Children and Social Work Act, Part 4: Social Work - Social progress?

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In the final part of this series, Ann Marie Christian sets out the changes to social work from an early years perspective, and looks at the controversies

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Social workers work with children and their families to help improve outcomes in their lives. They help to protect vulnerable adults and children from harm or support people to live independently. Where a child meets the threshold for social work intervention, they assess the child’s needs and whether their parents/caregivers can prioritise these over their own in order for the child to thrive and be safe.

In theory, settings will have frequent contact with social workers, sharing an early intervention, child in need and child protection agenda. This may be via referrals about children in their setting, and via multi-agency meetings about specific children, such as for Education Health Care plans. Yet social workers are under pressure, which is leading caseloads to mount, meaning settings can be hard-pressed to make regular contact with them.

The new Children and Social Work Act puts more emphasis on continuous learning and strict standards for social workers. Social workers who do not keep updated may be penalised.

Former children’s minister Edward Timpson said the act ‘introduces a new, bespoke regulator for social work that will be empowered to raise standards in social work. It also paves the way for a new system of assessment and accreditation, which will give social workers opportunities to develop and progress.’

The Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC), which has regulated social workers, and of which Government has been critical, will no longer do so. While the HCPC is funded by registration fees, and independent of Government, Social Work England will be funded by both.

It will be a quango (non-departmental public body), accountable to Government (the HCPC was accountable to Parliament). This is because the Government wants more control over the way social workers are trained.

The changes

  • A new dedicated independent regulator of social workers, Social Work England, focused purely on social workers. It will be provisionally set up from September 2018. The new body will keep a register of social workers in England.
  • A new system of assessment and accreditation. Post-qualifying expectations of specific CPD and standards to be maintained the whole career of the registered social worker.
  • Professional standards devised and published by the regulator, with the consent of the education secretary. Previously under the HCPC these only had to be consulted on by relevant parties. Registered students will have to follow standards of conduct or ethics.
  • New powers for the education secretary to set improvement standards.
  • The UK has a high turnover of social workers. Nearly one in five is employed by an agency (more than 5,000 out of nearly 28,000), according to DfE figures. The average social worker has to juggle 16 cases at any one time.

Implications for the early years

Social workers will have to maintain their registration by completing necessary courses set by the regulator. This is a positive change because they will be updated on relevant research and changes in the profession relating to child protection practice and decision-making. The act also promotes improvement in multi-agency work at the local level to safeguard children, and this will improve joint working between agencies.

Social care services will provide children in care with extra support. There will be, in theory, stronger multi-agency co-ordination in safeguarding cases. The new act defines what good corporate parenting is so agencies will have clearer expectations on how to access support and know who the lead practitioners are (see part 3 of this series).

THE CHILDREN AND SOCIAL WORK ACT AND CONTROVERSY

The original bill included clauses that would have exempted local authorities from meeting key existing statutory duties. According to Jane Tunstill and Carolyne Willow, writing in Social Work and Social Sciences Review, ‘The exemption clauses would have dramatically altered the nature of local authority social care provision in respect of children … shifting it from a national system underpinned by universal legal entitlements to a state of fragmented and precarious rights managed by a select few within and close to Whitehall.’ Following a concerted Together for Children campaign from social work bodies and other groups, the clauses were dropped from the final act.

Now, the act has been welcomed as broadly positive. But against a backdrop of austerity, with four in 10 councils saying they don’t have enough money to meet one or more of their statutory duties to children, some commentators are questioning the new local safeguarding arrangements and corporate parenting responsibilities. Three-quarters of English councils exceeded their budgets for children’s services last year. Some are already outsourcing children’s social care. Is this a way of introducing efficiency while retaining standards? Or will children’s social care go the way of some adult services, with private care homes and downward pressure on salaries, conditions and qualifications?

Ann Marie Christian is an independent safeguarding and child protection consultant.

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