Training of Children and Families Social Workers - Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

Conclusions and recommendations


1.   When social workers are poorly trained—lacking in knowledge, skills, or experience—or left unsupported in highly pressured situations, children's lives are put in danger. Intellectual ability, personal resilience, and good supervision are not important because they bring more prestige to the profession or more job satisfaction to the individual. These things are important because they are needed when analysing potential risks to children, dealing professionally with obstructive parents, and reflecting on whether the right decisions are being made at the right times. Although we refer repeatedly throughout this Report to the needs of employers, we are constantly mindful that it is the needs of children that are most important when those who work with them are trained. (Paragraph 6)

The Task Force and other initiatives

2.  Although we have received reassurances about the Social Work Task Force's scope to recommend radical reforms, we remain concerned about the plethora of new initiatives which have been announced and set in motion before the Task Force reports. While we appreciate the need to take urgent action in the light of Lord Laming's report on child protection, we consider that a more strategic approach would serve the social work profession better in the long term. It is not clear how these initiatives fit together either with each other, or with existing structures. (Paragraph 20)

National Leadership and sector bodies

3.  Nine years on from the tragedy of Victoria Climbié, the lack of a coherent and prestigious national profile for the social work profession appears to us to be perhaps the most important failing of the Every Child Matters reforms. It is unusual to hear so uniformly in evidence to a Committee inquiry calls for greater centralisation, prescription and national leadership. With responsibility for social work training spread across three departments, we urge the Government to be bold in establishing coherent leadership for the profession that can take responsibility for all parts of the whole, and present a profile distinct from the wider fields of social care and the children's workforce. (Paragraph 28)

4.  Streamlining of the national sector bodies and rationalisation of their remits is an urgent priority. We acknowledge that the Government is awaiting the recommendations of the Task Force in this regard, but note that several reviews of the relevant organisations have already been put in train, and ask for clarification as to how these will affect each other. We urge the Task Force to consider how one of the existing bodies could be reformed to replicate the role and impact that the Training and Development Agency has had in the teaching profession; a 'Social Work Development Agency' should unite the functions of recruitment, workforce development and funding and commissioning of training. Such a body would replace the social work functions of the Children's Workforce Development Council. It would operate alongside the General Social Care Council which, in addition to its role as workforce regulator, should be freed to act as champion and advocate of the profession at national level. (Paragraph 29)

Workforce planning

5.  High vacancies and retention problems have plagued children and families social work for too long. It is no longer tenable that there is no mechanism for employers to influence the supply of graduates, and no national model for estimating future demand. We recommend that the Government prioritise the research necessary to establish such a model, link to it the future funding and commissioning of training places for students, and explicitly allocate the task of workforce planning to one of the sector bodies. (Paragraph 39)

6.  There should be a mechanism for retaining funding for social work training places when universities cease to offer these courses. Funding for social work training should be allocated by a social work organisation—such as the 'Social Work Development Agency' which we have proposed—which commissions places on the basis of quality assessments and workforce planning. (Paragraph 40)

Academic standards

7.  A-levels are an imperfect measure of potential, but as they are a proxy for the intellectual ability that social work students need we wish to see an improvement in the average grades required for acceptance to undergraduate social work training. This should not, however, preclude universities ensuring that they have the means of offering places to experienced applicants who lack an academic background but whose personal attributes would be valuable assets to the profession. (Paragraph 47)

Personal qualities

8.  The 'Social Work Development Agency' that we have proposed should make available more guidance about best practice in assessing the personal qualities of applicants to social work degrees. We are encouraged to hear that some universities involve service users already, and we believe this should become standard practice. Employers should be routinely involved in application processes to help universities identify those candidates with the potential to be effective social workers, not just successful students. (Paragraph 51)

9.  Previous practical work experience in related fields seems to us an immensely valuable attribute to bring to the study and practice of social work. This should be taken into account in application procedures, and consideration should be given to making it a mandatory requirement. (Paragraph 53)

