Looked-after Children - Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 206-219)


12 MAY 2008

  Q206  Chairman: I welcome our witnesses: Celia Atherton, Professor Julian Le Grand, Jane Haywood and Steve Titcombe. We always very much value people giving of their time to give evidence when we are conducting an inquiry. As you will probably know very well, some of us used to be involved in the Select Committee on Education and Skills. When it changed its personnel and—quite dramatically—its focus to children, schools and families, we were determined to ensure that we took the whole of our brief very seriously. That is why our first major inquiry on the children's side was about our most vulnerable children. As we have gone on, our witnesses have told us that it is not politically correct to speak about looked-after children and that, according to some experts, we should go back to speaking about children in care. Whichever it is, you know where we are. Today, we want to look at and learn about workforce issues, because they have come up consistently as we have dipped our toes into this inquiry. Are there preconceptions out there that are wrong? How good are the workforce who deliver this social care? Are they in need of radical reform or are they perfectly good as they are? Should we just adjust the tiller a little? What I tend to do in this first bit of the session is to ask you not about yourselves—we have your CVs and so on—but to spend a couple of minutes telling us where you think we are and what we need to address. It would be helpful if you could do that very pithily, if you do not mind. Celia.

  Celia Atherton: Hello. Thank you very much for inviting me.

  Chairman: I go to first names. Is that all right? We do not use titles.

  Celia Atherton: That is fine. Thank you very much for inviting me. I am speaking from my experience of working with more than 100 agencies in England and Wales—mostly local authorities, but also some of the big national organisations, such as TACT and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. They are all committed to using research better in the work that they do with children and families. I thought that I would just mention three areas that I hope bother you as much as they bother us at Research in Practice. One is the need to refocus more on the skills, knowledge and behaviour that social workers need to have in their bag, and to rebalance those against what is almost an obsession with structure, systems, procedures and a crushing of what is meant to be a distinct skill by the need to fit into those rather more bureaucratic elements. Secondly, we need to work hard—this is why I really appreciate the Committee's focus at the moment—on developing social work as a strong discipline within children's services. There has been a real danger for many years that social work would lose its distinctiveness and that we would begin to think about children's services workers. What we need is different disciplines, each strong and each confident. If you like, we need a mixed salad, rather than a pureed soup—at the moment, we may well be in danger of having a rather thin soup at that. The last thing that I want to say is about leadership. It is very common for people to talk about leadership, but if we are to remodel the workforce, we need very strong leadership, not only among senior managers, but among elected members and trustees in voluntary organisations. Specifically on this subject, we need leaders who are reflective, who model what we need, who promote evidence-informed practice and who provide their staff with the support and tools to carry things out.

  Professor Le Grand: This is my first experience of testifying before a Committee and I am delighted to have the opportunity to do so. Thank you very much. I have always felt a little suppressed by central government when I have tried to do this before. I am not a social worker, but I did chair the social work practices group that the then Department for Education and Skills set up, and I think that you will all have seen the report that we supplied. We were looking at some of the problems faced by the workforce and thinking about social work practice as a possible answer to those problems. The problems that were identified were very clear. We talked to looked-after children, social workers and local authority managers, and it was very clear that there was a problem with continuity and stability. One of the children we talked to had five social workers, and another one had had three, but the changeover had been so fast that she had never even met the third one. They all kept coming back to us and almost saying, "It would just be wonderful if we had the same person"—a person who could act as a friend and a support throughout their time in care, if possible. There were one or two examples of that care, and they were the ones that threw into relief the plight of the others who did not have it. The social workers themselves also identified a set of problems. One of them said to us—this is very similar to what Celia was just saying—"You've trained us to be professionals, but you give us jobs as clerks." They felt very much that they were at the bottom of the local authority heap. To give one quote, they said that they did not have control over the numbers on the case load, the budget for their looked-after child or access to the looked-after child, the school, the foster and residential place, the child and adolescent mental health services and additional tuition or psychological support. They said they were the least powerful members of the children's services department, although they felt that they were the most trained. What seemed to be happening was the takeover of professionalism by managerialism. That was, in some ways, the idea that social work practice set out the problems that it tried to address, but we will no doubt talk about that in a moment.

