Special Report: Social Work With Children and Families - Policy context

Derren Hayes
Thursday, May 4, 2017

The 2014 book, Baby P: The Untold Story, by Ray Jones, emeritus professor of social work at Kingston University and St George's University of London, explains the impact of the death of Peter Connelly in August 2007 on the social work profession.

Among other things it:

  • Increased social workers' fear of making mistakes, prompting them to intervene with more families;
  • Undermined policymakers' confidence in them, resulting in more government intervention when services were deemed to be inadequate;
  • And caused recruitment and retention problems as many decided to leave the profession.

It also acted as the basis for a series of changes to the social work profession, the effects of which are still being seen today.

The shape of the workforce

In 2012, there were 27,100 children's social workers employed in England's 152 councils (23,300 full-time equivalent staff). After falls in 2013 and 2014, numbers over the past two years have been on the rise. The most recent data, published in February by the Department for Education and covering the 12 months up to September 2016, shows numbers of social workers had risen to 29,930 (27,700 full-time equivalent). This represents a rise of 10 per cent in the workforce (19 per cent in full-time staff) between 2012 and 2016, with the rate increasing 4.7 per cent over the last 12 months (see graphics).

An encouraging workforce trend is the fall in the proportion of children's social worker jobs that are vacant, from 17.1 per cent in 2015 to 16.7 per cent in 2016. Despite the fall, vacancy rates are more than double the 2012 level (seven per cent), highlighting how they surged in the two years after that.

Staff turnover also rose significantly over the same period - in 2012, it was 11 per cent, but by 2014 this had risen to 17 per cent, reflecting how a shortage of workers was encouraging employers to offer significant incentives to attract staff from other authorities. The turnover rate has now dropped back to 15.1 per cent, partly as a result of employers working collectively across regions to standardise pay rates and terms and conditions (see practice example).

The rise in vacancies has seen the proportion of children's social workers provided by agencies increase significantly over the past five years. Since 2012, when three per cent of posts were filled by agency workers, rates for such staff have risen steadily to reach 16.1 per cent by 2016 (see graphics). There are wide variations between regions and individual councils for the use of agency staff - from 27 per cent in outer London boroughs to eight per cent in Yorkshire and Humber; from 36 per cent in Sunderland to three per cent in Middlesbrough.

 

Training and qualifications

The Skills for Care report, Social Work Education in England, published in November 2016, outlines trends in social worker training and employment destinations. It shows that during the 2014/15 academic year, 4,400 students enrolled on undergraduate and postgraduate social work courses, a four per cent fall on the number in 2013/14 and significantly down on the 5,620 in 2009/10. There is a trend towards more people qualifying through postgraduate routes than from undergraduate courses.

The fall in student numbers could explain why the number of Health and Care Professions Council-approved social work programmes run by higher education institutions has fallen from 276 in 2014 to 250 now (see graphics).

Skills for Care estimates that around 67 per cent of all 2014/15 social work education graduates were employed as social workers within six months of graduation. This equates to around 2,900 newly qualified social workers in employment. This percentage has been rising steadily since 2011/12 when it stood at 56 per cent. Postgraduate qualifiers (72 per cent) and qualifiers aged 24 or over (68 per cent) were more likely to find employment in social work than were undergraduate qualifiers (64 per cent) and those aged under 24 years (61 per cent).

How many of these graduates end up working in children and families services is unclear. However, the DfE's children's social work workforce statistics show that in 2016, a third of all those starting new jobs were aged under 30.

A recent policy development has been the creation of fast-track programmes, Step Up to Social Work and Frontline, to train graduates as children's social workers. Now recruiting its fifth cohort, Step Up to Social Work trainees receive 14 months of training and a bursary of more than £19,000. The number of places available has risen by 37.5 per cent in 2017 to 550, after last year's scheme received more than 4,000 applications.

Meanwhile, the two-year Frontline programme, launched by Ark in 2013, sees high-calibre graduates train in local authority child protection teams. Last autumn, the scheme expanded from London and Manchester to the North East and West Midlands, with 300 places being available in 2017.

By 2020, the government wants all local authorities to be able to access the scheme, and hopes to have trained 3,000 new workers through fast-track schemes. This will be supplemented by the Firstline programme for social work managers. Launched in November 2016, Firstline will train 400 children's social work leaders by 2019 through funding from the DfE's Children's Social Care Innovation Programme.

