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BLOG: Employer Standards 'refresh' must put onus on prioritising social worker supervision, safety and CPD

One important aspect of the Social Work Reform Board’s work was the development of Employer Standards, which laid out how employers should support and deal with their social work staff. At one point there was talk of employers being licensed to employ social workers and being at risk of losing that licence if they did not properly support this important group of staff.

The Employer Standards Group is hosted by the Local Government Association (LGA) and BASW is represented on that group, along with local authority chief executives, directors, human resources colleagues, agencies, the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC), Unison and The College of Social Work (TCSW). A small amount of funding has been used to try to spread the word about the Standards among employers and social workers, and the expectations these place upon them. Ofsted has now agreed that it will look for signs of the Standards being implemented when inspecting children’s services.

A survey of social workers took place recently to measure progress since 2011. Many BASW members took part but it was interesting to see that very few of the respondents came from settings other than local authorities, indicating that the Standards may have had little impact in other locations, such as health settings and across the third sector.

The detailed results of the survey are fascinating, but this article will focus only on supervision and continuing professional development (CPD). The Standards require employers to provide at least 90 minutes of regular, uninterrupted supervision a month for social workers and to support their CPD, as well as running annual healthchecks to ensure the working environment and caseload management systems are suitable [find out more about the Employer Standards on BASW’s website – it’s well worth a read].

The findings from nearly 2,200 social work respondents show that progress to date is variable. Of course, the recession and the financial pressures this has brought have hit many employers of social workers very hard. However, a well supervised and well supported workforce will be happier and more productive, so ignoring the Standards would seem unhelpful. As Mark Rogers, Chairman of the Group, says: “Protecting vulnerable children and adults is the most important thing that local authorities and their partners do. Councils, unions and their partners within the Employer Standards Group are committed to improving the quality of social services by supporting the professional development of social workers, monitoring and raising standards of practice and creating a safe and productive working environment.”

One is forced to wonder whether all employers of social workers have the same aims or whether a sense of panic and a focus on short-term targets has led to a worsening of attitudes towards staff.

The survey findings on the level of supervision provided by employers reveal some excellent examples of practice in certain areas. In some instances this features warm comments about particular managers and the amount and type of supervision on offer, with most receiving supervision from a registered social worker. That said, fewer than half of respondents regularly receive supervision at least once a month for 90 minutes, which is surely a minimal requirement and makes sufficient allowance for the times when supervision has to be postponed – it should never be cancelled. Just over half found that supervision covered the key areas, but among the sizable minority of cases where this was not the case are complaints about supervision focuseing only on meeting targets rather than on the impact of the work and on the worker’s own development needs. 

Fewer than half of respondents had access to a quiet space for supervision (and for confidential interviews with service users), and many found that it was interrupted by phone calls. Many of those with line management responsibilities expressed interested in training to help them deliver good supervision, but found they could not gain access to this – over half did not know whether their employer offered such assistance.

On the subject of CPD, over 40% of respondents thought they were not offered sufficient time, resources and support for learning and development, although 35% were happy with what was on offer to them. Specific comments made by respondents included the view that employers seemed grudging about offering CPD and that only mandatory learning opportunities were available. Concern was also expressed that with the demise of the General Social Care Council (GSCC) as the regulator of social work in England, and its previous requirement that social workers engaged in 15 days, or 90 hours, of CPD (described as Post-Registration Training and Learning) activity every three years, employers were now less concerned about the issue. Since the new regulator, the HCPC, still requires evidence of learning and development, however, this requirement has not disappeared, but merely altered in form.

The Employer Standards Group is to review the Standards as part of what it terms a ‘refresh’. BASW as a key member of this group will be fighting to ensure they are not watered down. The refresh must be aimed at driving up levels of engagement and ensuring the original purpose of the Standards’ introduction is not lost amidst the pressure of austerity and a shifting political agenda. It is hardly unreasonable for social workers to have regular supervision, to have attention paid to our CPD needs, and to have a safe working environment. The cost cannot be prohibitive when the gains are so manifest.

Even if employers cannot bring themselves to admit they love and value their social workers, the absence of focus on supervision, safety and CPD just does not look good if an agency is subject to public scrutiny for some reason – which we all know can happen at any time when a tragedy, avoidable or otherwise, strikes. It is time for employers who force their social workers to operate in damaging and unproductive systems to be held to account.

I urge social workers to look at the Standards and ask whether your employer is implementing them. Raise the issue with your managers and directors if they are not implementing them and express your concerns if they are acknowledging them but to little effect.

And of course if they are one of the employers that is successfully implementing the Standards (there are a few), congratulate yourself on working for them and contributing to this success, and be prepared to share your experience with others. The Standards can give strength to social workers to campaign locally (BASW will do this nationally) for better treatment and to improve standards and outcomes for service users, so do look at them and see how your employer measures up.