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BASW England response to the publication of ‘Confidence in Practice’ – the response to the consultation on the National Assessment and Accreditation Scheme (NAAS) for children’s social care

The Department of Education (DfE) has published ‘Confidence in Practice’, the long-awaited government response to the National Assessment and Accreditation Scheme (NAAS) Consultation. This is a statement on behalf of BASW England.

BASW appreciates and fully supports ambitions for continuous improvement in social work practice, including the development of post-qualifying benchmarks and awards of achievement in specialist and advanced capabilities. The approach and concept of NAAS has, however, raised questions and concerns across the sector since inception, and the consultation response leaves many of these issues unaddressed or only partially answered.

We are pleased to see a stronger commitment to working with the practitioner and employer sectors, and the references to working with BASW, including working on the alignment of the Professional Capabilities Framework (PCF) and Knowledge and Skills Statement (KSS). Confidence in Practice acknowledges the importance of the PCF in workforce development, education and practice.  

There is reference in the report to recruiting ‘more high calibre recruits’ to be ‘taught through a curriculum based on the Knowledge and Skills statement’.  We know high quality social workers already exist in the sector and we want high quality social workers for generations to come.  We recognise the value of a workforce derived from diverse backgrounds. We hope this reference to ‘calibre’ means the value brought to the profession by a range of personal qualities and abilities, and by the variety of training routes into the profession – including (soon) apprenticeships as well as mainstream BA and Masters programmes.

We are concerned and determined to ensure that the PCF remains at the heart of generic, initial social work education and the post-qualifying frameworks for the whole profession to improve coherence and consistency.

As the custodians of the PCF, BASW is relaunching the PCF in the first week of February 2018 and we are intent on ensuring social workers, employers and educationalists have clarity about how the PCF and KSS (and other specialist curricula) can work together to support good practice while ensuring a coherent social work identity.  We feel that the KSS statements paint a clear picture of what “good” looks like in some areas of practice. The challenge is more about how this is achieved.

We welcome and acknowledge the ‘more measured’ approach to roll out described in the document and the stated intention to evaluate incrementally its effectiveness and consequences in a small number of authorities in the initial and second phases. This is presented as mitigating risks of unintended consequences and implementation failures which were inherent in the earlier approach to widescale roll out of the scheme.

We are rather perplexed by the reference to the ‘child and family social work profession’.  The legal protected title is ‘social worker’ and remains thus under plans for new regulation. We would be very concerned if NAAS is seen to be stepping stone to creating a distinct ‘profession’. Child and family social work is a specialism within social work and its connectivity to other specialisms is important both for reasons of good practice (e.g. across the generations and across areas of need) and for workforce flexibility and changes of role through a lifelong career.

The rationale for NAAS is given overall as the need to raise standards of practice. The reports notes ‘failures of practice’ in 69% of Ofsted inspections since 2016, and practice improvement recommendations being made in 74% of cases and says this suggests a ‘systemic problem’ in practice.

We don’t fully recognise this stark claim about widespread or ‘systemic’ failure of individual practice and we continue to worry that this commentary is likely to exacerbate demoralisation and concomitant instability in an already turbulent workforce.

We believe fully addressing poor management and leadership, lack of continuous learning and career development opportunities, poor organisational culture, an overreliance on process and bureaucracy (and squeeze on time for direct work) and chronic underfunding may be more important determinants of ‘quality’ than testing individuals’ competence.

We appreciate changes in professional development, organisational context and leadership are referenced in the document, but there is still no strong case that NAAS is necessary or sufficient to bring about widespread improvement, or that it deserves so much weight in financial investment and policy.  What is the evidence base for success particularly compared to the experience of other UK nations who operate differently?

Good employers that overcome these organisational issues are achieving very promising outcomes for children, good Ofsted ratings and are ambitious for even more. It is unclear to us that the main children’s social care employers believe NAAS is the best or only way to invest in social work and ensure improvements.

‘Confidence in Practice’ recognises that the NAAS model depends on employers’ comprehensively supporting social workers to prepare for assessment.  But we believe there is not enough recognition of existing effective workforce development schemes, such as social work academies, and the role of the Universities.

The report also raises more questions than it answers about the relationship between attaining NAAS, career progression, performance and future registration. While we appreciate this will largely be a matter for individual employers, the uncertainty is inevitably a worry for social workers in a sector already rife with uncertainty.  We look forward to hearing the employers organisations’ responses to this.

Finally, if there is value in in testing specific knowledge and skills, we remain curious that NAAS has no framework for refresher or ongoing professional development of practice.  A comparison may be made with the Approved Mental Health Professional (AMHP) role. This has a process of re-approval through presentation of evidence every five years and annual refresher training which is defined in legislation. This provides good governance and assurance of ongoing learning.  It is hard to understand how NAAS will be able to provide the wished-for assurance of ongoing capability after testing without a similar framework of required ongoing learning and re-approval. 

In conclusion, BASW is committed to working with all stakeholders and authorities to develop a post-qualifying framework for social work that draws on best practice in learning and development theory and practice, and which is embedded in professional motivation and ownership.  We appreciate NAAS is intending to address a specific ‘gap’ in specialism, but we believe we need to reassert and promote the importance of a whole-profession framework with which specialised attainment programmes need to sit. This is the PCF for England and we look forward to promoting the next iteration of this in the new year.

Although there are significant areas of difference on this area of social work reform, BASW remains committed as the professional body for social work across the UK to working constructively with governments on our many areas of mutual concern and ambition.  We have an on-going relationship with the Ministers of State and the Chief Social Workers in England. The BASW England Committee recently welcomed a representative from the DfE Social Work Reform Unit.  We were also very pleased that the Minister for children’s social care attended the recent social work awards ceremony. We will continue to come together in our joint commitment to excellent social work practice that makes a real difference to the lives of children and families.

Andy Gill (BASW England Chair), Angie Bartoli (BASW England Vice-Chair) and Ruth Allen (CEO, BASW).