  Jane Haywood: I am not a social worker either, but hopefully I can speak for them today. Our organisation is the Children's Workforce Development Council, and we have two responsibilities. One is to lead workforce reform across the whole children's workforce, and the other is to set occupational standards and approved qualifications for key parts of the workforce—social workers and residential workers are ours. We spend a lot of time talking to social workers and thinking about their issues. I would make two or three points to support what both previous speakers have said. When we go out to meet people, it is clear that this is a very committed workforce who absolutely want to make a difference to the lives of children and young people. The job that we ask them to do is extremely difficult and challenging. They deal with situations that most of us probably will not meet in our day-to-day lives, and we ask them to make some very complex judgments and decisions. In doing that, they feel undervalued by society at large, and often by their own leadership and management. They do not feel that they get the support that they need to do the job. We can look at what a nurse, doctor or teacher does, get a view of it and see how important it is, but most of our views of what the social worker does are what we get from negative press. We do not see that underneath that is a very skilled task. The big issue for this workforce is how we give them the support that they need and the right training and development to do that difficult and challenging task, and also how we help them to work with other professionals so that we have their core specialist skills and they are able to work with other professionals and social care workers so that they do not get into a paperwork-driven bureaucracy, but are doing the job that we have trained them for.

  Steve Titcombe: I am a social worker, although it seems a long time since I was a practising social worker. In contrast to what my colleagues have said, I want to say a few words about the remodelling project that Rochdale is running—one of the 11 remodelling projects of the CWDC. Often, the dissatisfactions of youngsters who were asked what social workers ought to be doing were that they were not visiting youngsters in care often enough and were not sufficiently in contact, or sufficiently on top of such things as ensuring that the care plan was up to date. Our bid to have a remodelling project was borne out of our need to improve and develop further services for children in care. Despite significant progress over the years, there are some important issues, particularly in relation to the position of front-line social workers. I consider the situation to be serious. I have a few notes about new recruits coming off social work courses. They appear to lack preparation and lack confidence in the work that they are being asked to do, so they are easily knocked off course by their experience of working with very damaged children and young people, and dysfunctional families. They need more time and nurturing, but the demands of the job are such that they are very quickly expected to get into practice. Experienced staff have all sorts of opportunities to get out of front-line work—tempting opportunities in specialist services and management posts in the independent and voluntary sectors, away from very difficult front-line work. I repeat Jane's comments about people's need to be valued, looked after, developed and rewarded, so that they stick with front-line experience. We need people to remain in practice to provide the services that only social workers can. Another part of the remodelling project is whether we can find extended roles for other members of the social care workforce, who are really important to social workers and to us.

  Chairman: That is very good; thank you very much. I shall declare an interest, as I always have to do when there is a professor of the London School of Economics here. I am a governor of the LSE, and indeed I knew Richard Titmuss, which makes me feel ancient.

  Professor Le Grand: I shall be very careful about what I say.

  Q207  Chairman: Let us go back to what is obviously coming out of our deliberations so far and of what you have said. Is there a shortage of good entrants into the profession? Is there evidence of an under-supply of good people coming in?

  Professor Le Grand: Well, there was. Now that the new system of training for social workers has come in, there is a fairly substantial number of applications. We are improving the training quite a lot—it will be interesting to see whether Steve thinks that. The problem is that we are training them to be highly skilled professionals and the kinds of jobs that we will ask them to do are way below their levels of skills and training.

  Chairman: I have a feeling of déjà-vu, because I have heard that from representatives of teachers and the education sector.

