Page last updated at 17:28 GMT, Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Boost for social workers in wake of Baby P case

Baby Peter Connelly
The task force was set up in the wake of the Baby Peter case

Social workers will need a licence to practise under reforms aimed at boosting standards and morale.

Pay will be also be improved for the most experienced front-line staff after the government accepted proposals from its social work task force.

It was set up a year ago after the death of Baby Peter at the hands of his mother, her boyfriend and their lodger.

The death of the 17-month-old in north London, who was known to be at risk, turned the spotlight on the profession.

Children's Secretary Ed Balls said he hoped "something good" would come out of the case.

"This is a profession which for too long hadn't had status, training, support and sometimes challenge as well to make sure they get to the highest standards," he told the BBC.

"We won't rest until we know we have the best standards of social work, not just in some places, but everywhere in the country."

Sue Littlemore
Sue Littlemore, social affairs correspondent, BBC News

"Social workers are like goalkeepers", one Local Government Association representative noted. "They make hundreds of saves and no one notices. Let one goal through and everyone remembers."

The analogy is clear - Baby Peter's death affected the standing of the profession but no-one sees the thousands of children rescued from abuse. Perhaps understandably, social workers retreat from publicity; but they must promote their good work to foster better public understanding.

It will take time and numerous strategies but one idea is letting experienced social workers earn more without leaving the front line. A similar idea in schools created "advanced skilled teachers".

Calls to rebrand social work mirror efforts in the late nineties to raise teachers' status. Honours for head teachers and televised national teaching awards helped remove the "those who can, do; those who can't, teach" image. Social work needs the same makeover.

Mr Balls has previously denied treating ex-Haringey Council children's services director Sharon Shoesmith unfairly by removing her from her post in the wake of Baby Peter's death.

Under the reforms, to qualify for a licence to practise social workers will have to do a probationary year after completing a degree.

Employers will also be expected to agree standards on caseloads as well as to improve pay for the most experienced frontline staff.

And there will be a national college for social work to champion the profession, with the aim of attracting and keeping more people in the job.

Health Secretary Andy Burnham told a press conference this format worked well for nurses and midwives and would provide both leadership and representation.

"The challenge is to say to [young people] that social work is the way in which you can improve people's lives," he said.

Mr Burnham added that "systematic improvement" was needed to enable the government to fulfil its pledge of establishing a "national care service" to provide free personal care to elderly people in their homes.

The Baby Peter case saw a picture emerging of a beleaguered profession, under attack when things go wrong but often dealing with high caseloads and staff shortages, said BBC social affairs correspondent Alison Holt.

He died in 2007 with major injuries, including a broken back, sparking criticism of Haringey Council and the sacking of its director of children's services.

Shadow children's secretary Tim Loughton told the BBC social workers were frustrated at having to spend 80% of their time on paperwork.

Children's Secretary Ed Balls: 'We need a consistency in practice'

"Any changes that come out of this report - many of which will be welcomed - will count for nothing unless we strip away all this extra bureaucracy... and let [social workers] get on with their jobs," he said.

Chaired by chief executive of Camden Council Moira Gibb, the task force looked at the day-to-day responsibilities of social workers.

Among the issues it considered was how social workers prioritise their time, how they are supervised and what changes are needed to ensure appropriate numbers of front-line staff and support are provided for vulnerable children.

Ms Gibb told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that reform must begin with basic training.

"People should be selected more carefully, they should be trained better and have a probationary year in practice," she said.

But she added: "The conditions social workers work under need to change as well."

Career structure

Ms Gibb has accepted the role of chairwoman of a reform board being set up to work alongside the government to implement the task force recommendations.

Our correspondent said local authorities and social workers are already asking whether there will be the money for the plans, and with an election looming, the political will to bring about real change.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families is investing £109m in the social work workforce over the next two years.

Hilton Dawson, the chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers, said: "This isn't simply about pay. It's about an effective career structure which will keep the most experienced, best qualified people in practice.

"At the moment the way to get on in social work is either to get out completely or to rise up the management hierarchy. "

The big question was how quickly and efficiently the reforms could be implemented, he added.

Your comments

We are already licensed by a requirement to be registered with the General Social Care Council, we have to have this to practice. This is reviewed every three years and we have to continue to meet expected levels of training and development in order to remain registered and to be able to practice. So as far as I am concerned we are already licensed.
Jan Lyth, Leeds, Yorkshire

Yet more time and resources going into licensing, regulation and "review"? Even less left over for those that "do"? So far as I can see we have already been regulated to a standstill, so what difference will it make?
Peter, Somerset

We already have a situation where professionally qualified social workers have to register with the GSCC in order to be able to practice. Surely, it is by registering with the GSCC that we are licensed to practice. I suspect we will have to register with both bodies in the future which sounds to me like another way of getting twice as much money out of social workers.
Michael, Devon

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