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

6  Social work in practice

162.  Local authorities cannot simply be characterised as the 'consumers' of social work training—those who host practice placements in fact deliver 50% of a student's training.[383] Universities therefore depend on staff in statutory and other agencies to be able to work, teach and supervise to a high standard, and the quality of an organisation overall becomes an important factor in the quality of training.[384]

163.  Professor Preston-Shoot and Roger Kline argued that what is learned at university is often undermined by poor practice or knowledge when in placement or employment:

Professionals experience the employment relation as much more powerful than that of external professional accountability. Despite what they are taught at qualifying and post-qualifying levels in academic curricula, which includes standards of decision-making required by administrative law, powers and duties in legislation and amplified in Government guidance, and human rights, research evidence indicates that practice assessors and managers often foreground for students and staff agency policies and procedures rather than legal and moral duties.[385]

Managing the pressure of child protection investigations, making time to reflect on practice, and ensuring that difficult messages are communicated are all dependent on a supportive environment: "My fear is that a lot of social workers cannot count on that support".[386] As a result, students and practitioners find that their attempts to apply the powers and duties they learned about in training are stymied by a contradictory organisational culture.[387] Liz Davies cited examples of students having a high level of understanding of a case, but the right intervention not being made because the practice teacher's own knowledge of child protection systems is lacking.[388] Dr Eileen Munro noted that improving the training of social workers in risk assessment must be supported by "ensuring that their subsequent work environment creates the conditions in which good risk assessments can be made. This involves recognising the time needed to reflect and formulate an assessment plus the crucial role of critical, reflective supervision."[389] She told us that "you have to accept that the skill is not in the workforce. We need to […] not expect those who have huge case loads and are demoralised and inexperienced themselves to provide that training."[390]

164.  The Training and Development Agency for Schools urges caution about teaching practice placements in schools that are in special measures, and does not fund students in such schools to train on employment-based routes. No such restrictions apply to social work placements. Cathy Ashley commented, "I think there is a question about the suitability of placements in authorities that are deemed to be failing, and whether the culture of the organisation sometimes reinforces poor practice, so you get students going out with the wrong culture."[391] She drew attention to instances where lack of knowledge about legislation has led to illegal practice, or inconsistencies in practice between different social workers which should be ironed out by effective support and supervision.[392] The Office of the Children's Commissioner, 11 Million, suggested that "poorly performing local authorities must satisfy the GSCC that placement supervision and practice will meet required standards."[393]

165.  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.

Pressures in the workplace

166.  Besides concerns about poor professional practice, the more pervasive issue is the pressure under which many children and families teams operate, vacancies, turnover and high caseloads eroding their capacity to spend time on students or prioritise the further learning and development needs of their permanent staff.[394] One practising social worker, a frontline manager, wrote to us describing how working conditions in local authorities affect the quality of supervision new social workers receive, and the ability of staff to participate in post-qualification training:

it is no good coming out with guidelines and policies on supporting and supervising newly-qualified social workers, if the manager has barely enough time to make sure the business end of the service is running correctly; […] I personally love supervising newly-qualified social workers, it is extremely rewarding, but I simply don't have time to do it properly and serious child protection investigations nearly always overtake my good intentions. […] I completed all my post-qualifying study under my own steam; full caseload, time off for the lectures, but all study took place in my own time, I virtually didn't take any leave for two years. There was no extra pay or recognition at the end of it either. […] There is very little training to help you supervise staff once you become a manager. [… When training is available] you come back all fired up to improve your supervision techniques only to be browbeaten by the amount of work you have to complete.[395]

167.  Eleni Ioannides of the Association of Directors of Children's Services told us:

We are in danger of heading towards a crisis, which is a systemic problem. The problem is not just in the training institutions or in the organisations. We have entered into a vicious cycle where we have got a melting pot of pressures within the work that people are doing that does not allow them to create the greatest environment within which to train and nurture students. That in itself does not allow more people to come through, and it means that people are not staying in the profession. […] experienced workers come at a real premium and are difficult to keep hold of. They are the people we need to nurture and support the next generation.[396]

These pressures show every sign of increasing:

Our referral rates since the Baby Peter case have gone up by about 30%, but I spoke to a colleague who is London-based who told me yesterday that their referral rate went up 105%. You are having to battle the moral panic and everything that has come with that and be thinking for the greater good of the whole system that we need to be bringing these social workers on and putting some time aside. We need to be giving some case load relief to some people to do a proper job of student supervision, but case load relief is really difficult and puts a strain on the whole team.[397]

Unison reported results of a survey of children and families social workers showing that more than half are working in teams where more than 20% of posts are vacant.[398]

168.  These are not new problems: the high vacancy rates and widespread use of agency workers among other issues were aired in depth in parliamentary debate at the time of the passage of the Children Act 2004.[399] Baroness Morgan told us, "the point about social work is that we cannot afford not to invest in it […] We are putting £130 million simply from the Department into workforce development initiatives during this period."[400] Looking at training is only one part of the job that has been given to the Social Work Task Force; Bob Reitemeier emphasised that they will be attempting "to make sense of the total picture".[401]

169.  We agree with the Minister that "we cannot afford not to invest" in social work, for the lives of our most vulnerable children are at stake; resources are needed to support local authority social work in practice, not just through training. Many of the recommendations we have made depend on the capacity of those at the frontline to spend more time on training others and undertaking training themselves, and on the ability of their managers to allocate tasks in a way that enables them to do so. 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.