The government believes fast-track schemes are helping attract higher calibre people into children's social work. For existing professionals, it has also developed the new knowledge and skills statements developed by chief children's social worker Isabelle Trowler that set out everything practitioners, supervisors and leaders need to know to do their jobs. These will form the basis of a new assessment system to revalidate practitioners' skills - which will need to be passed to achieve three new professional statuses: Approved Child and Family Practitioner, Practice Supervisor and Practice Leader. The system, which was trialled last year by 1,000 practitioners, will be rolled out across the country by September 2018. However, some organisations such as the Association of Directors of Children's Services fear this could create a two-tier workforce (see ADCS view, below).

Changes in practice

The Peter Connelly case led to a high-profile review of child protection in social work by Professor Eileen Munro. Published in 2011, the review concluded that children's social workers had become too defensive in their practice, overloaded by bureaucracy and starved of time to spend with children and families. The then coalition government's response to Munro's recommendations was to give councils greater freedoms over how child protection services were delivered. The reforms sparked a revival of relationship-based social work in some local authorities like Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire and Leeds (see practice example). Forging strong relationships with children and families and with internal and external colleagues are at the core of children's social work, says Tiffany Green from the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) (see expert view, below). Recent research has also shown that social workers' encounters with children and families have little benefit when they are overcome by workload or bureaucracy demands (see research evidence).

The need to change how children's social workers engage with families has also been a central theme in the DfE's innovation programme since its launch in 2014. Many of the projects awarded funding from the initial £100m pot focused on redesigning children's social care so that social workers and other children's professionals could develop closer bonds with families in order to better understand and meet their needs and improve outcomes for children. For example, Ealing Council's Brighter Futures initiative saw social workers develop skills to support families with older children who were at risk of being taken into care. Smaller caseloads helped social workers at the west London authority have the time to build trusting and consistent relationships with young people and help prevent the need for care for many of them (see practice example). Meanwhile, in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, specialist administrators have been employed to free social workers from red tape and enable them to spend 25 per cent more time working directly with children and families (see practice example).

A number of the projects already awarded funding under the £200m second phase of the innovation programme aim to spread relationship-based social work to other areas. For example, Hertfordshire Council has been awarded £11.6m to extend its family safeguarding model to Bracknell Forest, Luton, Peterborough and West Berkshire councils.

Policy threats

Being able to recruit sufficient social workers to meet rising demand on social care is one of the greatest challenges facing children's services. With care applications at record levels and local authority funding under intense pressure, experts are concerned that caseloads could rise, once again squeezing the amount of time practitioners have to develop relationships with children and families. Workforce pressures remain high. Any deterioration in job vacancy rates could see retention levels fall, with the result being more looked-after children experiencing changes in social worker.

Maddie Jennings, parliamentary officer for BASW, says there are concerns among its members that the government's rhetoric on investing in social work skills is not matched by action, and that reforms aim to "de-skill social workers", so that face-to-face work with families is to be increasingly handed over to volunteers.

Jennings also says that the growth in "outsourcing" of children's social care functions from councils to independent trusts is changing the relationship social workers have with families. "For a long time, social workers were considered agents of the state, but that is being eroded," she adds. "Most children aren't aware of the distinction but it has an impact on adults."

The government is yet to decide on plans to introduce a new requirement on social workers to mandatorily report instances of suspected or actual abuse, with severe punishments including prison for failure to do so. If pursued BASW fears it could undermine the relationships social workers have with children and families. "Social work is all about relationship building," says Jennings. "That's harder to maintain if everything the child might say could be mandatorily reported, whether about child abuse or terrorism."

The Children and Social Work Bill, due for Royal Assent imminently,  taken in conjunction with reforms to higher education, could also see financial support eroded for students undertaking university social work degrees, with priority given to those taking the fast-track route, says Jennings. This she fears could reduce the diversity of routes into the profession and those entering it.

Despite these concerns, Jennings says children's social work is "recovering its professional standing". Its necessarily confidential nature and public perception derived from media coverage mean it is not an easy profession to promote. It is why a national campaign is needed to educate and encourage more to consider social work as a career, she adds.

