Now we can start to ease the pressure on social workers

The final report of the Social Work Taskforce was published yesterday with strong government support for its recommendations. This gives me confidence that the changes necessary to transform the practice of social work will now begin to happen.

During its nine months of existence, the taskforce, which I chaired, has gathered views from service users, frontline practitioners, managers and many others. We have been mindful of the stretched capacity in many parts of the services where social workers work, and we have no magic wand to change that immediately. But we have been impressed by the way some local authorities have grasped the problem – listening to their frontline practitioners about what will help relieve the pressure, and acting on their views. We need to see that approach happening more consistently across the country, leading to action which makes sense locally.

Such leadership by employers, supported by the government, is needed now to begin to ease the pressure. This will make it possible to implement the longer-term changes we proposed in our report to embed high standards of practice to meet the expectations of service users and the public. We limited our recommendations to 15 to assist the much more important phase – implementing and embedding these improvements.

Our recommendations covered: initial training, with changes to admission criteria and a fourth year in supervised practice before qualification; review of the job evaluation of basic grade social workers to ensure that pay reflects their knowledge and skills; improved working conditions, with employers signing up to new standards for support and supervision offered to practitioners; the introduction of a national career structure to encourage experienced social workers to stay in practice; a licensing system to support higher standards and enable specialism to be developed and recognised; and stronger leadership of the profession with an independent college of social work, which will also play a leading role in a programme of action on public understanding of social work.

All our recommendations need to be put in place over time if we are to build a safe and secure profession. This will require resources and commitment, and a new level of collaborative working.

The taskforce thought long and hard about caseload limits but became convinced that a single ceiling would be inappropriate and unhelpful. The national standard for the support that social workers should expect from their employers will include guidance on caseloads. We also recommend national requirements for supervision, which we suggest would generally be not less than monthly, including access to a social worker if the line manager is not a social worker.

However, employers should not wait for that standard to be in place, but should publish now the caseload ceilings they work to locally and how they are achieving against them, engaging their frontline staff in those discussions.

Our final recommendation was that all the other proposals should be treated as a single programme of reform and led by a reform board, which I have been asked to chair, reporting directly to ministers on progress. This should give practical effect to the collaboration required to make a reality of these proposals and an impetus and urgency to delivery.

Posted by Moira Gibb, chair of the Social Work Reform Board and chief executive of the London borough of Camden. She chaired the Social Work Taskforce.