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Special Report: Government’s social work reform have “significant weaknesses”

Education select committee calls for government to rethink its plans for a new regulator and instead develop a professional body following the closure of The College of Social Work to lead and unify the profession

The government’s plans for social work reform have “significant weaknesses” and fail to address the endemic retention problems within the sector caused by high caseloads, negative press and a blame culture.

These are the findings of the Education Select Committee’s inquiry into social work reform which received written evidence from across the social work sector including from the current regulator the Health and Care Professions Council and Sir Martin Narey. The inquiry heard oral evidence from the chief executives of BASW, Frontline and the former chief executive of the now defunct College of Social Work along with chief social worker Isabelle Trowler and children’s minister Edward Timpson.

Neil Carmichael, Chair of the Education Committee, said: “Social workers have a crucial role in improving outcomes for children, young people and families. At a time when social work is under immense pressure, with social workers facing increasing workloads and local authorities wrestling with tighter funding, it is crucial the government now makes greater efforts to work closely with the social work profession.”

The report from the committee recommends that the government:

  • Rethinks its plans for a new social work regulator to replace the Health and Care Professions Council.
  • Facilitates the development of a professional body for social work, working in partnership with the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), other social worker representatives and the wider sector.
  • Prioritises fixing endemic retention problems in children and families social work.
  • Assesses the effectiveness of the existing independent trusts before expanding the model any further.

Representative bodies felt marginalised

In September 2015, the Prime Minister stated that improving the quality of children and families social workers and children’s services was a key reform priority for the government, calling it a “big area of focus over the next five years”. The committee launched an inquiry into social work reform following the lack of clarity on how the government intended to achieve its aim.

The committee said it welcomed the government’s commitment to children and families social work, but while the proposed reforms have the potential to make some significant improvements to the sector, concerns about particular aspects were highlighted during the inquiry.

In a private seminar, many representatives were aggrieved at the lack of consultation with the sector on the new reform agenda. When questioned on this, Isabelle Trowler, Chief Social Worker for Children and Families, said that “hundreds of people” were involved in the development of the current reforms, but agreed if representative bodies were feeling marginalised, there was a need for further consultation.

The report states that the latest reforms need to be conducted in partnership with the sector. Local authorities and other employers require sufficient time to understand what is being asked of them and to put in place the necessary changes.

It therefore recommends that the government should publish a single national reform implementation plan, with clear expectations for local authorities, employers and educators of what needs to be introduced along with achievable timescales. This plan should cover delivery of both previous and new reforms, and a clear mechanism should be put in place to assess the success of the reform agenda by the end of the Parliament.

Different agendas

The committee heard several pieces of evidence which expressed concerns that DfE and DH were pursuing different agendas for social work and were given a number of examples of how the future of children and adult social work appeared to diverge from each other. This includes plans for the assessment and accreditation of children’s social workers while there are “currently no plans” for this to be introduced in adult social work.

The establishment of two chief social workers, Isabelle Trowler for children and families and Lyn Romeo for adult social workers had complicated matters further with the profession being “pulled in two different directions”.

“There is a pressing need for greater coordination within government on the future of social work in England. The splitting of the profession into two separate strands has been unhelpfully divisive. The appointment of two Chief Social Workers, apparently against the wishes of the profession, has exacerbated the problem,” said the report, calling for one Chief Social Worker sitting outside departmental structures to unify the profession at a national level.

Training and CPD

The Department for Education invested £35m in both Frontline and Step Up to Social Work over the 2010–2015 period, and announced in January that they would expand these approaches by investing a further £100m. The majority of evidence the committee received was in favour of a generic social work qualification and it said it was persuaded of the need for a generic initial qualification for children and families social workers, as they should have a broad understanding of issues affecting both children and adults.

Specialisation should occur in post-qualifying training and the committee recommends that the government increase generic elements in both Frontline and Step Up to Social Work curricula as the committee has concerns that they focus primarily on children and families social work. It also calls for the government to commission an extended research study of Frontline alongside university routes to establish comparative long-term outcomes to provide the government with a stronger evidence base to make decisions on any future changes to the funding and structure of qualification routes.

