How devolution is affecting social care: Greg Kelly, senior lecturer, Northern Ireland

Greg Kelly, senior lecturer on the Bachelor of Social Work degree at Queen’s University in Belfast, shares his insights.

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 “On balance, I think the degree prepares students for life on the frontline better than previous qualifications. The practice learning agenda is more coherent and consistent and the three-years allows for a more balanced and broader curriculum.

“The downside is the shortage of placements, though we have less of a problem than across the water. In child care we have a significant proportion of students leaving without having had a childcare placement, which is a serious problem.

Listen to Greg Kelly on the movement between countries

“One of the issues is that we have very high standards for practice learning teachers, which can put people off and also makes it difficult for people who have taken a break to come back without further training.

“The other problem is government emphasis on social workers needing lots of practice – in a two year programme students only have two semesters in college. But that only works if the practice placements are good enough. Because of the shortage, we have students who spend time in an agency where no social workers are employed. It’s hard to argue that that’s good enough.

“We need more flexibility in relation to the college days / placement days split that would allow a greater concentration on skills and frontline activities in college, which would be better than a large number of days in agencies where students are not going to be confronted with, for example, frontline child care issues. We have a good example of frontline skills teaching in our court work skills sequence which cross examines students in a mock court situation.

Listen to Greg Kelly on practice teaching

“I would be broadly in favour of splitting the degree at an earlier stage, allowing more specialist teaching. The generic qualification came about as a response to the development of generic social services departments. It made sense to combine the training because everyone was working on one department. Asthat has been broken up into separate programmes of care or even separate departments, it takes away muich of the justification for having a single qualification

“I don’t think that in the current structures there is sufficient time in college to deal with all the issues in the complex areas of child care. Because the degree is generic it is difficult to give the students enough in the areas in which they are going to practice.

“The basic argument of the social care councils is that knowledge and skills are  transferrable. In a broad range of practice this is true but in what is needed for much frontline child care I don’t think it is.

“The other way to cope with the need for specialist knowledge is to do what the medics do: give everyone a basic education and then you come out and specialise. It’s a more sensible way. You’d make post qualifying awards in child care, mental health and other areas, that are compulsory and are linked to career progression and salary. On balance it would be a better way.

“There is a lot of evidence that research has had an impact on policy – things like the Leaving Care Act, which is attributable to the research of Mike Stein [of York University] and others.

“There are lots of examples in child care. The other way it influences policy and practice is through procedures and development of protocols, for example child abuse procedures.

“Research feeds its way into the practice system more though legislation and guidance than social workers reading the BJSW and applying that to their work on Monday morning. Social workers in the main don’t read research, which is part of the problem.

“Obviously policy is politically driven: what is commissioned and picked up is politically motivated. For example adoption was picked up by Tony Blair and off he went with his policy unit and they produce policy guidance and a policy initiative. But on the other side, we know lots of reasons why foster care placements are unstable but we go on with a practice that, largely, doesn’t address those issues.

“It’s a mixed picture of research and the political process picking up on some ideas because it suits the political agenda and not picking up on others because they dont. Usually, in the past 20 years, they have been picking up on ideas that diminish the role of the state in providing services.

“A lot of us who are longer in the tooth in social work education almost miss CCETSW, the predecessor to GSCC and NISC. One of the main reasons is that the social care councils and the GSCC are very driven by regulation and accreditation. They  appear to me to place a much lower priority on the development of practice in social work education. 

“CCETSW was about not just regulating but also putting in place structures and seminars and literature that tried to develop social work education. So in that respect, devolution into the social care councils hasn’t been particularly helpful. But there is a strength in having a social care council down the street aware of the local issues.

“As the old French general said: ‘We have to make war with the soldiers we have .’ We not able to change the people who are our tutors and practice teachers, we’ve should be concentrating more resources on developing them and less of inspecting them.

“In terms of the broad social work agenda, it is too early to say whether devolution has been a benefit, particularly in Northern Ireland, where our devolution has been like the weather – on and off.  The jury’s still out on how it is affecting policy and practice.

“One thing in social work education that we’ve been good at is that our practice learning is organised on a regional basis. It doesn’t matter what college students come from, they get the same preparation, number of days in placement, study leave, and assessment. It creates a coherence around practice learning.

“One problem is that currently the financial structure doesn’t allow students to move through different parts of the UK. We are all educating our own students, which leads to parochialism. We used to get a smattering of students from England. We don’t any now because they don’t get a bursary. “


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