What’s blocking improvements in substance misuse training for social workers?

Repeated calls for social workers to receive compulsory substance misuse training have fallen on deaf ears. Andy McNicoll asks a social work expert in the field, what lies behind the lack of action?

man drinking
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A report by the charity Adfam features the latest in a long line of calls for social workers to receive mandatory training in substance misuse as part of the social work degree.

The idea was floated as far back as 10 years ago as part of the government’s landmark Hidden Harm report into parental substance misuse. Yet little has changed and estimates suggest that up to a third of social workers qualify having received no training on drug and alcohol issues.

I asked Sarah Galvani, chair of the BASW special interest group in alcohol and other drugs, and assistant director of the Tilda Goldberg centre for social work and social care at the University of Bedfordshire, why training on an issue that features in so many social workers caseloads remains so patchy.

There have been a number of calls for the social work degree to include substance misuse training. Why hasn’t this happened? 

I think there are a number of obstacles. I’ll focus on just two. First, substance use is discussed in policy and practice in terms of either criminal justice responses or health responses. Neither of these is the remit of a social worker.

Health workers ‘do treatment’ – social workers, generally speaking, do not. We do ‘social care’.

In other words if policy and practice frameworks are not acknowledging social workers as having an important frontline role in working with substance use issues, what drivers are there for social workers to engage with the topic?

The response will be to pass it on to someone else to assess and intervene. Clear messages must come from the top that identifying and responding to substance use is part of a social care response as well as health care and criminal justice.

Secondly, social work education at qualifying levels is currently undergoing its third reform in approximately 10 years. What these reforms fail to do each time is identify new subject areas that need to be mandated in order to make it on to the new curriculum.

What they did prior to the diploma in social work (DipSW), and as part of the current changes, is provide guidance on the topic. The experience from the DipSW shows that guidance alone doesn’t work.

It needs strong leadership and creativity with social work education to introduce completely new subjects and find the resources and time on the curriculum to deliver it.

There are a number of examples of good practice: Lancaster University has been running specialist modules on substance use and social work for 24 years. Others run specialist sessions or integrate teaching into other aspects of the curriculum.

But it is patchy and we know a third of social workers still leave qualifying education without any substance use education.

So what is the current state of substance misuse training for social workers? Has progress been made in recent years?

I am in the process of working on two surveys – one which explored the nature and extent of substance use training on qualifying social work programmes in England, the other on the nature and extent of substance use training by local authorities in England. 

Early indications suggest that in terms of qualifying social work training, there has been very little improvement. Again there are examples of good practice. At a local level, drug and alcohol action teams are more involved in delivering basic training to social work teams but there is no consistent approach.

Adfam’s report also calls on The College of Social Work, BASW and the chief social workers, when appointed, to “emphasise knowledge of parental substance use” as a key area of practice. 

How well do you feel that the national representative organisations and local social services directors are at prioritising this issue at the moment?

I can only speak from my experience. BASW has had a special interest group on alcohol and other drugs since 2007.

Its focus, quite rightly, is not just on parental substance use but on supporting social workers who encounter substance use in their area of specialist practice. 

The group responds to consultations, produces resources (e.g. the pocket guide series out at the end of last year – now being translated into Welsh) and runs at least two national conferences each year.

The College of Social Work is at a different (and early) stage in its development, however it has taken care to ensure substance use interests and expertise are among its faculty groups.

I sit on the mental health faculty because of my work in substance use and social work, similarly Donald Forrester sits on the Children and Families faculty. 

The College of Social Work also published new guidance on substance use for the ‘new’ curriculum which is available on its website. 

When it comes to the chief social workers, I guess we’ll see! 

As for local children’s services and adults’ services, again good practice examples and good partnerships exist, but this is patchy.

Both adults’ and children’s social care need to take leadership on ensuring substance use training is provided for its staff and ensure that this is monitored. It needs to be a rolling programme, not a one off basic awareness course (although this is a start).

is Community Care’s community editor

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