Fast track and other routes

10.  We are persuaded that there is little scope for routinely compressing the content of the social work degrees into a shorter, 'fast track' package. However, as an option for students with relevant experience, a clear idea of what sort of social work they wish to specialise in, or prior qualifications incorporating clearly relevant content, a 'fast track' would make a valuable contribution to increasing opportunities for applicants through non-traditional routes. (Paragraph 57)

11.  We consider the proportion of students on Grow Your Own schemes to be surprisingly low. These schemes appear to be a concrete way in which employers can exert more influence on the type of training and preparation they wish social work students to receive, as well as an important route into the profession for people with highly relevant skills and experience. We recommend that the Government consider funding arrangements that would encourage more local authorities to offer more of these opportunities. (Paragraph 60)

Standards on degree courses

12.  It is unacceptable that social work courses, or any element of them, should have a reputation for being 'difficult to fail'. A review of the funding arrangements for social work degrees is needed to ensure that there are no incentives to keep unsuitable students on a course. Funding should be channelled through a sector-specific body to reflect the fact that the degrees are not just an academic course—they are a test of fitness for professional practice. Every university should make provision for students deemed not suitable for practice to put credits towards an alternative, non-qualifying award. (Paragraph 65)

Quality assurance of degree courses

13.   Quality assurance of degree courses should not be delegated to such an extent to universities themselves. A much more active role in quality assurance should be established, whether for the GSCC—with whom it would naturally sit under current arrangements—or for Ofsted, as an extension of its role as the children's social services inspectorate. (Paragraph 69)

Content of degree courses

14.  Current requirements for the social work degrees should be rationalised, combined and, where appropriate, set out in greater detail to form a basic common curriculum. This must be done by universities and employers in collaboration, so that agreement can be reached about the key components that must be learned through the initial degree, and what skills can be acquired while in employment. We particularly wish to see consensus on the content of training on child protection, child development and communication with children. Adoption of a common core curriculum should not preclude flexible and innovative delivery. (Paragraph 79)

Specialisation in degree courses

15.  We are persuaded of the merits of a generic base for social work training, but we agree that social workers are often insufficiently prepared for specialist work with children. We note that specialisation often occurs in practice in university courses as students select particular modules and placements. We recommend that each course makes these choices formal and explicit, so that students may specialise in children and families work if they wish by choosing a defined package of course elements, and employers are given clarity about what a student specialising in this way would have covered in their degree. In our opinion, however, the principal problem is not that the initial degree is generic; it is that expectations of engagement in further training and development after qualification are too low. (Paragraph 88)

Collaboration between employers and universities

16.  Collaboration between employers and universities, while working well in some places, should not be left to chance. Close partnership would bring mutual benefits at all stages of social work education, including selection of students, relevance of the curriculum, provision of placements, exchange of staff, assessment, Newly-Qualified Social Worker years, post-qualifying training and integration of research with practice. We recommend that the Government consider introducing a requirement that all social work education is delivered by formal partnerships of higher education institutions and employers. (Paragraph 94)

Supply of practice placements

17.  Training future and current members of the profession must be seen as a core part of the social work task and a fundamental responsibility of employers. This should be reflected in performance frameworks; specifically, Ofsted should take into account how effectively a local authority provides for and delivers placements for social work students and further development of its workforce when assessing children's services. (Paragraph 103)

18.  Workforce planning should provide a centrally-driven mechanism for judging the numbers of students for which a local authority should be providing placements. Employers should commit to providing placements as part of a comprehensive partnership with higher education institutions, and this must happen in advance of student intakes. It is unacceptable that students have to accept below-par arrangements at the last minute when universities are unable to persuade local authority employers to provide placements. (Paragraph 104)

19.  Arrangements for funding placements should be reviewed to ensure that the amount received reflects the true cost and the division of responsibilities. Funding should be allocated to formal partnerships of universities and employers, rather than passed on from one to the other. (Paragraph 105)

20.  In the light of our findings about the remits of the various social work sector bodies, we question the wisdom of setting up another body, the Social Work Development Partnership, to oversee the development of practice placement quality and supply. We expect that the 'Social Work Development Agency' which we have proposed would be charged with overseeing the necessary changes. (Paragraph 107)