  Jane Haywood: There are areas of the country where there are still recruitment problems. Classically, that is London, because of all the other pressures of recruiting public sector workers, but across the country the issue is retention—how we keep social workers, rather than recruiting lots more. That is, in some ways, where the focus of the work has to be: what kind of support do we give them when they first qualify? Let us think about the newly qualified social worker, at the age of 22 or 23, who suddenly has to deal with very difficult cases and dealing with some things on their own. A newly qualified teacher or nurse would tend to be doing their practice with other professionals working alongside them and giving them support. For social workers, that is much tougher. The issue now is retention rather than recruitment.

  Q208  Chairman: But is there not a system whereby a newly qualified social work entrant is given what all of us would think was necessary in those difficult situations at the sharp end of social work? Surely there should be a greater process of induction. I was interested when Celia referred to skills, knowledge and behaviour. I added experience because if there is one thing that I find when I meet social workers, it is that they need experience. They need some miles on the clock before they develop the maturity to do the job.

  Celia Atherton: That is right. It is only through having experience and being in the job that you gain the full set of skills and knowledge that you need. You cannot learn that entirely from a book. Having said that—I am a social worker, although I am also rather a long time out of practice—I think that in the past we have overemphasised the learning on the job, at the expense of learning from beyond what we could see or experience: research and learning from others working in different settings. I think that that needs to change.

  Jane Haywood: At the risk of sounding a bit Blue Peter-ish—"And here's one I prepared earlier"—the piece of work by CWDC that will really kick off from September onwards is a programme called "A Newly Qualified Social Worker", which will give a newly qualified social worker guaranteed time away from the front line for that kind of development and support. We will invest in supervision to support them in that role, so we are hopeful that that programme will start to support them. Alongside that, another programme is about focusing on years 2 and 3 as a social worker, when people think, "I've got through my induction; what support and help do I need now?" Those two pieces of work are kicking off this year.

  Q209  Chairman: My experience in the education sector suggests that one of the things you do not do even with a teacher is drop them into a school shortly after training with no good mentoring. We know that people getting burned out or dropping out very early is often related to the kind of guidance and mentoring they are given in school as they get into the profession. This is not rocket science, is it? Why did the professional bodies not work on it a long time ago? Steve, I meet social workers who burn out. Quite honestly, if I was doing their job, I would burn out. Why is there not a system whereby every five years you are shifted to a different kind of post and then you come back when you have recharged your batteries? Why do you not have a sabbatical built in? Otherwise, people will flee into management and other things, will they not?

  Steve Titcombe: In most authorities there is not such a system, so you are quite right to raise it. What tends to happen in my authority is that we will offer secondments. There are opportunities to swap jobs, to move within the service and to rejuvenate and revitalise yourself, which does happen. The point needs to be made, however, that despite a very good induction standards programme, which we certainly have in the met I work for, some new recruits are not prepared and do not have the experience or understanding of the job to survive that initial six or nine months. Some new recruits are very successful and good, and quickly incorporate their professional training and the necessary reports, reviews, recording, and communication that are so vital. When we look at past tragedies, how often have social workers been weak in recording communications? Those important matters are arguably part of the management demands made on social workers. They are really important, and I must emphasise the need for social workers to be rounded professionals. They must cover the paper work and so on.

  Chairman: This is the answer to Julian. Julian is saying that social workers are trained to be professionals but are ending up as clerks, and you are saying that clerking is integral to the job.

  Steve Titcombe: I would say that it is not clerking, but part of the professional job.

  Celia Atherton: In my experience, what often happens is that when a newly qualified social worker comes into post, the authority intends to provide induction by the book, but, because of shortages, someone gets pushed into taking on a situation that, for example, results in them having to give evidence in court. We have been trying to focus on such work to try to provide guidance and tools to help social workers to give evidence better, and particularly to use research to back up their assessments. A number of authorities said that that was interesting and useful, but that they would not use it with social workers in the first two years because they do not go to court, although we know that they do. If you end up without support and preparation, you revert to procedures because you know nothing else. To me, it is about balance. Procedures and systems are meant to assist, but they can become the overriding reason for going to work and have become that for many people, and leadership tends to demand compliance first—that is how it is perceived—rather than good judgment.