Remodelling the workforce

170.  Sue Berelowitz argued that, in order to improve the standards of social work training, restrictions on the number of students should be contemplated. Recognising that this could pose capacity problems in dealing with the needs of children, she offered a suggestion for restructuring the workforce:

a system in which small teams in locality areas do duty, front-line work, child protection work and so on, while a highly-qualified social worker heads them up. Underneath them, you would have a cohort of non-social work qualified people, who might have other kinds of qualifications. The complex assessment work would be done by the social worker, but the ongoing, more enduring work would be done by other people, who are much easier to recruit and who often stay much longer. They will need to be very closely managed by the qualified social worker. […] The parallel that I would draw with teaching is that there are now more teaching assistants in classrooms. A combination of assistants plus social workers may enable the profession to get to a point—there needs to be a cut-off somewhere—where it has a sufficient number of the right people coming in, while still being able to do work in the intervening period.[402]

171.  Lord Laming recommended the development of a 'remodelling' strategy for children's social work. The Task Force have noted that

Remodelling in teaching appears to have had significant benefits for the profession and the quality of support it provides to children and young people—in particular by clarifying the distinctive contribution of the teacher and by bringing people with other roles and skills into the classroom. The Task Force is keen to ensure that its recommendations secure similar clarity of purpose for social work, and to explore the role of administrative, para-professional and other roles in working alongside social workers to provide the service that users need.[403]

172.  From the recently-qualified social workers we met, we heard about variable access to administrative support in different workplaces. The most encouraging reports came from a social worker who worked within a 'unit' to which cases are collectively allocated, and includes an administrator who is familiar with all those cases. Less encouraging was the example given by one social worker, qualified with a Master's degree, who found herself spending half a day ordering taxis. There was however, some support for the idea that being involved in all aspects of a case, however procedural, enables a social worker to advocate more effectively for a child or a family.

173.  The idea of restructuring social work teams into units offers some hope of producing environments more conducive to good quality training placements, and better able to cope with the added pressure hosting a student can put on staff.[404] Bruce Clark reported that Cafcass find student units bring both economies of scale and benefits for the learning experience of several students placed together.[405] Dr Eileen Munro felt that student units would provide both students and hosts some protection from the effect of placements being located in teams carrying heavy caseloads and staffed by demoralised or inexperienced workers. Dr Munro described this as "a remedial solution, which may become permanent".[406] Hackney Council took the idea one stage further, proposing a restricted number of 'teaching local authorities'.[407]

174.  Baroness Morgan told us that the Government "is investing from the autumn in further support for coaching of social work team managers and improving training to deal with difficult decisions such as how you run a team, how you manage resources, division of labour and how you ensure you have time in your programme for bringing on the next generation of the profession."[408]

175.  There could be some dangers in the adoption of a unit model. A visit to New York and Washington D.C. in May 2009 gave us some insight into the organisation of social work in the United States. Although children's services are configured very differently in different states, we observed a widespread assumption that those who qualify with the highly-regarded Bachelor's or Master's degrees in social work will enter the workplace in supervisory or management roles. The majority of contact with families—even child protection investigation work—will in many teams be done by 'caseworkers', who may not have any directly relevant qualifications. In our report on Looked-after Children, we expressed concerns that those members of the workforce with most contact with children and families seemed often to be those with the least training or experience.[409] We would have reservations about any workforce restructuring that resulted in the majority of direct work with families being undertaken by unqualified staff, and the majority of qualified social workers automatically entering supervisory roles. Nevertheless, it is clear that social work teams can be structured in ways that are more or less conducive to social workers undertaking the tasks for which they were trained. Other measures may be needed to support such arrangements: if there is increasing reliance on family support workers in the absence of qualified social workers, for example, a robust training package for those workers should be developed.[410] Any large scale restructuring of the workforce would need to be based on a careful assessment of the functions that are needed in children's social work and how these are vested in certain roles.

176.  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.

