Will they take the bait?

There is something inventive and appealing about the government’s
TV adverts for teacher training: rabbits explain multiplication; a
Holocaust survivor introduces the concept of division; a scene of
six grand pianos on a misty beach is an obscure but pleasing
shorthand for the £6,000 bursary on offer for teaching

Social work has not received quite such lavish attention. The
grainy comic strip put together to highlight the satisfactions of a
career in social services has been much lower key. But, happily,
the pianos still apply. At the end of September health minister
Jacqui Smith announced that students undertaking either the Diploma
in Social Work or the new three-year social care degree will be
eligible for an annual £3,000 bursary from September

This is not quite comparable to the £6,000 given to teachers
or the £5,000 some nurses receive. But it does reflect concern
over the dramatic decline in the number of people applying to do
social work courses over the past 10 years – a fall that closely
mirrors the introduction of student loans. In 1992 more than 11,000
people applied for social work courses, but in 2002 it had fallen
by more than 60 per cent to just over 4,000. As the number of
applicants has dwindled, the concept of healthy competition for
places has disappeared, with some courses forced to accept most
candidates unreservedly.

What the government has done is set apart social work trainees from
other students by introducing a non means-tested bursary of
£3,000 – about £60 a week over a year. This will include
a £500 allowance for travel to and from practice placements.
Students who do not receive help with tuition fees from their local
education authority or employer will be given £1,075. Those
who stand to benefit most are undergraduates and non-graduates who
are at present ineligible for bursaries or grants and have to fund
their studies using student loans, career development loans or
part-time earnings, plus whatever they can beg, borrow or steal
from parents or partners.

Although it is heartening that social work has been made a marked
exception to the normal higher education funding policy, those
undertaking postgraduate courses are likely to be less impressed by
the new bursary. Postgraduates could already obtain a means-tested
maintenance grant of between £2,714 and £4,316 from the
General Social Care Council to undertake their DipSW. The
government says that this level of funding “will be maintained” but
that in future “a portion of the bursary will be at the basic non
means-tested rate with the balance subject to means testing”. Some
groups of postgraduate students can also claim additional cash,
such as disabled students’ allowances and child care allowances,
and this looks likely to be extended to undergraduates.

But although any extra support is welcome for people while they
train, will an extra £3,000 attract significant numbers of
people into the profession? Will £60 a week persuade people
that social work training is a viable option?

Pat Hyam, professor of social work and social care at Nottingham
Trent University and a board member of the Training Organisation
for the Personal Social Services, says the bursary is a positive
step forward. “It will make a big difference,” she says. “I
particularly welcome it because we run courses for undergraduates
only – we don’t run courses for postgrads, who always got a bursary

Hyam acknowledges that some students drop out of courses because of
financial pressure or because they have caring responsibilities
that they cannot meet. She says: “A lot of people have to get huge
loans to pay for their courses so this will make a difference to
them. But the students we see are those who have taken the plunge.
It would be interesting to know whether there are many other people
who are being deterred before that stage.”

She says course providers should warn students that they may incur
hardship as a result of their studies. “It’s important for each
course to prepare the students for what they’re going into,” Hyam
says. “I’d risk putting off people who haven’t thought carefully
about what it means to do a degree, so that the rest come in on a
reality basis. Social work requires a commitment and a lot of hard
work. But the bursary will make it possible for a wider range of
people to train, which is a very positive thing.”

But for others – particularly the older or more experienced
applicants that the government wants to attract – the bursary would
barely make a dent. Leslie Wilson, a newly qualified social worker
who did a postgraduate DipSW after several years in the profession,
says: “For me, £3,000 would be a drop in the ocean. I got more
than £4,000 because I was doing a postgrad course, and even
then had to take on several jobs.

“There’s no way that mature students and people with experience are
going to be attracted in by £3,000 when they’ve got partners
and kids and mortgages and so on. And no way they’re going to give
up a job paying them £15,000 or £18,000 on the basis of a
£3,000 bursary.

“Quite a few people dropped out of my course and lots of other
people moved back in with parents or took out huge loans. People
are coming out with thousands of pounds worth of debt, and it’s not
all recognised debts like student loans and career development
loans. A lot of people owe their parents or their partners.”

There may also be some unforeseen issues around the introduction of
bursaries. For a start, whereas students until now have been able
to claim travel expenses, the new scheme will include a fixed
£500 travel allowance. Wilson says this may leave many
students even more out of pocket. “I’m worried about that – one of
my placements was a 72-mile round trip. My claim for travel
expenses was about £400 a month, so £500 per year doesn’t
even begin to cover it.”

Bursaries of £5,000 were introduced for student nurses in
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in September. But Gill
Robertson, the Royal College of Nursing’s student adviser, says:
“The bursaries have created all sorts of issues. For instance, the
minute you get a bursary you’re not entitled to a student loan or a
hardship grant.”

Another irritation for some is that anyone who has the support of
an employer is unlikely to qualify for the bursary.

Peter Gilroy, director of social services in Kent, welcomes the
bursary, but describes it as perverse that students who have
financial help from employers are sidelined by the scheme.

The bursary’s ramifications will take some time to filter through.
Students are already applying for courses that begin next
September, and course tutors suspect that few are aware of the
introduction of the bursaries. As many universities are already
putting together 2004 prospectuses there is a danger that people
considering a course next year will not know of the financial help
available either.

Ultimately, it’s a step in the right direction, which may make life
a little more bearable for people who would have taken the plunge
anyway. But it is debatable whether this small financial incentive
will persuade many more people to take up the challenge in the
first place.

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