However, in terms of CPD and post-qualifying specialisation, the committee felt the current offer is “inadequate, variable and diffuse”. The report urges the government to work with the sector to create a robust, national post-qualifying framework to give a coherent shape to the continuing professional development of children and families social workers throughout their career. A rigorous endorsement process for the new post-qualifying framework in collaboration with the social work profession should be introduced and re-registration as a social worker with the regulator should be dependent on some current or recent participation in endorsed courses, rather than only generic CPD activity.

The secretary of state has outlined how every children and families social worker will be fully assessed and accredited by 2020. In January, Trowler said that there would be a consultation on whether accreditation would be mandatory or not “within weeks yet during the inquiry she told the committee the consultation was pending the results of the year-long pilot and that the “plan is to go to consultation as soon as possible”. There are still no further details available and, given evidence to the inquiry was mixed on whether accreditation and assessment would bring benefits or not, the committee recommends that the government brings forward its consultation on accreditation and sets out proposals on what will happen if social workers fail the process, and how it will ensure social workers can continue to move between statutory and non-statutory positions and different types of social work.

Endemic retention problems

In its memorandum outlining its reforms, the government conceded that there were retention concerns, with the average career in social work lasting less than eight years, compared to 16 for a nurse and 25 for a doctor.  Indeed, in September 2015, there were 28,570 children and families social workers in statutory settings and 5,470 FTE vacancies, or 17% of the workforce, an increase of over a quarter since 2014. There was large local variations in the vacancy rate from 7% in Yorkshire and Humber to 25% in London and 29% in Outer London.

A recurring theme in evidence was the lack of focus on retention in the government’s reforms, especially in comparison to recruitment. The committee stresses that the government must prioritise fixing endemic retention problems in children and families social work, adding that its current strategy is too dependent on Frontline and Step Up to Social Work improving retention, when these programmes are too new to provide sufficient evidence they can have an impact.

The committee also heard evidence where the morale of social workers was described as “extremely low”. Excessive workloads were identified as one of the primary reasons behind low morale and evidence suggests caseloads are at dangerously high levels. With this in mind, the report urges the government to reinforce the use of Standards for employers of Social Workers in England and ‘Health checks’ of working conditions should be made mandatory.

“The government should also consider making the entire framework binding for local authorities. Without better working conditions for frontline social workers, who are facing ever-rising demands, the entire reform programme will be put at risk,” says the report.

Independent body

The committee also suggests national public awareness campaign is launched celebrating the positive aspects of social work, and explaining its complexities, to boost the profile of the profession in a bid to tackle the negative image portrayed in the media and the blame culture attached to the profession.

The report also highlights the absence of a professional body for social work following the closure of the College of Social Work last year and support for BASW as a successor body was far from universal. A professional body, independent from government and owned by the profession, should:

(1) Be a ‘broad church’ that represents a diverse workforce of social workers in a range of settings;

(2) Provide high profile leadership and a national voice for the profession

(3) Make the profession an attractive choice by building a professional identity and culture;

(4) Define the continuing professional development and post-qualifying pathway for all social work,

(5) Promote practice excellence,

(6) Shape and influence national and local policy and practice;

(7) Build good working relationships with the Government, the regulator, employers, and educators.

The government should facilitate the development of a professional body for social work, working in partnership with the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), other social worker representatives and the wider sector, although the new body should not be in competition with BASW, it adds.

Waste of money

The committee also calls for the government to rethink its plans to introduce a new regulator for the social work profession to take over the role from the HCPC, saying it is unclear why another regulator is needed. Committee chair Neil Carmichael said: “The government shouldn't be wasting money on a new social work regulator. The government should instead help to establish a new professional body for social work, which is trusted to take the lead on bringing about the improvements needed.”

“The government has already spent too much money changing regulatory bodies. Another change will either require further injection of significant public funds or place an unfair financial burden on individual social workers.”

The report concludes by referring to Clause 15 of the Children and Social Work Bill is entitled Children’s social care: different ways of working which is “to enable a local authority in England to test different ways of working with a view to achieving better outcomes under children’s social care legislation or achieving the same outcomes more efficiently”.

The committee stresses that while it welcomes a focus on innovation, some caution is necessary and projects should be evaluated fully before being rolled out at a national level.

“It is clear that the government treats social work as an important priority, but its reforms focus on changing structures potentially to the detriment of the people delivering this key public service. There needs to be more co-operation between the Government and the sector, with children and families social workers given greater input into the future structure, development and regulation of their own profession,” the report concludes.

Report: Social Work Reform

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