  Chairman: I am going to let my team drill down into the questions. Graham, will you lead off on workforce planning and training?

  Q210  Mr Stuart: Yes. You said that there used to be too much on-the-job training, but now there is a slight picture of often young graduates appearing with insufficient on-the-job training. Where is the right balance? Picking up on Julian's point about training, he looked round desperately at his colleagues and said, "Training is getting better—isn't it?" Can you tell us about that balance, and how training has been improved?

  Professor Le Grand: Let me say something briefly about social work practices in that context, which relates to Barry's point about mentoring. We thought that one of the advantages of social work practice was that there would be a much smaller group with a collectivist professional ethos, which would make a happier environment for a mentoring process and the student training process. An important part of the social work practice idea is that at least two students will be attached to each practice. Again, the idea is very much that there will be a strong sense of identity and a collectivist spirit, and that the seniors will help the juniors, and the juniors will help the students, and so on. Part of the idea is that by moving to a much smaller organisation in which everyone has a stake in its success, the training is superior. That is certainly one of the arguments.

  Q211  Mr Stuart: Tell us a little more about how much on-the-job training there is for those who are studying, and how many sandwich courses or part-time courses there are. Give us a feel for the way in which the workforce is trained at the moment.

  Chairman: Is it an all-graduate profession?

  Jane Haywood: It is becoming an all-graduate profession. Many who are in the profession at the moment have a diploma, and are moving towards that. At the moment there is a degree—it is fairly new—which is being reviewed. It has proved to be popular with students. A lot of people are applying for it, and doing a lot of that research-based work. As part of that degree they should spend time in practice placements.

  Q212  Mr Stuart: How much time?

  Jane Haywood: I do not know. I do not run the degree course. I can find the answer for you, but I do not have that detail at the moment. They should spend time on practice placements. If they want to specialise in children or adults—this is a general social work degree—they should make sure that their practice placements focus on the children's part. Then, when they qualify and start work, they will have a set of induction standards to work through to help them through the process. There are then available to them post-qualifying awards, which help them develop different skills and specialisms, one of which is available in child care and children's issues. There is a framework for that to happen. Each social worker has to be registered with the General Social Care Council, and as part of that registration requirement they have to complete so many hours of learning and development a year.

  Q213  Mr Stuart: But this is the new degree, which will help to get the balance right. Does any member of the panel have any idea of what percentage of the time students spend on the job?

  Steve Titcombe: The final placement is 200 days. My expectation is that the placement would be close to where that person then chooses to work.

  Celia Atherton: There have been real and continuing difficulties about finding good placements. There is a requirement for a number of days, but we have all come across social work students who, the week before their placement is due to start, do not know where they are going. The rosy idea found in publications, about there being a careful discussion of what you are interested in and matching your interests with the course requirements and finding a good supervisor, does not happen. There are probably lots of reasons for that, and I know that there is a commitment to do something about it. It is not only about how many days' placement there are, but whether the placements will really help people to develop the skills and the knowledge that they will need. Although in the past there was a great deal of learning on the job, there was almost no formal training on the job. You learned to fly by the seat of your pants. What Jane described is a much more robust system, but the difficulty that we have is that it is honoured more in theory than in practice. Some of the gaps need to be filled in. For instance, it seems to me that social workers on qualifying courses are now trained much better than ever before to understand how to access, analyse and apply research findings. However, although they are still going into workplaces, those newly qualified workers are not being used as a resource for the whole team. People who come in with those skills are finding that they are squashed by the demand to get on with all sorts of other work instead. Their ability not only to keep on developing their own knowledge but to work as a resource for their team is diminished quite quickly. It is about trying to fill the gaps in what is a much better structure.

