This article focuses upon the outcomes of a detailed questionnaire sent to 43l education social workers/education welfare officers throughout England and Wales. The findings are supported by the evidence from interviews conducted with fifty-nine education social workers/education welfare officers in selected local education authorities (LEAs) in England and Wales. This work was facilitated by the LEAs and by the principal education social workers/welfare officers within these authorities.
The education social work/education welfare service (hereafter, education social work) is a specialist education support service which works in partnership with schools, the local education authority and other agencies to provide an effective and quality service to young people and their families. In practice, education social workers (ESWs) deal with any problem that may prevent schoolchildren from getting the most out of their education. They often work with the whole family, providing a supportive role between the child's home and school.
Education social workers liaise with parents, teachers, educational psychologists, the police, social services, behavioural support and out-of-school providers, among other caring agencies, to identify and assess children's needs when there is concern about behaviour, attendance, underachievement, or material or social deprivation. If court action is deemed necessary, they may give evidence and help to prepare a case. They also try to maximise opportunities for children away from school for long periods such as those requiring home tuition or special educational needs. Staff tend to work in divisions, usually within a local authority education department. However, some are school-based and are allocated individual schools or groups of schools. They may be primary or secondary-oriented or both.
The Ralphs report (1973) famously referred to the role of education social workers/education welfare officers as the 'Cinderella' or 'forgotten' profession. Perhaps not surprisingly, therefore, studies eliciting their views have been few and far between. However, with the increasing prominence which is being given to truancy and other forms of non-attendance from schools by the government in its search to improve school attendance (NAO, 2005; OfStEd, 2003), it seems only sensible, to quote the eminent psychologist George Kelly (1955), who suggested, 'if you want to know what is going on, it is always sensible to ask the people who are doing the work themselves'.
This is particularly so when it is recognised that there are no national salary scales, terms and conditions of service for education social workers/education welfare workers. Staff in one local education authority can be paid twice the rate in a neighbouring one, as is the case, for example, in parts of the Midlands. Moreover, work loads, responsibilities and organisation structures differ significantly (SIHE, 2003, 2004, 2005). Traditionally, education social workers are qualified staff who have been trained often through a social work-related qualification. Education welfare officers are considered to be less qualified staff who perform roughly the same responsibilities. In practice, this remains only partially true. The terminology 'education welfare' is used in some LEAs (such as throughout Wales) whereas the title Education Social Worker is used in others. In fact, in some LEAs a distinction is made between the terms 'education social worker qualified' and 'education social worker unqualified' and this status can also affect both salary and responsibility limits.
This position is compounded by the fact that the social fabric and infrastructure of life within families are becoming increasingly complicated (Reid, 1999). Despite all the best endeavours and good work of professionals in schools, within LEAs and among the caring professions like education social workers, rates of attendance (authorised and unauthorised absence) have changed little over the last quarter of a century (NAO, 2005; Boyle and Goodall, 2005a, b). …