DfE backs early career framework but rejects national pay scales for children’s social workers

Council children's practitioners will get two years of "high-quality support" followed by three-year programme to become "expert practitioners", but without national pay scales to recognise progress

Group meeting
Credit: Monkey Business/Adobe Stock

The proposed five-year early career framework for social workers is most likely to:

  • Make little difference to current levels of support and stress (49%, 73 Votes)
  • Increase pressures on early career social workers (37%, 56 Votes)
  • Improve support and development for early career social workers (14%, 21 Votes)

Total Voters: 150

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The Department for Education (DfE) has backed a care review proposal for a five-year early career framework (ECF) for the development of children’s social workers, but rejected its call to introduce national pay scales to recognise progress.

The ECF would provide newly qualified local authority children’s social workers with two years of “high-quality support and development” that would replace the existing 12-month assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE).

In years three to five of the ECF, social workers would be supported to become “expert practitioners”, which the DfE said would create “a cohort of highly trained social workers capable of dealing with the most complex cases and spreading best practice”.

The ECF will be tested by a group of early adopter councils from this year with a view to it becoming an entitlement from September 2026.

In setting out the proposals in its children’s social care strategy, issued for consultation last week, the DfE has accepted the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care’s recommendation to introduce an ECF to boost social worker skills, knowledge, career development and retention.

National pay scales rejected

The care review said the ECF should be complemented by national pay scales, which would be tied to progression through the framework.

In its final report last year, the review, led by ex-Frontline chief executive Josh MacAlister, said the scales would “better recognise and reward the development of expertise”, while preventing councils from competing each other for practitioners on the basis of pay.

However, the DfE has rejected national pay scales on the grounds that they risked destabilising existing pay arrangements, which, in most cases, are set by individual councils in line with a national framework negotiated by employers and unions.

“Local government already has a national pay spine which includes job descriptions and grading for child and family social workers to help achieve consistency, transparency and fairness in pay and progression,” the DfE said.

“We do not intend to create new DfE-led pay scales. Nationalising child and family social worker pay and removing a subsection of council employees from local government pay and conditions may be destabilising to councils without having the desired effects.”

DfE wants ‘fairer’ pay

In its separate consultation on measures to reduce the use and cost of agency children’s social in local authorities, the department said it wanted to see “greater national consistency and fairness around pay” for practitioners doing the same role in different councils, whether agency or employed.

This would underpin its moves to place a national cap on council payments to agencies in a way that would reduce locum pay to the level of the average for practitioners doing the same role on an employed basis, once benefits such as holiday and pensions are taken into account.

In its consultation on the strategy, the DfE said that it wanted to explore how councils could recognise progression through the ECF using existing local government pay scales.

To achieve this, it said it would “work with the sector to ensure that current pay rates, job descriptions and grading reflect the challenge of the role and career progression”, and also “look to improve the quality of pay data”, though there are no details as yet on how this process will work.

Framework to be ‘based on key social work skills’

The DfE said the ECF would be based on a framework document “setting out the detailed, comprehensive skills and knowledge needed to support and protect vulnerable children, families and carers at both practitioner and expert practitioner levels”.

This would build on the existing post-qualifying standards for child and family social work (formerly the knowledge and skills statement), last updated in 2018, but also be tied to the proposed national framework setting out what the DfE expects of local authorities in children’s services.

The framework, recommended by the care review, was also issued for consultation last week, proposing four overarching outcomes councils should be aiming to achieve, two “enablers” to support them in doing so and a set of indicators tied to each.

Proposed national framework outcomes

  • Outcome 1: Children, young people and families stay together and get the help they need, as measured by indicators including the percentage of repeat referrals and the rate of new entrants into care.
  • Outcome 2: Children and young people are supported by their family network, with indicators including percentage of children in care living with their family networks.
  • Outcome 3: Children and young people are safe in and outside of their homes, with measures including the rate and number of child protection investigations.
  • Outcome 4: Children in care and care leavers have stable, loving homes, as measured by the percentages of children in foster and residential care, stability of care placements and percentage of care leavers in unsuitable accommodation, among other indicators.
  • Enabler 1: The workforce is equipped and effective, as measured by social work turnover, agency social worker rates and caseloads.
  • Enabler 2: Leaders drive conditions for effective practice, with indicators including turnover of directors of children’s services and practice leaders.

The ECF will also be informed by a set of practice guides, also as recommended by the care review. The DfE said these would “set out what is known from current evidence and practice expertise about how best to achieve the outcomes and deliver against the expectations of the national framework”.

Practice group appointed to develop guidance

The development of the guides and the ECF will be overseen by the children’s social care national practice group, which was set up in October 2022, helped produce the national framework and was also recommended by the care review.

A 16-strong body chaired by chief social worker for children and families Isabelle Trowler and including 13 leaders from local government, national bodies, health, police and schools and two care experienced people, it currently includes no frontline practitioners or social work representatives.

