Four questions to ask when reading the Narey review of social work education

There are various ways to judge the merit of the upcoming reviews of social work education, says professor Aidan Worsley

Social work students
Credit: Monkey Business Images/Rex (posed by models)

Sir Martin Narey’s review of social work education for the Department for Education (DfE) is finally due for publication on Thursday. It is not yet clear when professor David Croisdale-Appleby’s parallel, but independent, review for the Department of Health (DH) is to be published, but, in advance of their appearance, it might be helpful to flag up four questions by which we may begin to judge their impact, merit and likely effectiveness.

1. Do they build on reform?

The Social Work Reform Board (and the Munro Review) put in place a significant swathe of reforms, including substantial changes in qualifying social work education and the assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE). The entire sector has embraced these reforms and students in England have, from September 2013, enrolled on entirely new courses – approved by the Health and Care Professions Council and endorsed by The College of Social Work. Newly qualified social workers are embarking on ASYE programmes across the land. It’s important that these reviews build on these developments and don’t ignore the enormous strides already made, if they wish to be taken seriously.

2. Do they see social work as a single profession?

It’s very telling that the DfE and DH have commissioned two entirely separate reviews. What’s less clear at this juncture is how far – if at all – the two reviews will work together. Social work is a single profession, with a single value base and professional ethos. The reviews need to acknowledge this fact and be aware of the dangers in pulling a beleaguered profession apart. The welcome creation of a chief social worker role is inevitably compromised if different agendas lead to two separate people with two separate mandates relating to a single profession. The arbitrary allocation of function in government departments is simply not as important as the future of social work.

3. Do they engage with continuing professional development (CPD)?

Any attempt to enhance social work training without dealing with the constantly reducing opportunity for CPD in the profession is only addressing a small part of the issue. The argument that qualifying training can deliver “hit the ground running” end products that employers never need to develop, nurture and supervise well is simply unsustainable. Retention figures in the profession make an undeniable case. If either review ignores this challenging truth then they are failing the profession.

4. Do they engage with the variety of social work roles?

We know social workers exist in a myriad of settings. Certainly, local authorities are still the main employers of qualified social workers, but their share of the workforce has steadily reduced, especially in recent years. Private, voluntary and independent sector agencies now provide a range of contracted and independent services and look to employ social workers in their delivery. It’s imperative that this variety is understood. Social work education must not be driven by a construction of role and curriculum that is predicated on the sole template of social workers in a local authority.

Of course, both reviews face enormous challenges in dealing with the complexities of the social work profession, which has arrived at its current shape and persona via a vast range of often competing and contradictory influences. I don’t envy them their task. What is required is a sense of strategic vision, based on real evidence and understanding of what the issues are. The profession and the providers of its professional education have demonstrated a willingness and ability to change – we have all just done that – but need convincing that the time is right for policy shifts. We need to know the path ahead is the right one for social work and the vulnerable people we support.

Professor Aidan Worsley is dean of the University of Central Lancashire’s school of social work

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