Social work under COVID-19 means that many issues will now disappear under the radar, or be put on hold, with the expectation that they will all resume when things get back to ‘normal’.
Some may say that now is not the time to start thinking about what life in social care might look like after corona virus, but what does getting back to normal mean if that also means a resumption of the many follies and blind alleys that make up parts of the government’s social work reform agenda?
I argue here that one of those follies is the National Accreditation & Assessment System (NAAS), that not only should NAAS be dropped if and when we return to ‘normal’ but given the crisis under COVID-19, the scheme should be abandoned with the £24 million budget immediately transferred to local authorities struggling to cope with corona virus.
The NAAS began in July 2014 when Isabelle Trowler, the Chief Social Worker for Children and Families announced a new post qualifying ‘Approved Child and Family Practitioner’ status to be ‘an essential requirement for working in child protection’. This has been widened to allow child and family social workers ‘to develop skills and knowledge to improve outcomes for children and families’; to support employers to raise ‘the national standard’; and to ensure employers ‘better understand their workforce development needs’.
For reasons that remain unclear, the scheme is limited to children’s social workers registered in England, with no plans as yet to extend NAAS to Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland and no proposals to extend it to adult social workers. Neither is it clear what the Post-Qualifying Standards (PQS) – also known as the Knowledge and Skills Statements (KSS) – that underpin the NAAS test – achieves in any qualitatively different sense that the social work qualifying courses and the Assessed and Supported Year in Employment (ASYE) do not.
There is widespread concern about NAAS across the key social work organisations and the trade unions.
The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) said the accreditation system was ‘unjustifiably’ costly and marked a further step towards breaking the link between adults and children’s social work.
The Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee (JUCSWEC) questioned why money being distributed to the private sector whilst simultaneously essential public services, which seek to serve local communities and safeguard children, are being cut at an alarming rate?
The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) said accreditation offered ‘poor value for money’ and the £24m cost of setting up the scheme nationally would be better spent on frontline social work and early help.
UNISON said that ‘Introducing this test will do nothing to address the fundamental problems that are being experienced across the country. Social workers are overworked, underpaid and poorly supported’ and called on its members to boycott the scheme following a motion at its national delegate conference.
There were some in the sector who thought that various elements of the social work establishment – the College of Social Work, the professional bodies and the Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) – would play a central part in its development. The government however had other ideas. It pulled the plug on the College of Social Work – triggering its financial collapse – and awarded a series of contracts to private sector companies who, with very few exceptions, had little or no prior experience in social work:
- A £2M contract to a consortium that included consultancy giant KPMG and Morning Lane Associates to develop the initial system and develop the ‘proof of concept’ stages of accreditation.
- A £3.6M contract to a consortium including consultancy Mott MacDonald to further develop the system and roll it out across the pilot authorities. Other companies included: Synergy Learning to support technical delivery; React to provide actors; Attenti to provide qualified assessors and Pete Dwyer consultancy as a professional lead and engagement partner.
- A £1.3M contract to Manchester-based AlphaPlus to generate and validate assessment content. A minor role was given to the Princes Trust and the one and only academic institution involved, Kingston University, was included to provide moderation services.
In July 2017 the government – sensing it was not winning the argument – announced it would slow down the timetable and abandoned the aim of having all 30,000 child and family social workers put through the NAAS by 2020. The scheme also remained voluntary. During 2019 however, some social workers began to report that their employers were offering financial incentives to take part in NAAS despite the fact councils are bound under the 1997 Local Government National Single Status Agreement to avoid selective bonus schemes, market supplements and financial inducements to achieve equal pay for equal value.
The advent of the COVID-19 lockdown has coincided with the end of the phase two of the pilot. 56 local authorities have taken part in the programme to date. They were given a performance target to reach at least 20% of their children’s social worker workforce by the 31st March 2020.
Table 1, shows 53 of the 56 early adopter local authority sites in the NAAS pilot. Only 53 are shown here due to DfE data omission. This was released in reply to MP Emma Lewell-Buck’s written question in the House of Commons on 11th March 2020. Of these just 13 (shown in green) have reached the DfE target of 20% of the workforce by the end of March 2020.
Table 1. Early adopter NAAS sites (no=53) and percentage of workforce reaching accreditation.
More interesting is the question of the financial incentives used to circumvent the union boycott by inducing social workers into taking part. Table 2 shows a sample of 16 local authorities.
Table 2. Survey of 16 Local Authorities showing NAAS financial incentives between 24.2.2020 & 31.3.2020
|Local authority(Total no. Children’s Social Workers FTE 16/9/2019*)||NAAS accredited by 31/3/2020**||DfE target met by 31/3/2020||Incentive||Source of Incentive funding|
|Birmingham Children’sTrust (701.9)||85||No||Information refused|
|Cornwall Council (246.8)||2||No||No|
|Coventry City Council(310.1)||32||No||£400||NAAS grant|
|Dudley(162.8)||16||No||£200 voucher to staff who complete the |
assessment day, regardless of the outcome. ‘Staff can choose where they
would like their voucher from.’
|Stoke-o-T(210.4)||7||No||£50 book token||NAAS grant|
|Solihull(110.6)||9||No||£100 voucher||NAAS grant|
|Staffordshire County Council(368.5)||55||No||£400||NAAS grant|
|Plymouth City Council(157)||59||Yes||None|
*DfE 16.9.2019 **Hansard
The 16 local authorities listed above were asked, using Freedom of Information requests, if they were awarding a financial incentive for social workers either taking part or on completion of the test. This shows that 50% of the pilot sites in this sample were awarding incentives of up to £400, constituting a total spend of £53,250 on the NAAS bonus scheme alone. What has also emerged from the survey is that the DfE have allowed local authorities an option for payments to be made out of the government grant money with one authority reporting that ‘This budget has an allocated portion of money for training, incentives etc’.
Some local authorities denied these payments amounted to a financial incentive. One council stated: ‘This is not considered an incentive but is regarded as an acknowledgement that social workers have prepared for, took the assessment and met the standards’.
Paying bonus schemes and financial incentives – for one group of workers and not others – is potentially illegal under the Equality Act 2010. One Council justified its NAAS bonus by arguing it was ‘material factor defence’, which, in legal code, means they think they can legitimately seek an exemption to equal pay. I suspect in practice this is a device to overcome the fact that NAAS remains voluntary but far less popular than the government would want. To reward some voluntary training schemes for council workers, but not others, breaches the principle of equal treatment.
The accreditation scheme has reached the end of its pilot phase and, if it were not for COVID-19, there would need to be a decision on rolling it out nationally. As this data shows, only 1600 social workers out of 12,500 in the 56 local authority pilots have been accredited. The original aim was for 30,0000 social workers to be NAAS approved by 2020.
So what is the point of NAAS?
I would argue that rather than a flimsy mechanism to raise professional standards on little or no evidence, or a renewal for continuous post qualification in partnership with HEIs, NAAS is better seen as a political device.
First, it is a neo-liberal pathway based on the idea that private sector companies rather than public sector education institutions are better able to deliver educational services. Second, NAAS is designed to weaken the role of higher education institutions and pass more of control into the hands of employers. A trend we are seeing in other aspects of social work education. Third, I am concerned that NAAS may be a ‘Trojan horse’ to replace ASYE, and something social workers will be required to repeat it every two or three years in order to stay in practice.
The Chief Social Worker, Isabelle Trowler, recently wrote to social workers, promoting NAAS and asking, ‘What have you got to lose?’By the same token, we should be asking, what we have we got to gain?
Simon Cardy is an Independent Social Worker and Practice Educator.