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Social work reform

Third Report of Session 2016–17

In January 2016 the Government announced a set of proposals to reform children and families social work. The sector is already under immense pressure, with social workers facing increasing workloads and local authorities wrestling with funding constraints. Effective reform is needed. We heard during our inquiry that the Government proposals had some significant weaknesses. Our Report recommends some important changes.

We call for a strong professional body to address many of the concerns in the reforms. The closure of The College of Social Work last year created an absence in high profile leadership for the profession. A new body would take the lead on a number of crucial functions to deliver improvement in the sector. Instead of spending more money changing regulators, the Government should focus on facilitating the development of a new professional body for social work. This new body should take responsibility for the development of a post-qualifying framework, an accreditation system and workforce planning.

Reforms are being replaced before they have had a chance to settle, and there has been a distinct lack of collaboration with the sector. We recommend that the Government put in place an in-depth plan for delivery of both reforms already launched and new reforms, with a mechanism to assess their success.

Social work is one broad profession, but the different agendas of the Department for Education and the Department of Health are pulling it in two contrary directions. Having One Chief Social Worker rather than two would improve joined-up thinking about social work at a national level. The diversification of ‘qualifying routes’ into children and families social work has the potential to bring in talented practitioners, but the expansion of specialist accelerated schemes risks narrowing the understanding of social workers who need a broad knowledge of issues affecting both children and adults. We are convinced of the need for a generic qualification, but there is a lack of clarity around the Government’s approach. The Frontline model shows signs of promise but more evidence is needed, and its lack of collaboration with universities is concerning. More long-term research about Frontline will help the Government decide on the future arrangement of initial training.

Existing career pathways are confusing, and the current provision of continuing professional development and post-qualifying training is inadequate and inconsistent. A national career development framework is urgently required. The proposed accreditation system has too many unanswered questions and should be subject to further consultation. The Assessed and Supported Year in Employment should be made mandatory for all newly-qualified social workers.

The Government’s new reforms do not focus enough on tackling the endemic retention problems. Poor working conditions, caused by high caseloads, negative media coverage and a dysfunctional ‘blame culture’, are driving experienced social workers from the profession. Limits should be placed on caseloads, and a national workforce planning system created to forecast supply and demand

Finally, we should not ignore the wider context in which children and families social workers operate. We cautiously welcome the attempt to bring more innovation into the children’s social care system but the Government’s proposals are untested. We recommend there should be no expansion of independent trust model until there is proof that it works. Interventions for poorly-performing children’s services should focus less on unnecessary structural change and more on giving local authorities appropriate support during the improvement period.