OPINION: Reverse the low morale trend

LISA HARKER, deputy director of the Institute for Public Policy Research

No one - save perhaps Gordon Brown - knows exactly how the funding cake will be divided as a result of the current spending review. But there's no doubt that health, education and transport will feature on the A-list of the Government's spending priorities.

Social care sits firmly on the B-list. This Cinderella of public services is in desperate need of finding a Prince Charming. The sector's members feel misunderstood and undervalued. Recruitment reached crisis point long ago.

Some social care teams in the capital are facing vacancy rates of 40 per cent. Yet while teacher shortages make almost daily news, the scarcity of social care workers is a forgotten story.

The morale of the sector is at a deep low. Those who represent the sector at a national level feel excluded from policy debates. Social work ought to have been revitalised under New Labour since the sector shares much of the Government's agenda: tackling social exclusion, regenerating communities and building social capital.

But high-profile scandals and inquiries - the Climbie inquiry being the latest - have kept the poor quality of parts of the sector sharply in focus. At a national level at least, the social care agenda has been all about improving standards and not about breathing new life into a sector that has lost its way.

To meet its expansive social care agenda, the Government has favoured establishing new bodies - including the Asylum Support Agency, Sure Start, Connexions - rather than face the challenge of re-orientating existing services. The establishment of care trusts threatens to submerge the sector's identity further within the health field.

There is no doubt that the social care sector of the future will look different to today's - not least because we will want it to meet the needs of an older, less deferential, more culturally diverse society. But first the sector has to fight to revitalise its sense of vision of itself, building on the energetic new approaches being pioneered in initiatives such as Sure Start.

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