Type of practice placements

21.  It is not sufficient to stipulate that students should get "experience of statutory social work tasks involving legal interventions". It should not be possible for a student to achieve a Bachelor's or Master's degree in social work without having undertaken at least one of their placements in a statutory social work agency, and without being supervised and assessed by a qualified social worker in both of their placements. Information should be readily available to prospective students about any courses which have a poor track record in securing the requisite placements. (Paragraph 110)

22.  In the interim, consideration should be given to reducing the length of individual placements, if this would help to ensure that every student has a placement in a statutory service. We consider that quality of placements is more important than the number of placement days. (Paragraph 111)

Quality of practice placements

23.  Quality assurance of placements should not be delegated to universities alone. The quality of practice placements must be taken into account explicitly in overall inspections of both university courses and local authority children's services. (Paragraph 114)

Practice teaching

24.  An expectation that teams and individuals contribute to the training of future generations of social workers should be supported by reforms to pay scales and structured career progression. Practice teaching must be built into job descriptions so that social workers are not expected to undertake practice teaching on top of their normal workload but as an integral part of it, with commensurate reductions in the caseload they are expected to carry. In theory these changes could be achieved by local authorities on their own initiative, but the evidence we have received shows that this is not happening to any great extent. We recommend therefore that the Government consider ways of developing these features of the workforce on a national basis. (Paragraph 118)

25.  Requirements for placements should be amended to stipulate that all placements be supervised by qualified and experienced social workers who either hold or are working towards specific qualifications in practice teaching. Withdrawal of the dedicated Practice Teaching Award has given a damaging impression of the status of practice teaching in social work, and consideration should be given to reinstating it. Training enough of the current workforce to the right level will require 'pump-priming' with dedicated funding. (Paragraph 122)

The Newly-Qualified Social Worker Programme

26.  The Newly-Qualified Social Worker year is a significant step in the right direction of recognising that graduation is only the first of many stages of career development that social workers should be guided through. We welcome its extension to the whole of the statutory and voluntary sectors. However, we recommend that the Newly-Qualified Social Worker year develop more of the character of a compulsory internship. The programme should be reviewed to ensure that it delivers genuine development for participants, building on their previous work at university and on placements. Universities should be involved in a student's education throughout the year, including in assessments. Opportunities to gain experience in more than one service area would help those students who found their placement choice too limited, and would produce more rounded professionals. Registration as a social worker should be provisional until the NQSW year is satisfactorily completed. (Paragraph 130)

27.  Many local authorities operating under the pressure of high referrals and caseloads will find it difficult to accommodate Newly-Qualified Social Workers on this basis. We recommend that the Government consider some means of subsidising the employment of an NQSW in recognition of the year acting as an extension of training, such as by extending the bursary scheme for social work students. (Paragraph 131)

Post-Registration Training and Learning (PRTL)

28.  Requirements for post-registration training and learning must be made more stringent, and explicit links made with the formal post-qualifying training expected of professionals at different stages of their career and in different practice specialisms. Courses counting towards the 90 hours needed for re-registration should be approved and accredited by a body with the functions of a 'Social Work Development Partnership'. These courses must be brought clearly within an overall framework of professional development. (Paragraph 134)

The Post-Qualifying Framework

29.  The current offer of post-qualifying training appears to us to be unhelpfully diffuse. Training at this level should become the principal vehicle for specialisation in children and families social work, but this requires both compulsory participation and agreement about the content of courses so that employers know what they are getting, and social workers know what they can expect afterwards in terms of career progression. For example, a clear pathway for developing expertise in child protection should be set out. (Paragraph 139)

30.  We note that the Government has accepted Lord Laming's recommendation to make the General Social Care Council's Code of Practice for Employers of Social Care Workers mandatory, but we are concerned about how effective it will be if it is not supported by inspection frameworks. Furthermore, the Code risks being a blunt instrument unless it sets out the specific development needs of social workers as opposed to 'social care workers'. (Paragraph 141)

