Damning inspections will continue to lead to a continuing demand for locum workers

Ray Jones, professor of social work, outlines what lies ahead for social workers in 2016?

Published on 11th January 2016

Ray Jones professor of social work

There is a difficult year ahead for all those who use, and all those who provide social work services. There have already been major cuts in social services funding but with even bigger cuts to come in the new financial year starting in April. The reality for many children and families, and for disabled adults and older people, is greater poverty, more distress and less help. The reality for social workers will be more workload pressures with corners being cut, work being closed down quickly, and with an even greater focus on service rationing.

But there will be no reduction in the pressure created by the national inspectorates. They will continue as a source of fear and threat, with the resulting audit culture skewing the focus within agencies in preparation for the next inspection or as a response to the requirements arising from recently completed inspections.

Nationally, the government is riding on the back of Ofsted inspections to pursue its agenda of creating a market place for children’s social work services, with its intention that children’s and families social work, including child protection and care decision-making, should be outside of local authorities. The two statutory regulatory changes introduced in 2014 – that any organisation can be contracted to provide statutory children’s social work services and that these organisations will not be regulated, registered or inspected by Ofsted – has opened another profit-making market and business opportunity for the big out-sourcing companies like G4S and Serco, and they are already engaged in discussions with the Department for Education.

Shortages among frontline staff will continue

Work will continue through the coming year on national accreditation processes for social workers, with private sector KPMG and Morning Lane Associates leading on this work for the Department of Education, and with the fragmentation of social work education to continue with too early specialisation at initial qualifying level being expanded through Frontline. Those completing this limited fast track programme are being promised that they will also be fast-tracked into leadership roles, with the promise of future managers with very little wisdom built on practice experience.

The manic but not sensible changes being imposed on the social work profession by the Department for Education contrasts with the more measured changes for social workers with adults being shaped in the Department for Health with specialisation wisely seen within a post-qualifying framework rather than creating blinkered and constricted initial social work qualifying degrees.

But shortages within the social work workforce will continue with demand for children’s front-line children in need and child protection social workers, and for social workers as best interest and mental capacity assessors, and approved mental health professionals. The interim employment market has grown considerably over recent years, and looks set to continue.

“It’s time for social workers to get enraged and engaged”

Local authorities are likely in 2016, individually and through regional groupings, to give more attention to how they recruit and retain the stable workforce required to deliver good quality services to children and families and to adults. They will seek to be less dependent on agency social workers and managers, and some agency workers may find opportunities for more attractive employment packages within organisations which become more stable. As ever, however, the impact of damning inspection judgements will both reflect, and lead to, a continuing demand for interim workers to fill the gaps within organisations which have imploded.

The national political intentions for social work, however, make it even more important for all social workers to make the social work profession, and the voice of social workers, stronger. In 2015 decisions within the Department for Education favouring the private sector led to the closure of the College of Social Work. But 2015 also saw the numbers of social workers who were members of the British Association of Social Workers increasing and now at 20,000 it is at the highest level ever.

Social workers need a strong professional association to represent their professional values, to get recognition for the major contribution social workers do and can make, and to speak out in alliance with service user organisations and others about the impact of politically-chosen austerity targeted at the poor and those in difficulty. There is also an urgent need to challenge the fragmentation, marketisation and privatisation which is now taking place from the shaping of social work education to the delivery of core and crucial statutory social work responsibilities. 2016 is likely to be a significant year for social workers and the social work profession, so now is the time to get enraged and engaged.

Ray Jones is professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London. From 1992-2006 he was a director of social services. He now oversees child protection improvement in several areas of England and is chair of the Social Worker of the Year Awards.

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