The job for the agency is now to 'do exactly what it says on the tin'

WE RARELY hear about the good work that social workers do, but every day they change lives for the better. There are thousands of cases every year where families and individuals have been successfully supported to enhance their existing lifestyles or, in rare circumstances, looked after away from home for greater safekeeping.

This week I joined Minister for Education and Young People, Peter Peacock MSP, to launch our new agency and a rigorous new inspection programme for social work which aims to identify best practice and better ways of working in Scotland.

More than 270 delegates involved in social work services across the country came to take part in workshops to learn more about how the Social Work Inspection Agency's new agenda will strengthen the profession and drive up standards.

We recognise that occasional high-profile cases have generated a lack of public confidence in social work Scotland and lead to a commonly held view that social work isn't working, or that there is low morale or a lack of investment in services. In some cases this will be true, but in the vast majority, it isn't.

However, with the advent of the Social Work Inspection Agency in Scotland the sector now has a prime opportunity to alter this by reducing the risk factors that lead to such cases in the first place.

We can also work with professionals to widen the public view of what social work constitutes, sharing and highlighting examples of great practice which will help to improve public confidence in what the sector achieves.

We were set up in direct response to demands from across the sector for a more independent, better resourced and more systematic approach to the inspection of social work services. And we are aiming our sights high to succeed.

If I were to coin a phrase, the job for the Social Work Inspection Agency is to "do exactly what it says on the tin". As the new Chief Inspector in Scotland it will be the responsibility of me and my team to scrutinise objectively social work services provided by, or on behalf of, local authorities.

We will place service users at the heart of inspection. We are very keen to involve them in the process, seeking their views on, for example, inspection methodologies, their involvement in the inspection process and in ways that derive most benefit to improving their quality of life. In fact, we've made progress on this already.

Service users with learning disabilities were valued members of our inspection team in recent follow-up work in the Scottish Borders.

Previously there has been no central, systematic approach to inspections for social work in the same way as education has benefited for years. That will now change. All Social Work Inspection Agency's inspection practices will be robust, independently delivered and publicly reported with the aim of strengthening the profession and driving up standards.

We've set ourselves an ambitious action plan for our first year and will deliver pilot inspections in Angus, Fife and South Lanarkshire.

We will also inspect services for people with learning disabilities and continue our programme of inspection of local authority criminal justice services. At the request of the Justice Minister, Cathy Jamieson, we will evaluate local authority-led audits of sex offender management following the recommendations from our investigation of the James Campbell case.

We currently have 13 inspectors in post. We are actively recruiting so we have the necessary capacity to inspect all Scotland's 32 local authority social work services over the next three years.

We will use associate inspectors from other local authorities or those with specialist skills. Lay inspectors and service user inspectors will also be involved. This brings credibility, adds to the skills mix and promotes learning across the sector. We will recycle inspection findings and work hard to deliver on an ambitious knowledge management agenda that will spread good practice, wherever we find it, to targeted audiences.

We are setting up agreements with key partners and we will work alongside NHS Quality Improvement Scotland, the Care Commission, HM Inspectorate of Education and Audit Scotland to improve care services where it's needed most.

Perhaps one of the most powerful aspects to the new Social Work Inspection Agency is our independent reports which will be made public. These in-depth reports will follow each inspection and will result in recommendations and action to improve services.

The Social Work Inspection Agency was created to be independent and to deliver a new, more systematic approach to inspection of social work services.

A new era for social work is already dawning.

• Alexis Jay is the new chief inspector for Social Work in Scotland