A workforce ready for the challenge

The government plans to invest heavily in the children's workforce over the next three years. Andy Hillier looks at where the money will be spent and asks how this will affect professionals working with children and young people.

The bar is being raised - this is the message coming loud and clear from the government about the levels of expectations being placed on professionals working in the children and young people's sector.

In April 2008, the government published the strategy document Building Brighter Futures: Next Steps for the Children's Workforce, which outlined its vision for the children's workforce over the next three years. The document, which came just over a year after Unicef rated the UK as the worst industrialised nation in which to grow up, stated that the children and young people's workforce was key to improving the life chances of the younger generation. It added that services needed to be delivered "by skilled and motivated staff, who achieve excellence in their specialism". For the workforce on the ground, this means that new demands will be placed on them.

Raising standards

Arguably the single biggest change will be the need for children's professionals to attain higher levels of qualification than previously expected. In the area of play, for instance, more workers are being encouraged to study to senior practitioner level, or Level 3, to help raise standards and increase the availability of playwork.

To enable this to happen, the government has pledged £7.5m over the next three years to train 4,000 play workers. Alan Sutton, play development manager at London Play, which aims to make play accessible to children in the city, says it is good news that extra money will be available.

"In general, we support the concept of more training," he says. "But we would argue against making playwork a graduate-level profession as in some other areas. This would only put off people from local communities from wanting to get involved."

In the area of children's social work, which has traditionally experienced high levels of staff turnover, almost £73m is being invested over the next three years to improve recruitment, training and professional development. Some of the money will be spent on a high-profile campaign to encourage people from a wider range of backgrounds into the profession and to offer a fast-track route for mature professionals looking to switch careers.

New expectations are also being placed on those working with young people. Professionals who provide young people with information, advice and guidance will be expected to have a Level 4 qualification or above and continue to top up their training. The government plans to invest £25m to introduce these and other reforms across the wider youth workforce.

Susie Roberts, chief executive of the Association of Principal Youth and Community Officers (Apyco), is pleased by the move to encourage staff in the youth sector to gain qualifications. "We definitely want as many people as possible doing qualifications," she says. "Employers need properly qualified people and it will also help address the status problem youth work currently experiences."

Leadership skills

The issue of leadership across the children's workforce has also been identified. In the early years sector, £305m has been allocated to help train more leaders to graduate level with the ultimate hope of raising standards in the sector.

Senior staff will also be encouraged to gain management qualifications such as the National Professional Qualification in Integrated Centre Leadership, which is designed to help equip children's centre leaders with the skills needed to run the services they oversee.

Jane Haywood, chief executive of the Children's Workforce Development Council, which represents employers within the children's sector, believes these proposals and others that were due to be announced in the children's workforce strategy in late November 2008 will strengthen the children's sector in the long term.

But she admits there are some key areas that still need to be tackled, including the variations in pay across the different sectors. "There are some people on poor wages, especially within childcare," she says. "We'd like a simple solution to the problem but there isn't one. Hopefully raising levels across the workforce and the introduction of graduate-level professionals will help."

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