Six months into the shiny new social work degree, with its much-needed focus on skills training, we have a report into social work education calling for a specialist path for child protection workers to be taken from year two of their degree.
This would be two years too soon. Asking students to make a decision about their future careers so early into their training disadvantages students, the services and, ultimately, the people we support.
Social workers work with all people, not just those we meet on our second-year placement. Social work brings recognition of issues faced by different groups of people and works with them within families and communities. We aren’t only interested in children or solely focused on people who have mental health issues or disabilities. People might need help because they are getting older but age doesn’t eradicate all the other issues that life has brought.
Dividing the profession at pre-qualification stage dilutes our usefulness to families. Some students do come to their courses with a clear idea of what they want to do when they qualify. Some keep this focus throughout their training and go on to make excellent social workers with a range of experience and knowledge gained whilst at university. Others discover new areas of interest by Christmas and spend three years exploring new ideas, growing and learning about social work. That’s a great way to spend time at university.
Our new social workers need time and space to discover where their passion and skills lie, and where they can be most useful. Then they can commit to an area that will shape their future and the future of others. With the core knowledge of a generically trained practitioner, social workers can bring fuller understanding to the services in which they will eventually work and the people and families they will serve.
As a profession, we need to protect students’ space to learn and not expect them to have secured the placement that will determine their future; not least because reality is that choice of placement is often out of students’ control.
There is a worrying trend of newly-qualified appointments being based on students’ last placements rather than on their core skills, values and knowledge, and an awareness that students’ broader experience of different placements will enhance the knowledge base of their new team. Team recruitment policies need to recognise that a newly-qualified child protection social worker with extensive (placement) experience of social work in a mental health service is an asset and this goes both ways.
Time to specialise comes after qualifying and on the job when new social workers can apply their breadth of understanding to the field that they now know most inspires them.
Dividing up the social work profession before we have even qualified undermines the very point of social work and paves the way for a whole new breed of specialist workers such as ‘child protection officers’, ‘mental health supporters’ and ‘older people’s advocates’. This would provide great potential for new acronyms for a field that loves its jargon but would be very bad news for anyone who believes in holistic support for people in crisis and the families around them. Bad news in other words, for social work.
Tanya Moore has worked for 25 years in social work practice and management in local authority and voluntary sector services. She currently teaches on the social work programmes at the University of Hertfordshire. These are her own views, not those of the university.