31.  Funding for participation in post-qualifying training should be guaranteed centrally for social workers employed in all sectors, rather than being dependent on the differing and changing budget priorities of employers. This funding must be at a level that enables an employer to compensate meaningfully for a social worker's absence for study. (Paragraph 146)

32.  Obtaining a degree in social work must be only the starting point of career-long learning and development. This expectation should be supported by a more formalised structure of career progression linked to training, which would provide clarity for social workers and their employers on the skills that are acquired at each stage and the responsibilities that can then be assumed. We particularly ask for clarity about how the Children's Workforce Development Council's career framework and the Government's intention to develop 'practice-focused' Master's degrees will contribute to this and link to the Post-Qualifying Framework. (Paragraph 149)

33.  Registration as a social worker with the General Social Care Council should be specific to different social work specialisms. No new social worker should be registered to practice a specialism in which they have not previously undertaken a period of supervised and assessed training, whether that is in a student placement or as part of a Newly-Qualified Social Worker year. Re-registration should be dependent on participation in further training within that specialism. (Paragraph 152)

Pay and career structures

34.  We are not persuaded that pay should remain the responsibility of individual employers, particularly given the evidence of how a more vigorous national policy has transformed the outlook for the teaching profession. We therefore recommend that a national pay structure for social work be introduced, allowing for regional variation, incorporating a system of spinal points for extra skills and responsibilities and supported by the necessary funding. (Paragraph 161)

Social work in practice

35.  No social work student should have a placement in a local authority whose services to children and families are assessed by Ofsted as performing poorly. (Paragraph 165)

Pressures in the workplace

36.   We have stressed that education must be a core part of the social work task, but a workforce already stretched beyond its capacity is in no position to realise this ambition. While some aspects of this situation may be addressed creatively through workforce restructuring and partnerships between authorities, we contend that investment is needed on a substantial and sustainable scale, not just directly in training, but in frontline service delivery and workforce capacity. Without such investment, both our recommendations and those of the Social Work Task Force risk falling on stony ground. (Paragraph 169)

Remodelling the workforce

37.  We are encouraged by the example of some local authorities that are restructuring their social work teams in ways that improve the levels of administrative and para-professional support to social workers, while creating roles for senior practitioners as 'consultants'. We consider that these units, as well as offering benefits to staff, offer the potential of a particularly good learning environment for students and newly-qualified social workers, and we would like to see the model taken up by more local authorities. We recommend that the Government formally assess the benefits of this model for social work education. (Paragraph 176)

Agency workers

38.  Agency workers are an important source of flexible, skilled social workers for employers, but we are concerned that their widespread and prolonged use can erode the integrity and continuity of the workforce in a way that may impede the development of student and new social workers. Investment in and planning for the workforce over the long term is the best way to ensure that local authorities do not rely excessively on agency workers. (Paragraph 180)

39.  New social workers joining agencies immediately after graduation potentially lose out on continuity of supervision and development opportunities that come with permanent employment. We note that the expansion of the Newly-Qualified Social Worker Programme in September 2009 will not cover workers in the private sector. Completion of a Newly-Qualified Social Worker year with a statutory sector employer should be made a mandatory condition of full registration, so that no worker can become a locum immediately after completing their degree. We note that Cafcass do not recruit social workers with less than three years' experience; the Government should explore attaching a similar restriction to locum social workers. (Paragraph 181)

40.  The quality of private agencies is currently only known by employers through trial and error. Agencies themselves should be rigorously inspected and rated. (Paragraph 183)

Chief Social Workers

41.  We recommend that the Government establish a formal pilot of Chief Social Worker roles in local authorities. This person would be the lead professional for all social workers employed by the authority, undertaking a role complementary to that of the Director of Children's Services without undermining the latter's statutory accountability. Their functions could include leading collaboration with training providers, taking overall responsibility for practice teaching and student placements, workforce planning, and ensuring that effective supervision and professional development is available to all social workers. (Paragraph 186)

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