Welcomed as a major step forward when it was introduced in 2003, the social work degree course may be failing to prepare students for the real world, finds Corin Williams
Be prepared is the scout movement’s motto. But the words have little resonance with many students completing the social work degree course. Last year, just one-third of 500 newly qualified social workers surveyed by the Children’s Workforce Development Council (CWDC) thought themselves fully prepared for their job.
This was not how it was meant to be. When introduced in 2003, the degree was universally welcomed as a major step forward in helping to create a more professional workforce. But graduates from the first degree course intakes have a catalogue of complaints: from peers passing their course without much effort or commitment, to the constant struggle to gain essential on-the-job experience because of a lack of available practice placements.
The issue has become critically important in light of the recent Baby P case, which identified significant failings in basic child protection practice. The Social Work Taskforce, launched by children’s secretary Ed Balls in response to the case, will aim to identify deficiencies in skills.
Response to Baby P
Although the taskforce was perceived as a direct response to the Baby P case, none of the issues it will consider are new, says Maggie Atkinson (pictured), president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services. She chaired a national expert group on the children’s workforce, which recommended setting up the taskforce.
“The Baby P case has been an accelerator rather than the root cause of the discussions over the social work degree,” she says. “The profession and the regulators have been talking about the need to pay attention to status, pay, post-qualification training and resilience to practice for some time.”
Atkinson’s expert group heard a “steady stream of evidence” from newly qualified social workers who were worried about their readiness to practise. She recommends following the examples set in nursing, policing and teaching. “In those professional areas there has been, in the past 10 years, proper career development frameworks, negotiating bodies and post-qualification frameworks. [These] remain far less developed for colleagues in social care,” she says.
Reviewing GSCC powers
The issue has not gone unnoticed by the General Social Care Council. Last week, the regulator’s annual report highlighted concerns over the quality of a quarter of the 71 social work degree courses. The GSCC is currently only responsible for monitoring learning establishments’ own quality assurance systems and is now assessing whether it needs to beef up its inspection powers.
GSCC chair Rosie Varley says: “That’s why we are reviewing whether we have the right powers to robustly inspect social work degree courses.”
Much of the de-skilling debate has focused on whether the degree is churning out graduate social workers who lack the life experience of their predecessors, most of whom joined the profession in their thirties.
Ray Jones, professor of social work at the University of Kingston’s Faculty of Health and Social Care Sciences, recognises the degree’s shortcomings in providing students real-life expertise. He also makes a strong case for establishing a protected newly qualified year for social workers to ensure they are not lumbered with heavy caseloads.
“The social work degree, in its own right, is not an adequate final qualification in social work,” he says. “What is important is that we have a process of continuing education for social workers as they move into their more specialist areas of work.
“But that needs to be followed up with a mandatory requirement of working through the post-qualifying awards so that people build real expertise in their specialism. At the moment, the focus tends to be on child protection, but we also need to remember other areas, such as adult mental health, as the next scandal could be about those.”
But Wardle rejects the notion that the old diploma in social work attracted a wider age range of candidates with more life experience. He points to the new qualification’s increased number of practice placement days – 200, up from 130 – as evidence of today’s graduates being better prepared.
Despite this, in 2008 the government launched a three-year £73m package to improve training, recruitment and professional development in children and families social work. As part of this, the CWDC set up pilots for a Newly Qualified Social Worker Programme. So far 820 newly qualified practitioners have signed up to take part.
“They’re getting extra supervision from trained supervisors, non-contact time to step back and reflect on what they’re doing and working towards a set of outcome statements for what they need to be able to do at the end of their first year,” says CWDC chief executive Jane Haywood. “At the end of the pilots, we and the GSCC will have a body of evidence of what we need to do to support people going into the profession.”
Identifying the needs of newly qualified staff should enable employers to plan the help they need to provide. But others discern another problem: that the rapid expansion of social work courses has encouraged applications from those unsuitable for the job. The fact that entry requirements are not standardised begs the question whether some universities are admitting students simply to fill course places.
Jones believes there is a difference between today’s degree students and their DipSW predecessors. “People were often recruited locally,” he says. “They might have been older and, when they qualified, they worked in the area where their family and roots were. Now, students are younger and mobile. We should invest in helping people to prepare themselves for undertaking a degree if they’ve been out of academic study for some time or if in the past they’ve not been academically successful.”
Despite his concerns, Jones believes most people who take the degree “are well motivated and still fired up to do the job”.
Social work graduate: ‘Those who argued but did not reflect passed the course’
“I studied the social work degree between 2004 and 2007 in the Milton Keynes area. I enrolled with enthusiasm, but lost this as people who argued rather than reflected, who disregarded respect and professionalism, passed the course.
“The degree prepared me as much as any course for such an involved, evolving and challenging role. But social work is not learned until you’re with the people you support and the surrounding processes.
“University gives you your toolbag and reference guide the support and experience in the workplace gives you your tools.
“Quality statutory placements were and are difficult to find. Organisations are too overstretched to give the time. Since being in practice I see students given caseloads because there is no social worker, not because it’s a learning opportunity.”
This article is published in the 12 February 2009 edition of Community Care under the headline “Degree needs a reality check”