‘Prejudiced attack on social work training ignores real issues facing profession’

A councillor’s blog labelling social work training as “rubbish” takes a highly selective look at education and ignores the real issues facing the profession, writes Bridget Robb of the British Association of Social Workers.

Image: David Oxberry/Mood Board/Rex Features

A blog on the ConservativeHome website by journalist and councillor Harry Phibbs, ‘Social work training is where the seeds of scandal are sown’, has merrily chucked the social work baby out with the bathwater by claiming that all social training is fundamentally useless.

“Give me a student undertaking a three-year social work degree, consisting of the most unadulterated Marxist rubbish, and I will give you a social worker who puts their warped ideology ahead of the interests of those they are paid to serve,” writes Mr Phibbs.

This type of criticism of social work academia versus practical “common sense” is not new, and nor are proposals for unskilled workers to do social work.

Following the Staffordshire Pindown inquiry in 1991, for instance, the then secretary of state for health Virginia Bottomley issued a call for a force of “streetwise grannies” to undertake social work.

This perspective overlooks the fact that we already have an army of less qualified people across the country providing important social care services, which in many countries round the world are called “social work”.

A selective look at social work courses

Mr Phibbs appears to have scoured the internet for the names of social work lecturers against whom he can take an immediate dislike, but makes no reference to the over 70 social work programmes in England that are working closely with employers to educate about 5,000 students a year.

There has been a massive government supported review of social work education since the Social Work Taskforce reported its findings in 2009, the outcomes of which have the broad support of coalition including Conservative ministers. These reforms are coming into effect in 2013, building on sound research and informed by international practice.

Michael Gove is, of course, very supportive of the Frontline proposals for a Teach First style of education for social workers. While the profession has concerns about some of the proposed details of the scheme, we have always had employment-based education programmes for social workers.

Indeed, even in the university based programmes there is a requirement for all students to spend half the course, 200 days, on placement in agencies firmly embedded in the real world.

The real issues are less palatable

The real issues regarding social work failings are perhaps less palatable to Conservative bloggers. Quite simply, public spending cuts are undermining the ability of local authorities to educate the next generation of social workers.

The dismantling of statutory social care and social work services in local authorities (where over 70% of registered social workers in England are employed) is currently in acceleration mode through implementation of financial cuts enforced on local authorities.

The reality is that this is undermining the ability of statutory services to respond to serious issues that concern everybody, from the recent public outcry about child abuse through to increasing concern at the numbers of adults vulnerable to abuse.

The cuts are also undermining the ability of local authorities to educate the next generation of social workers. It is one of the main problems for delivering high quality social work programmes that many employers are so overstretched that they find it very difficult to provide the necessary learning opportunities.

There is little point investing heavily in the provision an new education programme for highly educated entrants if the service they a due to deliver is being systematically dismantled.

So how are social workers responding to this onslaught on their profession?

Social workers have always worked in the voluntary and private sectors as well as the statutory sector, but increasingly they are setting up their own businesses as self- employed workers, or establishing independent social work practices.

As a profession, despite the warped perceptions of some critics, social workers are very often creative individuals, innovating in how they work and how they interact with the people who need their services.

The profession is increasingly looking to provide services outside of the traditional management structures. For example, we are looking closely at developments around GP practices becoming commissioners of services the opportunities and the dangers this presents. In so many ways, our members are facing up to the challenges of what the future heralds.

While some politicians and political commentators choose not to value the profession, many service users and carers do. They are tired of being left out in the cold by cuts to public services and of being used as a political football by both national and local government, expected to work in increasingly impossible situations.

Social workers deserve better than the prejudice and ignorance of this ConservativeHome attack.

Bridget Robb is acting chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers

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