The DfE said it would work with early adopter local authorities to identify the balance between national consistency and local flexibility in the training delivered to social workers on the ECF. It suggested at least some of the programme would be provided by a national training body commissioned by the DfE, with the rest delivered by councils with funding from the department.

With practitioners likely to be assessed at the end of years two and five of the ECF, the DfE said it would design “rigorous, supportive and fair assessment processes, which are integrated into the development and training aspects of the programme”.

In doing so, it said it would learn the lessons of the national assessment and accreditation system (NAAS), introduced in 2018 to test social workers’ knowledge and skills and accredit those who passed, but scrapped last year.

NAAS was delivered through in-person assessment centres and, in bringing the scheme to an end, the DfE said it wanted to move towards a “more sustainable” system, likely involving more remote methods of assessment.

Reserving tasks for expert practitioners

While the DfE has accepted many of the care review’s recommendations in relation to the ECF, it is not clear whether it will take up its proposal to reserve certain social work tasks to those who have become expert practitioners through completing the framework.

Specifically, the review proposed that child protection cases should be managed by expert practitioners, selected based on their experience to date or, in future, through passing the ECF.

“They would provide an experienced and specialist resource to investigate and make decisions about significant harm to children,” said the review.

The DfE has proposed testing the deployment of lead child protection practitioners to manage cases in up to 12 ‘family first for children’ pathfinder areas.

It said they would “have the specific practice skills and experience that social workers need to work directly with families where there is actual or likely significant harm”, but did not specify how they would be appointed or make a link to them having passed the ECF in future, should both initiatives come into force.

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10 Responses to DfE backs early career framework but rejects national pay scales for children’s social workers

  1. Christine February 9, 2023 at 8:36 am #

    I could not read talk of this . Feels like social workers are being gaslighted. Social workers work tirelessly everyday to protect vulnerable children and families. Failings are not necessarily always about skill set but the need poor working conditions , lack of support and resources and lack of time to make change. Instead of providing funding to address these issues, instead you bring child protection experts’ to save social work. It’s not surprise so many people leave the profession

  2. Andrew S February 9, 2023 at 3:07 pm #

    I am surprised that that this whole process is not looking at the core issues around meeting the needs of the children and families but rather modelling what is already wrong. Social workers are experts in the jobs and ASYE was not being managed well. Despite the challenges social workers have worked hard to ensure families are protected. The problem is is the social workers are not motivated or valued rather this is just to target hard working people with yet another tick box exercise without thinking through the impact on social workers and children and families

  3. Tahin February 10, 2023 at 8:00 am #

    Those of you who never tire of telling us social work is a profession and professionalising social work is how standards improve, welcome to your dream world. This is the logical next step. You don’t get a pass to moan about pay, conditions, work realities again.

  4. Andy February 10, 2023 at 9:32 am #

    Any improvement to career development in social work is always to be welcomed but it would’ve been interesting to also see more effort being placed on attracting men into the profession. For a service whose primary focus are the needs of vulnerable and presumably diverse families, the 15-20% of male social workers are spectacularly under-representative of the overall service recipient profile.

    • Beth February 10, 2023 at 8:20 pm #

      Interesting as I bet men are over represented in management roles.

      • J February 15, 2023 at 11:07 pm #

        White men!

    • Yoda February 12, 2023 at 1:46 am #

      Don’t worry, you make up the majority of managers. So, there’s that…

  5. June February 10, 2023 at 11:48 am #

    I am struck by the total lack of mention of role of University schools of social work at Qualifying and post Q educators levels and and partners in ASYE – falling recruitment there especially at M level because of the inequitable and non cost-effective funding of Frontline, and Think Ahead (Step up is more integrated with HEIs as are apprenticeships). As argued for by BASW there should be a national recruitment campaign to recruit to ALL the routes into social work, as well as improved bursaries. Frontline spends much of its DfE over-generous grant on advertising. A National campaign involving DfE DHSS and University providers and Local Authorities/ Vol sector should point to student routes as well as employer-based. AND LA/ University teaching partnerships that work on meeting local need for recruitment and retention should be re-funded, not just allowed to wither away as now. Does this government hate the social work academy? The narrow ‘What Works’ evaluation approach is no substitute for independent research and a health doctorate / research training sector. You don’t find Government ignoring University medical academics and researchers.

    • Sandra February 11, 2023 at 12:59 pm #

      Or these ‘diverse’ routes which never seem to get round to properly evidencing their perfirmances and outcomes could be scrapped so we can have a properly funded and evaluated apprentice scheme that combines teaching with practical skills development. Granted the swathes of self interested advocates for “professionalising” social work might struggle to establish a role in a less academised environment but I’m sure their skills and expertise would be much appreciated by teams struggling to fill vacant posts.

  6. Eddie O'Hara BEM February 10, 2023 at 7:19 pm #

    What a load of nonsense: expert in 5 years possibly at the age of 26, No national pay scale. Performance related pay. LAs who struggle with existing post qualifying training now expected to provide 5 years…..Disneyland here we come ???