In the next few weeks, the government is set to publish the findings of two independent reviews by David Croisdale-Appleby and Sir Martin Narey into social work education. These reviews provide an excellent opportunity for the profession to build on previous initiatives and to ensure that future generations of social workers are trained effectively. There is a real need to embrace reform.
Here are four things the reviews should include, if this is not to be an opportunity wasted:
1. Instilling an ethos of integration and joint working
With more people experiencing multiple and chronic conditions, there will be a greater need to deliver social work services in the community and across traditional provider boundaries. For example, a third of people with a physical illness are also diagnosed with a mental illness, meaning they require a mixture of interventions. The social work curriculum and practice placements must prepare students to work within this new environment. Newly qualified social workers (NQSWs) must arrive in the workplace with knowledge of the importance of working with colleagues from a range of agencies and organisations, and be able to assert their professional identity and defend the social work perspective during joint decisions over treatment. This is particularly important in mental health, where the input of social workers has often been marginalised in favour of that from medical professionals.
2. Recruit the best and brightest
Social work continues to suffer from an image problem. It is often not seen as a desirable profession, and lacks the status that is afforded to others. This can be seen when looking at which students are attracted in to the profession. Students with higher UCAS tariffs are underrepresented on social work courses when compared to other subjects and, of the 2,765 people starting an MA in social work in 2011, only 150 had completed their undergraduate degree at a Russell Group university (less than 6% of the total).
There is also a lack of pathways for those who excel in related fields, such as improving access to psychological therapies (IAPT) workers in mental health, to progress into social work. The profession could therefore be missing out on several potential sources of talent, thereby failing to ensure that the range of skills and experiences required to be effective social workers are fully represented in the workforce. Some programmes, such as Step Up to Social Work and Frontline, have begun to address these concerns, but more should be done to establish a wider range of entry routes. The profession needs to actively recruit high-calibre graduates, talented care workers and those with experience of working in the health sector, and encourage them to become the social workers of tomorrow.
3. Renewed emphasis on post-qualifying education
Staff retention rates in social work are significantly lower than for comparable professions. Whereas a nurse will on average use their professional qualification for 15 years and a doctor 25, a social worker will only use theirs for eight. Key to improving retention rates is ensuring that the quality of managers and supervisors are sufficient to allow good quality NQSWs to develop the right ethos when entering the workplace. There is scope within the education system for post-qualifying programmes that ensure experienced social workers develop the skills needed to lead both individual teams and the profession more generally and halt the perpetuation of bad practice that could otherwise occur.
4. Workforce planning system
A key reform which is long overdue in social work in England is the introduction of a national system for workforce planning. There is currently a mismatch between the supply and demand of social workers across different regions, with no means for guaranteeing that those with the highest vacancy rates will be those that are training the highest number of new recruits. (As social work students are typically slightly older than the average for undergraduates, they are less likely to be willing to relocate after studying.) And despite only 64% of second year students reporting being placed in local authorities in a 2013 survey, experience in a statutory setting continues to be vitally important in determining their employment prospects after qualifying. Course admissions and the provision of statutory placements should therefore be coordinated to ensure that employers in all regions are able to access the required numbers of sufficiently trained NQSWs.
An ageing population, a growing incidence of mental illness and a rise in levels of multi-morbidity mean that demand for social workers is only likely to increase over the coming years. In the face of these challenges, the profession is under added pressure to ensure that students are fully prepared. The upcoming reviews present an opportunity that ought not to be missed.
Craig Thorley is a researcher at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)