Social work courses take stricter line on suitability of applicants

Most universities and colleges in England are changing the selection and interview processes for their social work courses, in line with the Social Work Reform Board’s recommendations for improving the calibre of students. Gordon Carson reports.

The SWRB recommended improving the selection process (OJO Images/Rex Features)

As this year’s crop of prospective social workers settle into their BA and MA courses, the implementation of recommendations to improve the selection and admissions processes by this time next year is already occupying academics across England.

The objective of the changes, outlined by the Social Work Reform Board (SWRB) in 2009 and 2010, is to ensure new students are equipped to handle both the academic and professional rigours of undergraduate and postgraduate social work education, and their eventual progression to practice; and perhaps to avoid situations such as those highlighted in August by a social work lecturer, who remembers one student who mistakenly used the word “pudendum” instead of “pseudonym” in an essay.

While this was hopefully a rare, if embarrassing, aberration, there have been concerns that students routinely enter their studies lacking basic literacy and numeracy skills. One lecturer, who asks not to be named, says his course introduced a writing test for candidates three years ago, because literacy certificates were not proving to be an accurate reflection of writing proficiency. This has helped to weed out some candidates who otherwise may have been offered places, though a consequence has been that more applicants need to be interviewed.

Improving the calibre of entrants to social work degrees was one of the main themes proposed by the SWRB. Specifically, the board recommended that:

  • All candidates for BA and MA courses should complete a written test, regardless of their previous qualifications.
  • All those selected for the degree should have performed well in individual interviews and group exercises.
  • Thresholds for entry should meet certain standards, such as a minimum of 240 UCAS points or equivalents for applicants for undergraduate courses.
  • Candidates should have achieved GCSE grade C or above in English and Maths or certified equivalents, be competent in written and spoken English and be able to demonstrate basic IT skills. 
  • Employers, service users, and carers should be involved in the selection process.

Many higher education institutions (HEIs) have already met, or are in the process of meeting, all or most of these recommendations. For example, the University of Central Lancashire has raised its entry tariff twice in three years and has set it at 280 UCAS points for next year’s BA intake, says professor Aidan Worsley, dean of the school of social work. The university also involves employers and service users in its recruitment and selection process, and has included a written test in its admissions process for several years. “Overall, the profession continues to raise standards,” says Worsley, “but I see the SWRB reforms as incremental rather than a seismic shift. I think that’s right, as I wasn’t seeing evidence of real problems in the quality and calibre of student social workers.”

The University of Sussex, meanwhile, requires people applying to its BA course straight from school to have attained one A and two B grades at A-level, compared with BBB in 2003 when the social work degree was introduced, and also accepts students with the Access to Higher Education Diploma, among other qualifications. Cath Holmstrom, head of Sussex’s social work department, says the admissions process must be a “holistic assessment of someone’s readiness to enter professional education”.

“We have to emphasise the importance of intellectual ability and having a mind that’s agile enough to cope with the decision making and complex circumstances out there in social work practice,” says Holmstrom, who has also written guidance for admissions tutors and partners on implementing the SWRB proposals. “But we’ve always been good at meeting the widening participation agenda, and I don’t think the two have to be mutually exclusive.”

An ability to demonstrate that they are implementing the SWRB’s recommendations might help HEIs when their programmes are next evaluated by the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC). It took over the regulation of social workers in England in August and, from Spring 2013, it will begin visiting all social work education providers to assess their programmes against its standards of education and training. These require HEIs to take on students who have a good command of reading, writing and spoken English, and appropriate academic and/or professional entry standards, though Abigail Gorringe, the HCPC’s director of education, says it “will not explicitly require that education providers implement the specific recommendations of the Social Work Reform Board”.

The HCPC’s formal evaluation process will be complemented by a voluntary endorsement scheme to be launched by the College of Social Work, which will assess whether HEIs are implementing the SWRB reforms. Anne Mercer, professional adviser at the College, says the endorsement scheme could be particularly useful in helping prospective students to choose courses. The criteria for the scheme are based on the SWRB’s recommendations, with evidence of participation and partnership working with employers and service users important.

What the students are saying

Social work student Alaina Willis was happy overall with the interview process for her BA at the University of Kent, but says it would have benefited from the involvement of service users. She also says a section where applicants had to answer questions about a video clip they had watched could have been improved. Willis went to university immediately after gaining three A-levels at college – B grades in psychology and sociology, and a C in health and social care – and had volunteered in a centre working with homeless people. Now a second year BA student, she says her A-level in sociology has been particularly useful. “We have learned some similar theories and some of the subjects are sociology-based,” she adds.

Joseph Smith had a 2:1 in philosophy and several years of relevant experience when he applied for an MA in social work at the University of York. But Smith, who has just started the second year of his course, says he expected a more thorough examination of his understanding of the social work role and recent policy developments during the selection process. In addition, he felt the service user on his interview panel “wasn’t really involved”. Smith feels, though, that both his previous academic and relevant professional experience have helped him to manage the demands of the MA. “Academically it’s time consuming,” he adds. “I graduated in 2005 so coming back six years later was a bit of a shock to the system.”

Mickey Hollman is also in his second year of the MA at York, but started the course immediately after completing a BA in writing, directing and performance at the same university. During the course of his undergraduate degree he volunteered at the York Nightline service, and later felt he could use the skills he had attained in this role by pursuing a career in social work. He applied to five universities and felt the interview at York was the most thorough and enjoyable. In particular, it focused more on his personal experiences, while other universities “looked far more heavily at my academic background”. His interview panel included a service provider but no service user and, though he feels a three-person panel might be excessive, he suggests that “for people who had a service provider in their interview it would be good to have group work with service users, and vice versa”.

The involvement of service users may be one area some HEIs need to work on as they seek to improve the rigour of their selection processes. It is clear, though, that they will be subject to increasing scrutiny, particularly as they prepare to meet the SWRB’s recommendations for their 2013 intake. 

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