Nationwide overhaul on the cards as spotlight focusses on training

April 21, 2000

The education of social workers is undergoing radical changes, with a number of bodies seeking to define what social workers do and to set standards:

The Care Standards Bill will strengthen regulation of the profession.

It was introduced in the Lords on December 2 1999, and is expected to get royal assent this summer. The bill sets out wide-scale reform to prevent abuse in children's homes, care homes and other care services. This includes measures to raise professional and training standards in the million-strong social care workforce.

The bill will abolish the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work and set up a General Social Care Council in England and a Care Council for Wales.

There will be separate legislation for Scotland to set up a council and, it is hoped, separate legislation for Northern Ireland.

The CCETSW has powers to deal only with education and training. The GSCC will regulate the workforce as well. It will, like other regulatory bodies, have powers to establish and maintain registers of individual staff who meet criteria agreed between the GSCC and the government and to charge fees for entry to the register. It will begin by looking at professionally qualified social workers - although there are plans to extend the register. The GSCC will be responsible for publishing codes of conduct and practice.

Don Brand, director of policy at the National Institute for Social Work, says that academics will need to work alongside service users, staff and employers to define practice standards for particular jobs and settings.

The GSCC should start operating on April 1 2001.

The Training Organisation for the Personal Social Services (Topss), an employer-led body licensed by the Department for Education and Employment, is working to provide a coherent qualifications and training strategy for UK staff in the statutory, private and voluntary care sector.

Topss UK comprises four committees - one for each of the countries. Topss England will be separate from the new GSCC, but will work in close partnership. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland it is envisaged that Topss will be contained within the new care councils.

Topss England finished consulting on its national training strategy in January. The strategy is described as "the first comprehensive national training strategy to analyse the skill needs of people working in the social care sector and to propose an action plan to improve both the qualification base and the quality of training over the coming five years".

Topss proposes a national qualifications framework matched to competences and posts, underpinned by a comprehensive map of national occupations standards.

It sees modernising quality assurance of training outcomes as key and argues that this should be done through benchmarking activity, such as that undertaken by the Quality Assurance Agency.

The Department of Health is reviewing of the diploma of social work.

Consultants have produced reports on the content and delivery of training, which will be published after Easter. Ministers will make announcements about the future of social work education and training in the summer, after the outcome of the comprehensive spending review.

It is believed that a consensus is emerging that entry to social work should be at degree level, but there are serious concerns about the loss of the postgraduate course, especially as this carries with it the CCETSW bursary so necessary to attracting students.

The Quality Assurance Agency has been consulting on its benchmarking statement on social work and is expected to produce its final statement at the end of this month.

However, although the draft statement sets out to identify standards of programme provision and academic achievement for honours degrees in social work, it does not attempt to define professional competence at professional qualifying level.

"Underlying the conscious limitation of scope is the view that defining the requirements of professional social work should only be undertaken in partnership with other stakeholders - including regulatory bodies, employers, providers of practice learning and service users," the draft statement says.

While this may make sense in terms of the remit of the QAA, and the sensitivities of regulatory bodies, it does not help those educating social workers.

Christine Smyth, course coordinator at Queen's University, Belfast, says: "It makes no reference at all to the competences that are essential to the DipSW. The whole point of the social work qualification is that it is a partnership with employers designed to integrate theory and practice - to separate the academic from the practice is a nonsense."

Mike Laugharne, assistant director of development at the QAA, says: "What we are looking for is standards that we believe are appropriate for an academic award. Different bodies are responsible for standards for professional competence."

However, the QAA is beginning work on benchmarking standards in nursing and professions allied to medicine that take account of both academic standards and those of the practitioner. This may be the way forward for social work.

One thing the statement does say is that honours graduates should be able to "manage uncertainty, change and stress in the work situation".

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