Children's lives are put at risk when those who have responsibility for protecting the most vulnerable are not adequately prepared for the task or supported in performing it. The quality of entrants to the social work profession, the knowledge and skills imparted to them in their training, and the supervision and further development they have access to once in employment are all vital to keeping children safe.
In 2003 the qualification route for social workers changed from a diploma to a Bachelor's or Master's degree. The degrees aim to train social workers to work with either children or adults, and are now mandatory for new social workers registering to practise with the General Social Care Council. After qualification, a variety of different courses and qualifications are available for social workers to maintain and develop their knowledge and skills. We have considered this system to see how effective it is in training those who will work specifically with children and families.
We have heard widely diverging views about whether the current system of training is adequate. Many employers of social workers have pointed out what they regard as deficiencies in the degree programmes, and some view the generic nature of the courses as obstructive to imparting the requisite specialist skills and knowledge for dealing with child protection in particular. Universities emphasise how valuable the generic basis of the training is for social workers dealing with families in the round, and say that employers expect too much from those newly qualified.
The gulf in understanding between employers and educators of social workers has been one of the most troubling aspects of the evidence we have received. Both constituencies need to work in tandem to produce effective training programmes; universities must bear in mind that they are delivering professional training rather than abstracted academic studies, and employers must provide the high-quality training placements that make up half of the training time. We recommend that all training be delivered by formal partnerships of employers and higher education institutions. This would give employers greater opportunities to influence the intake to and content of courses, while making firm commitments to providing placement opportunities.
A common core curriculum for social work degrees should be agreed between universities and employers so that there is clarity about what can be expected of graduates. We consider that the generic basis of the degrees is valuable and should be retained, but that specialist routes should be available. Post-qualification training should be reformed to become a compulsory means of developing social workers from newly-qualified to expert specialist practitioners. The Newly-Qualified Social Worker Programme is a potentially valuable component of this, but should be recognised as an extension of the training period as well as an induction. Beyond their first year, social workers' participation in a more robust and well-defined Post-Qualifying Framework should be compulsory, and should be supported by centralised funding. Partnerships of employers and higher education providers must encompass post-qualification as well; the character of social work as a learning, research-based profession would be enhanced by career-long involvement with higher education. We recommend that it is worth considering the benefits of 'Chief Social Worker' posts in local authorities to champion these aspects of professional practice and facilitate these partnerships.
Stricter control over the type of placements which students undertake during their degrees would allay some concerns about the adequacy of social work training. Placements in statutory agencies should be made a compulsory condition of achieving the social work degree, and students should in all their placements be supervised by a qualified social worker who has, or is working towards, a specific qualification in practice teaching. Quality assurance of practice placements must be included in much more rigorous and active quality assurance of degree courses, but should also be taken into account when local authority children's services are themselves inspected. No new social worker should be registered to take full responsibility for cases pertaining to a particular client group without having undertaken supervised training placements in that specialism.
Stronger national leadership is needed for social work as a profession. The remits of the national sector bodies must be rationalised and clarified, and the Government must authorise one of them to take responsibility for funding and commissioning of social work degree courses and workforce planning. We would welcome an approach similar to that taken by the Government for the teaching profession, with responsibility for training more tightly concentrated in one body, backed by an assumption that a national approach to this workforce is needed. This includes pay and career progression: we recommend the introduction of national pay scales for social workers, with progression that rewards increasing expertise and encourages retention in front-line practice. We recommend that a 'Social Work Development Agency' be established, uniting functions relating to training and development which are at present neglected or spread across other organisations. We also recommend that the General Social Care Council take on more responsibility for professional leadership.
We look forward to the conclusions of the Social Work Task Force. However, we are concerned that too many disparate initiatives have been announced before the Task Force has had an opportunity to reflect, and that a strategic perspective would serve the profession better in the long term.
Our desire to see education and training recognised as core parts of the social work task is jeopardised by one factor above all: the huge pressure under which social work teams in local authorities are currently operating. Where vacancies and caseloads are high, and where teams rely too much on agency workers and suffer turnover of staff, managers cannot spare the time staff need to participate in training or to supervise the training of students. Restricted caseloads for new social workers are not feasible if they join teams struggling to keep pace with referrals. While workforce restructuring should be explored as a way of using resources more efficiently, especially in the interim, we consider that only a substantial injection of resources into front-line social work capacity will in the long term enable the changes in training and professional development we have outlined.