Children’s Secretary Ed Balls has promised a “watershed” in services designed to protect vulnerable children, as he published reforms to transform the demoralised social work profession.
Social workers will be given more support and better training - but they will also need a licence to practise, which they will lose if they break a professional code of conduct.
It follows a review prompted by the Baby P tragedy. Inquiries into the death at 17 months of Peter Connelly, who was referred to in early news reports as Baby P, revealed a series of failings on the part of Haringey Council in London, and exposed the failure of agencies such as social services and health services to communicate effectively.
Ministers have also expressed serious concerns about social services in Birmingham, where 16 children have died through abuse or neglect since 2005.
In January, Ministers told the council it had 12 months to improve, following an Ofsted report which rated the safeguarding children service as “inadequate”.
And in October, an inquiry by the council’s scrutiny committee attacked the “systematic failure” of Birmingham children’s social services and warned of “long term malpractice that contributed to a significant malfunctioning” within the service.
The inquiry found that more than half of case files on 1,200 children at risk contained “unacceptably poor practice”, social workers regularly failed to attend case reviews and had limited contact with the children they were supposed to be looking after, and there was no long term strategy setting out a vision for children’s homes.
Then it emerged that social workers in the city were taking an average of 25 days a month off sick - the worst record of any social services unit anywhere in the country.
Colin Tucker, Birmingham’s children’s services director, said staff had simply “given up” because of stress.
Under the new reforms, new social workers will be guaranteed extra support for their first year of work but will then need to pass an assessment to earn a licence to practise, which they can only keep by sticking to a professional code of conduct.
Employers will be obliged to provide high quality supervision, ensure workloads are manageable and give staff time for professional development.
The report calls for social workers to be paid “fairly”, in line with their skills, knowledge and level of responsibility.
There should in particular be “progression routes” to help keep high-quality, specialist social workers in frontline practice, it said.
“In contrast to other professions, social workers are not able to make progress in their careers while staying in frontline practice,” the report noted.
The report also recommends the creation of a new National College of Social Work - independent of government - to act as the voice of the profession.
Mr Balls said: “This is a watershed moment, this is a profession which in the past, too often, has not had sufficient public support, there has not been enough focus on the training of social workers and especially in their earlier years, we haven’t had enough support for social workers to stay on the front line and become advanced professionals.”
Barnardo’s, the charity for children, young people and their families, welcomed the taskforce recommendations.
Deputy chief executive Chris Hanvey said: “This report is a positive move to refocus social work and reinforce morale and status to professionals who have to make life-changing decisions every day.”
*Huge problems remain at Birmingham’s children’s services - read full report in this week’s Birmingham Post, out tomorrow.