  Jane Haywood: That is right. That is why the newly qualified social worker programme being put in place puts a lot of emphasis on the supervision and the skills of the employer in order to provide support to those new entrants. Improving their skills with new entrants will also help their support for students on placement.

  Q214  Mr Stuart: Given how demanding the job is, is it not possible that a lot of people could go in for something much more theoretical? As you say, they come out as theoretical graduates with a little work placement of whatever quality is given, but then find that they are not temperamentally suited to front-line work and the tough and challenging situations in which they find themselves. Is there any effort to check whether the entrants are suitable?

  Celia Atherton: I have never taught on a social work training course. I think there is a concern about how rigorous selection is and how carefully people are counselled as they go through their training, in terms of whether they have the right personal qualities for it—in a way that is not a criticism, but is just about fitting for the kind of job that it is going to be. It is a very tough job, which requires professionals to be tough but very committed to forming relationships with people—not an easy combination.

  Steve Titcombe: I was going to make the link between the issue about new recruit social workers and retaining experienced social workers, because you will find successful teams where new recruits find it easier because they are supported by senior practitioners within the same team. So the connection between retention and recruitment is very important. Certainly where I come from, one of the problems we have is that our experienced practitioners are drawn away into other work—other specialist teams and other specialist roles—thereby reducing our capacity to support those newly qualified workers outside the line manager and the team manager.

  Q215  Mr Stuart: Thank you. On workforce planning, a social worker came up to me at my street surgery on Saturday and said she and most—I think she said most, but certainly many—of her cohort, who went through Hull University and qualified, have been unable to find work. How good is the workforce planning? She said that they were promised that they would be head-hunted and that there would be plenty of opportunities, but that she is one of many fully-qualified people who simply cannot find work. She is on the East Riding of Yorkshire council pool and is annoyed to find that it is advertising for new entrants to the pool, although when she rang up to ask about it she was told hardly anyone on the pool has ever found a job. That is a moot point, but perhaps you would comment. We seem to be going from one thing to the other pretty quickly.

  Professor Le Grand: Meanwhile, the interim Humberside vacancy rate is 13% and the turnover rate is about 18%. That is somewhat surprising, I think. There are a number of vacancy and turnover figures that suggest that there are substantial vacancies.

  Q216  Chairman: But Julian, what I think Graham is trying to get at is who manages all that. What is the management process? You are all coming up with very articulate criticisms of the disjuncture between education—with graduates coming out—and who hires and supervises them. Who manages the process—or is it anarchic?

  Jane Haywood: It is not anarchic, but one of the issues raised is that there are a number of people involved in the social work world, for lots of good reasons: we have the General Social Care Council, which is responsible for regulation and registration of social workers, and for the degree and post-qualifying training, and we ourselves are responsible for children's social workers and children's social care workers, working in partnership with an organisation called Skills for Care, which deals with adult social workers. It is our job to try to identify how many social workers there are, and the numbers and the gaps that are there. Then you have Ofsted, which inspects children's social work and sees whether it is fit for purpose. So some of those issues about the degree and the workforce can get confused across that piece. The difficulty in measuring the number of social workers is that they sit in many organisations. We know how many schools we have and where they are, so we can count the number of teachers who work in them. We estimate that there are just over 20,000 social workers and their managers, probably about 17,000 of which are doing social work, but they sit in local authorities, voluntary organisations and private sector organisations, and the big job that we have been trying to do in CWDC over the last couple of years is just to try to count them, because you have got to count them before you can then plan for them, but it is actually extremely difficult to pull that information together. We can get a pretty good fix now on local authorities, but picking up that information in the private sector and the voluntary sector is quite hard. There is something called a national minimum data set, which should help us to count the total, but we are having to count the private sector and voluntary sector contributions to that total and it is not an easy shift. So we have a rough idea of how many social workers there are and we know that about two thirds of local authorities are facing recruitment problems and that most local authorities are focusing on the retention of social workers. However, I would be surprised if we had massive unemployment of social workers at the moment.

