerns with the UK Statistics Authority about the DfE’s subsequent use of the value for money claims in correspondence with stakeholders as “indicative early findings”, but without the caveats set out in the evaluation.
In response to Sen, the UK Statistics Authority said that the limitations of the methodology underpinning the cost saving claims should have been made clearer by the DfE.
Directors welcome programme’s scrapping
In response to the decision to end NAAS, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) said it had “long held reservations about the necessity and value for money” of the scheme.
Rachael Wardell, chair of ADCS’s workforce development policy committee, said the DfE’s decision to end the scheme offered an “opportunity to invest in other parts of the wider children’s workforce that equally need our attention, such as early help services, and to think differently about further development of the social work workforce”.
“Many local authorities will have their own CPD offer in place to support social workers and it is important that they are given the financial means to continue or expand these offers,” she said.
“We also know that retaining enough experienced social workers is a big challenge and ADCS urges the government to use this opportunity to develop a national recruitment and retention strategy to encourage more people into the profession, and crucially to want to stay. We look forward to working with the department in the coming months.”
‘Millions wasted on unnecessary scheme’
UNISON national officer for social work Gill Archer said: “NAAS needlessly piled extra pressure on social workers already straining under their huge caseloads, and removed them from frontline work.
“Millions of pounds have been wasted on an unnecessary scheme when robust systems were in place to ensure standards. What’s really missing is proper funding and resources.
“This closure is welcome and UNISON will be having discussions with the Department for Education on a new approach.”
The department contracted consultancy Mott MacDonald to deliver the NAAS and will not renew its contract when it expires at the end of March.
A spokesperson for Mott MacDonald said it was “proud of our work and the progress achieved by the NAAS programme”.
Call for ‘transparent evaluation’ of scheme
The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) said many of its members had not supported NAAS and questioned the government’s investment in the scheme.
“We welcome the ending of the current model of NAAS and expect a full and transparent evaluation of NAAS up to 2020 including financial investment and impact and measurements of success,” said a BASW spokesperson.
“Prior to any future proposals about a revised approach to additional assessment and accreditation of children and family practitioners and supervisors the sector and trade union movement should be consulted and heard.”
Details of new scheme unclear
Apart from a suggested focus on digital assessments, there are no other details of how the scheme replacing NAAS will differ. It is also unclear how other government policy commitments tied to NAAS will be fulfilled.
The government’s autism strategy, published in July 2021, stated that, in future, social workers going through NAAS would be assessed on their knowledge of practice with autistic children.
And a report for the government in June 2020 said that social workers carrying out assessments for private law proceedings should be NAAS accredited to tackle significant weaknesses, particularly in relation to domestic abuse.
DfE could not confirm whether the new programme would take on the role assigned to NAAS assessments in these reports.