Anna Fowlie

12th April 2013 at 01:00
The chief executive of the Scottish Social Services Council discusses miconceptions about the organisation, the standard of training and the needs of looked-after children. Interview by Julia Belgutay, Photography by James Glossop

What three words best describe you?

Friendly, positive, excitable. I've got a dirty laugh as well.

What do you see as the main purpose of the SSSC?

It's to regulate the social services workforce, but we are also responsible for the workforce development planning.

What do you think is people's biggest misconception about the organisation?

That we are quite a stern, unapproachable organisation because we are a regulator, and we can be quite po-faced. There are times when we have to be stern; we've got a serious job to do in terms of dealing with conduct cases. But we are also really trying to up-skill the workforce, improve things for people who use social services, and we can only do that with the people out there, so we have got to be friendly and engage.

What is the most crucial challenge the organisation faces at the moment?

We have a growing remit and therefore we have to grow as an organisation, but it is not a political or financial climate where it is the "in thing" to grow a quango. We have to fight our case to grow, but we have to grow to fulfil our purpose.

What impact have the social work scandals of recent years, such as the Baby P case, had?

It is hard to see a cause and effect, but particularly since last year's Winterbourne stuff on Panorama (on the abuse of vulnerable adults by care workers at a private hospital), we have seen a really sharp increase in referrals to us for conduct cases. That's a good thing, because it means people are reporting concerns, but we don't know whether that is directly related.

How well trained are social services workers in Scotland compared with other countries?

We don't have the kind of standards you would get in a Scandinavian country, but we are ahead of the rest of the UK in relation to enforcing qualifications and trying to drive up standards. We don't want to do that in a way that is really academic; it has got to be about something meaningful, about skills, values and qualities as much as knowledge.

What is the key to raising standards?

It's learning - that could be qualifications, but it might be any sort of learning. You might think I would say regulation or registration, but I don't see it that way round. I see registration as one tool in the up-skilling and one tool in underpinning learning.

Why is it important to encourage more men to consider careers in early years?

It's important for children because they need to see that men are just as able to be caring, and quite a lot of children who are vulnerable need to see positive role models in men. It's really important for kids to be able to form those attachments and to have a positive view of men as caring and supportive people, and not scary.

Do teachers in Scotland receive enough training to deal with the needs of looked-after children?

I think it's better than it was. There is more awareness definitely of the needs of different kinds of children, whether they are in care or have other vulnerabilities. But I do think there is still a long way to go. It is difficult because the teacher training curriculum is a really crowded landscape and they have to do so much.

How much of a success is the recent increase in the take-up of the BA in childhood practice?

It's fantastic. Obviously, the numbers are good, but when you speak to the women - and it is nearly all women who have done it - they just talk about how it has transformed their practice, and the difference it has made to the children and parents they work with. They talk about confidence, and they talk about how it makes them be taken seriously by other professionals.

Government statistics show the number of looked-after children has increased by 49 per cent since 2001 - why is that?

It is probably because we have got much more chaotic families, drugs and alcohol are the biggest issues. I suspect the recession will not be helping either, because it perpetuates the cycle of deprivation. Personally I think it is inevitable that numbers grow as societal problems grow, but the good side of that is that children are spotted and they are being taken out of harm. It is not about the numbers, it is about what happens to those children.

The number of those who go into care before they reach the age of 5 has also risen. What impact does that have on social services?

It's a big issue for care, because a lot of residential care is geared for teenagers. With little children you have to try to get foster care. What we have is a shortage of foster carers, foster carers who are ageing, so we need to promote it. We also need the quality of the care to improve and a lot of that is about supporting foster carers, because it is a much harder job; it is not like babysitting.

What headline would you like to read in TESS in five years' time?

I would like to read any positive headline, something about the positive difference people are making to people's lives, rather than shock stories. But I think we as a sector have to contribute to that.


Born - Inverness, 1964

Education - Earlston Primary, Borders; Inverness High; University of Edinburgh

Career - Trainee in personnel management at Midlothian Council; team leader children and young people at Cosla; chief executive, Scottish Social Services Council.

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