  Q217  Mr Stuart: Obviously, we are specifically looking at looked-after children, so can you tell us how well-qualified the workforce are becoming for those children, especially as the Association of Directors of Children's Services said that it felt that the degree course did not adequately prepare social workers for the role that they would have to carry out?

  Jane Haywood: The work that we have done in developing the newly qualified social worker programme shows that the students coming out do not feel adequately prepared, and their employers do not feel adequately prepared. However, we get a different message when we review the effectiveness of the degree and ask students how the degree has gone; the degree is quite popular and people are saying that it is useful. So, what is happening at the moment is that people are trying to draw together the information from the review of the degree along with the information from the newly qualified social worker and see what the issue is, because there is a slightly different picture from the two sources of information. However, I know that directors of children's services feel that their newly qualified social workers are struggling with the basics of putting together a good report and pulling together research and drawing on that research. What we are trying to do with the newly qualified social worker is to establish a clear set of standards, so that, to get through your newly qualified social worker year, you must have learned how to do these things and demonstrate these things. I suppose the question is whether you should learn that while you are doing a degree, or while you are in practice. That is quite a difficult judgment call.

  Q218  Mr Stuart: Yes. As you say, it is graduates only, but to what extent are there sandwich courses available, or part-time degree courses? You did not really comment on that issue. The other specific issue is looked-after children, in particular; they are the focus of our inquiry, so are there any particular strengths or weaknesses in the training for social workers that you think apply to looked-after children? In the light of some of the international comparisons, the training that we give to our social workers to look after some children who are extremely challenging is not seen as all that favourable.

  Celia Atherton: The type of training that social workers receive at qualifying level—it would be interesting to come on to post-qualifying level at some point—does not give them the kind of skills that they need in the job. So, when I talk to senior managers in local authorities, they bemoan the lack of ability to work alongside young people and families in real difficulty. Social work is not just about being able to work with children; most of these children and young people go home to their families. So, if we cannot train social workers to work really well with adults and with the children and young people, we will fail. That is why I have been very pleased to see that the children's plan, despite the Committee's worries about it, nevertheless tried to bring families back into the picture and not keep them separated. I think that that has been mirrored in some of the training. Sometimes, social workers have been pushed down very narrow alleyways in the way in which they are to think about the work and what they are to do. However, when they get out on to the job, they discover that it is more complex and it is much broader than that, and they are not equipped to do that job. Having said that, social work must be a shared responsibility and local authorities and other employers—because, as Jane has said already, local authorities are certainly not the only employers of newly qualified social workers—do not do enough themselves to ensure that they induct their staff really well. Any of us who bring staff into our organisations know that it will take at least a year before they can do the job half-competently.

  Chairman: We will come back to some of these issues, but I am conscious of the time and I want to move now to social work practices. David Chaytor will lead on that.

  Q219  Mr Chaytor: I wanted to ask about the Care Matters system; I imagine that it is a question for Julian. When you were previously arguing for bringing new suppliers into the education service—through choice and competition and the academies and trust schools—the basis of your argument was that they would improve diversity and variety. Now, however, in arguing for new suppliers and a form of independent social work practices, you are saying that they will improve consistency. How do you explain that contradiction?

  Professor Le Grand: Well, it is stability and consistency in the relationship between the child and the social worker. We would like social workers to stay with a child for as long as possible and not to change every year. The idea is that there will be a fairly substantial variety of ways in which children are looked after. One of our aims is to encourage more innovation, and we state that quite explicitly. We see social work practices as a device or organisational structure that leads to greater continuity in the relationship, with that relationship being much more closely tailored to the needs of the child in, where possible, a broader local authority setting.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2009
Prepared 20 April 2009