ADCS VIEW CHANGE THE NARRATIVE ON SOCIAL WORK

By Alison Michalska, president, Association of Directors of Children's Services

When you're fully immersed in the world of children's services, it can be hard to remember that many people struggle to articulate what a social worker, particularly a child and family social worker, does. A recent ComRes survey, which showed that around three in 10 people think social workers help with the cooking and cleaning or assist with childcare, really brought this home to me. Our colleagues in the police, health and schools do not have this issue, so why do we? Part of the problem is that relatively small numbers of people have contact with social workers; the significant media coverage surrounding desperately sad situations typically colours perceptions. This is compounded by the lack of a clear narrative about this life-saving work.

My predecessor Dave Hill instigated a year-long "changing the narrative" campaign about the care system using the voices of children and young people. Via Children in Care Councils, Dave asked them to help him by sharing their experiences. There were oodles of positive submissions about social workers. Two really caught my eye: "I never really had anyone to talk to but now I've got a new social worker, I feel I can talk to her about anything", and "The way people treat social workers is rubbish when all they are trying to do is help us."

Social work is more than a profession, it's a vocation. How many roles can truly transform people's lives? Wouldn't it be great if we could get these messages out far and wide? This is to be a key role for the new social work regulator, Social Work England. This is welcome, but given it will not be operational until 2018, more can and must be done now. I would urge the government to work with ourselves and other representative bodies, to that end.

At the 2016 National Children and Adult Services Conference, Justine Greening, the Secretary of State for Education, said we should aim for a world-class children's social care system that will ensure no child is left behind, stating this remains a consistent priority for the government. This rather overlooks the fact that we already have one of the safest child protection systems in the world and that other countries consistently look to us for inspiration.

Each and every day social workers make difficult decisions, sometimes in high-risk situations, to safeguard the most vulnerable from harm. This is no mean feat and while we welcome the government's focus on improving the quality and confidence of the children and family social work workforce, too many questions remain unanswered about assessment and accreditation.

ADCS is concerned that current plans could destabilise an already fragile workforce and result in the creation of a two-tier system. In the context of falling budgets and rising demand, the £23m the government has allocated to assessment and accreditation would be better spent on supporting early help services or developing a national recruitment and retention strategy for social workers.

EXPERT VIEW FOUR KEY RELATIONSHIPS CHILDREN'S SOCIAL WORKERS NEED TO MAKE

By Tiffany Green, ambassador, British Association of Social Workers

In my mind, there is no disputing that the best approach to social work is relationship-based practice. Relationships are the foundation of what we do and facilitate our work as change agents. There are four key relationships social workers need to cultivate in order to be as effective as possible.

The first, and arguably the most important relationship, is with the self. Social workers need to understand their role so as not to blur boundaries and be able to be open and honest. Social workers need to understand themselves including our own values, biases and prejudices so as not to impose these onto our clients. We need to be comfortable not knowing and in being challenged. Social workers need to have confidence with clients and management. We need to understand and embrace the role of advocate for the needs of vulnerable people as well as our own needs in order to do the job most effectively.

The second most important relationship a social worker has is with clients. Building and having quality relationships with clients is crucial in doing thorough assessments; as a foundation for future work; as a means to help people experiencing relationship difficulties and for those reliant upon services for their wellbeing; as a holding space in times of transition; as a foundation for capacity building; and as a medium that can evidence the impact of social change, injustice and transition on children and families.

Third, a social worker's relationship with their organisation via line managers is critical because they act as a model of positive relationships. Relationship-based practice at every level of an organisation has a trickle-down effect. Supportive relationships between senior management and line managers model positive and effective leadership and management. Supportive relationships between social workers and line managers help model and facilitate relationships between social workers and families that are able to positively impact relationships between parents and children.

Lastly, social workers' relationships with partners are vital to the work we do because we cannot do it alone. We need support services to supplement the work we do. We need partner agencies to accept and embrace their responsibility to safeguard instead of seeing social services or a referral as the end.

Social services and the work of social workers are a means to an end, in partnership, not the end itself. We need early intervention programmes, youth services, outreach workers and support workers to alleviate the pressure and strain on the system as well as to work with us to help families.

Social work is a holistic profession as we need the contributions of everyone from senior managers, line managers, support services, partners and clients in order to effect meaningful lasting change in the lives of the most vulnerable among us.

FURTHER READING

Children's Social Work Workforce Statistics, DfE, February 2017

Social Work Education in England, Skills for Care, November 2016

Munro Review of Child Protection, Final Report, DfE, May 2011

Relationship-based Social Work, Edited by Gillian Ruch, Danielle Turney and Adrian Ward, JKP, 2010

This article is part of CYP Now's special report on social work with children and families. Click here for more

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