Thursday, 2 March 2017

The Government’s proposals for children’s social worker accreditation – a good idea, but horribly flawed in the making

The Government is consulting on the proposed introduction of an accreditation system for children’s social workers.

The plan is to introduce a national post qualification specialism in child and family social work comprising three levels of seniority: the child and family practitioner, the practice supervisor and the practice leader. The specialist knowledge and skills needed to undertake each area of social work successfully are set out in three documents, one for each ‘level’.

The Government expects all child and family social workers to become accredited over time and promises to work progressively with employers to achieve this.

You can respond to the consultation yourself by 14th March.

I am in favour of having post qualification specialisation and accreditation in social work,
but – and it is a very big BUT – an accreditation scheme has to be well-thought-out. It has to be well-designed and well-executed. It must result in practitioners who are more knowledgeable and more competent. It must clearly contribute to improving quality and safety of services. I don’t think that the Government’s proposals describe a scheme like that. Let me explain why.

A good post qualification accreditation scheme begins with analysis of the gap between the knowledge and skills conferred by basic training and the knowledge and skills required to deliver high quality and safe services in the most challenging of circumstances. What more does a highly experienced practitioner need to know to practice at an advanced or specialist level? This gap analysis needs to be detailed and thorough, setting out clearly and meticulously the required competencies for advanced or specialist practice and the results of a rigorous training needs analysis. The resulting accreditation scheme should set clear performance expectations for children’s social workers and provide a clear direction for learning new skills by setting out the major tasks which are required of children’s social workers immediately following qualification and subsequently at the two higher levels.

Unfortunately, the Government does not do this. What it gives us are the ‘knowledge and skills statements’ which are only loosely connected to tasks and which are general, sometimes vague and sometimes obscure. They come with no real explanation about how they were agreed and appear to have been conjured out of nowhere, a rather amateurish and essentially arbitrary listing of stuff which seems relevant to somebody. It’s the kind of thing you might get from a brainstorming session with a few bright but not necessarily knowledgeable people. Not bad for half-an-hour’s effort, but not definitive and not authoritative.

Not only does the Government provide no real detail about where these lists came from, it provides no proposals for how these knowledge and skills lists can be reviewed, improved and kept up to date in future. This is a serious failing since there is a real danger of these poor-quality lists becoming fixed in stone and becoming of decreasing relevance as time goes by.

Connected with these problems is the issue of ownership. The Government’s whole approach to accreditation is one of imposition rather than enabling. What will be tested, and how, have been decided by a small groups of government insiders, doubtless clever people but hardly representative of the profession. In contrast, post qualification training in medicine is a matter for the relevant Royal Colleges, whose members are themselves practitioners: paediatricians or anaesthetists or surgeons or psychiatrists etc. Inevitably the imposed system which the Government proposes for children’s social work, with control being vested in Government ministers and civil servants, will be at risk of being open to bureaucratic and political pressures rather than professional ones. And it risks alienating children’s social workers, by not involving them in choices about how their careers can be developed.

Although there is some information about the form of the proposed accreditation tests, I was unable to gain a clear impression from the consultation document and associated materials what the content of the tests will look like or how it is to be determined. What seems to be missing from the consultation document, in addition to the absence of a training needs analysis, is any account of curriculum. It is almost as if the Government has started from the premise that children’s social workers should be tested, rather than from the premise that they should be properly trained.

It is all too easy to make up tests for people to take, but the crucial question is whether the test is necessary to determine whether they have the requisite knowledge and skills to do the job. Nowhere in the consultation documents could I find any discussion of that issue.

Finally, the Government seems to have little to say about how post-qualification training can be evaluated and improved over time.

So, to summarise, a good approach to accreditation will have the following features:
  • A clear understanding of the major tasks undertaken by advanced or specialist practitioners
  • A clear understanding of the competencies required to deliver those tasks
  • A clear understanding of the gap between those advanced or specialists competencies and those conferred by basic training
  • Clear ownership of the scheme by the profession
  • A well-structured curriculum, designed to equip practitioners with the knowledge and skills they require for advanced or specialist practice
  • A mechanism for reviewing the relevance of the curriculum to the changing task environment, and updating as appropriate
  • A mechanism for reviewing the effectiveness post qualification training and the accreditation system

Most, if not all, of these features are absent from the Government’s proposals.

A final thought. I was disappointed to see no mention in the consultation document of non-technical skills and knowledge. How well and how safely children’s social workers practice depends on their knowledge or child development, child abuse, the law relating to children, social work methods etc. etc., but it also depends on people’s skills and knowledge of how to work safely, how to understand error in the workplace, how to analyse and improve one’s own safety skills and how to analyse and develop practice to improve continuously the quality of service. Those are non-technical skills but sadly they are ones the Government seems to be currently ignoring.