Everyone agrees we need to raise the status of social care workers. But how? One of the approaches that has been proposed and debated many times is ‘professionalising’ the workforce. The Care Certificate which every worker has to complete in England is one example of this. Government funds Skills for Care to provide training programmes. Care workers in Scotland have to be registered, as do managers in Wales, but similar plans for England were shelved some years ago. On the face of it, registering workers sounds like a good idea: it feels like this would add to existing checks and the register of people deemed unsafe, giving more information about who was working in the sector. But would it actually change anything? Qualified social workers already have a register, so the people added to a register would be unqualified. Would adding this paper exercise raise the status of workers who are unqualified and often on minimum wage, or just put people off?
We come at the challenge of raising the status of social care from the wrong end, in my view. Calling for status – and wages – to be raised is just wishful thinking: councils have neither the funds nor any pressure to raise the amounts they pay for social care, to enable struggling providers to pay more for the same jobs. Even those residential learning disability services which charge councils or the NHS thousands a week can get away with using minimum wage unqualified workers, without challenge. We need to start with a new vision for what social care is for, which is enabling us all to live the lives we want at home when we need support, and then work out what kind of workers doing what kind of work we need to achieve that. The answer to that question is, whether in a care home, home care service, or Shared Lives service, we need to:
- invest more in recruiting people for their values and communication skills, with the people they will support being in the lead on choosing who works with them…
- which will allow us to create much more meaningful roles, where workers can form deeper, longer and more rewarding relationships with the people they work with…
- which will raise the status and, in time, the pay of social care workers.
That can only happen if government, councils and providers all agree on a shared vision, and build it into how they buy and regulate social care, as well as how they develop the workforce.
Will these new workers be more ‘professional’? Yes and no. I was struck by two comments from people who employ their own support workers or ‘personal assistants’ at the Social Care Future gathering yesterday. Anna Severwright, the SCF’s convenor said,
I don’t want registration as my best PAs have never worked in care before and so wouldn’t be on a register. They don’t come to look after me, because they understand that’s not their role.
Tricia Nicoll, who employs PAs for the two young adults in her household said,
I often look for personal assistants who know nothing about autism: that way they don’t assume they already know who my children are – they have to find out by getting to know them as individuals.
What a contrast with those services which trumpet and charge for their ‘specialist expertise’, but don’t place the same value on the people they support getting to be truly themselves.
There is a kind of professionalism which is steeped in medical and psychological knowledge, but has lost sight of the people in a forest of jargon, labels, processes and risk assessments. To misquote Oscar Wilde, some professionals know the risks of everything and the value of nothing. If we take either the needs-focused culture of the more medical end of our sector, or the gig-economy devaluation of the most heavily-cut end, and codify them into more registers and bureaucracy, we will risk setting in stone our sector’s most entrenched problems. The strengths of social care are in its people, and often in those people who reject process in favour of the messiness of being fully human. Let’s create and grow the most human kinds of social care – the most social and the most caring – and put people and families in charge of deciding what ‘professional’ means to them.