Agency workers

177.  Of the nearly 6,000 social workers qualified through the degree route to have registered with the GSCC, 6% are employed by agencies supplying locums to other employers.[411] A survey of two-thirds of England's children's services authorities in January 2009 showed that the total proportion of agency and temporary staff stood at 6.9%, but was higher in councils that were known to be experiencing particular difficulties in service delivery; 30% in Haringey and 26% in Doncaster, for example.[412] The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families reported in March 2009 that at that time there were around 5,500 agency staff in the country filling social work posts on a short term basis.[413]

178.  The recently-qualified social workers we met reported that new social workers can enter employment with an agency immediately after qualifying and earn more than they would in a local authority. They told us that it is widely regarded as being a smart career move to obtain a couple of years' experience in a statutory setting, and then join an agency to secure a higher salary (even if at the expense of job security and a local authority pension).[414] James Brown, Managing Director of agency Social Work 2000 explained that the profile of agency workers is a mixture of newly-qualified staff who are either unable to find a permanent post or wish or sample different employers, and very experienced social workers who want to have more control over their careers.[415]

179.  Bruce Clark of Cafcass told us that, in his opinion

the presence of agency staff on the current scale in children's social work is entirely corrosive and injurious to the interests of children and families. There are mixed issues about their quality, although they are no doubt all registered social workers, but the discontinuity that is created […] cannot be a good way to deliver sensitive, positive engagement with children and families in these most difficult cases.[416]

180.  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.

181.  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.

182.  Asked about the impact of agency workers, Eleni Ioannides, Director of Children's Services at Bury Council, told us

We have taken the line that we will not keep any agency staff long term, because they were getting comfortable with us, being paid at a higher rate and not moving on. We finish them after three months, and if they want to work for us they have to apply. That was a risky decision and it has worked for us, but it might not have. Not everybody is in a position to do that. Certainly in London you cannot be in a position to do that […] The agencies are very important to us at the moment, but it is disappointing that they have to be. […] Some are and some aren't [well trained]. It is very hit and miss. Each local authority probably has its own systems for working with particular agencies that they trust more, have greater faith in and work in partnership with. […] the more desperate you are, the lower level your quality assurance process will inevitably be, because some things have to be done regardless.[417]

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

Chief Social Workers

184.  The British Association of Social Workers suggested that every organisation delivering a social work service should identify a "lead social worker" to assume responsibility for the education and development of social workers in that organisation. They reported that one large local authority, recognising that it employs social workers in several different directorates, is considering establishing a Chief Social Worker post reporting to the Chief Executive as a way of supporting its social work staff. BASW argue that "a strong social work voice in the corporate senior management team" is the only protection for frontline social workers against pressure to meet organisational targets to the detriment of good professional practice.[418]

185.  Professor Sue White told the Committee that in some organisations employing social workers "people at high levels do not necessarily understand what social work tasks are […] there are then issues about decision-making very high up in children's services departments where, perhaps, directors do not have a social work background".[419] Bridget Robb of BASW argued that if directors of children's services do not have social work expertise, a Chief Social Worker—someone who has maintained their practice knowledge and skills—could help to lead thinking for the profession in the directorate.[420] Bruce Clark of Cafcass was not convinced by the idea: "To my mind, it smacks of the rosy days that we are all too young to remember, of the '50s and '60s, of having the children's officer in each local authority. I think it sets a tone, but I am not sure that it makes a difference. […] At the very least, I cannot see it doing any harm, which is always a good start."[421]

186.  It is vital that the changes that are needed in training and ongoing professional development for social workers are understood and advocated at the highest level of the organisations that employ them. In resource-strapped local authorities, these needs may be difficult to protect. 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.

383   Qq 23, 164 [Professor Preston-Shoot]  Back

384   Q 136 [Professor Preston-Shoot] Back

385   Ev 70 Back

386   Q 145 Back

387   Q 180 Back

388   Q 137 Back

389   Ev 68 Back

390   Q 136 Back

391   Q 273 Back

392   Qq 234-5, 240 Back

393   Ev 105 Back

394   Qq 45, 314; Ev 203-4 Back

395   Ev 195-7 Back

396   Q 185 Back

397   Q 207; see also Ev 194. Back

398   Unison, Still slipping through the net? (2009) Back

399   See for example, HC Deb, 13 September 2004, cols 1015 ff.; see also Ev 199. Back

400   Qq 302-3 Back

401   Q 33 Back

402   Qq 280-1 Back

403   First Report of the Social Work Task Force (5 May 2009), p 13 Back

404   Q 46 Back

405   Q 188 Back

406   Q 136 Back

407   Ev 91; Q 187 Back

408   Q 290 Back

409   Children, Schools and Families Committee, Third Report of Session 2008-09, Looked-after Children, HC 111-I, para 29 Back

410   Ev 200 Back

411   GSCC, Raising standards (February 2009), para 42 Back

412   'Highest vacancy rate in London boroughs', Community Care, 15 April 2009 Back

413   'Government aim to recruit mid-career social workers', Department for Children, Schools and Families press notice 2009/0044, 1 March 2009 Back

414   See Annex; Ev 123 Back

415   Q 245; see also Ev 197. Back

416   Q 223 Back

417   Qq 215-7 Back

418   Ev 16 Back

419   Qq 70-71 Back

420   Q 68 Back

421   Qq 225, 229 Back

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