Martin Narey’s report into social work education, published last week, has attracted both criticism and acclaim depending on where you are coming from – and that, for me, is the crucial element in the discussion. Is the model of children’s social work, supported by these recommendations, the direction of travel in which we should be heading?
In a series of 18 recommendations, Narey recognises that there are many universities and many students performing to an excellent standard, while also presenting changes which he believes will significantly increase confidence in the initial training and calibre of newly qualified children’s social workers, building on the developments since Eileen Munro reported in 2011. He divides the areas of change into improvements to the curriculum, improvements to the accreditation of courses, to the calibre of students on entry and, lastly, to the earlier specialisation into a particular area of work. I have found it difficult to argue with his recommendations, apart, perhaps, from this last one.
Entry requirements and procedures have tightened up over the years that I have been a practice educator, but there is certainly room for further work in this area. Yes, I do fail students, but it is not always easy to do, and there needs to be good training for practice educators and good support from the university for this to happen appropriately, and possibly more often than the 2.5% figure given in the report.
Some courses also rightly come in for criticism and Narey is scathing of the current system of accreditation. If social work is to be taken seriously as a profession, there must be a proper sense of quality control; not just of students, but of the courses themselves. In my experience, some universities have badly let students down in recent years, with poor structure, sloppy organisation and lack of support. Perhaps there are too many courses, and there may be an argument for better workforce planning in relation to the number of students moving through the system.
Recent changes to the assessment process are still bedding in and will no doubt feel more straightforward next year. Assessing against the professional capabilities framework offers a clearer set of standards and levels than in previous years, but combined and cross-referenced with the Health and Care Professions Council’s standards of proficiency, the system becomes ridiculously time-consuming. One clear set of standards should help both students and assessors to be more precise about what skills are required and whether the appropriate levels of attainment have been met across the field.
Room for more teaching
When it comes to course content, some commentators have picked up on the point that there is too much theory and not enough practical experience. By my reading, this is not what Narey says. From an informal review that sought opinions from a range of private individuals over a six month period, Narey has chosen to give space to two particular points: that there is not enough focus on theories and understanding of child development and on child protection issues; and that there is sometimes too much focus on anti-oppressive practice and empowerment. In a triumph of equivocation I would like to say yes, no, and it probably depends which university you are talking about. Certainly there are students I have worked with who have needed more, not less, teaching on anti-oppressive practice. In my opinion, there is room for more teaching in almost every area of the curriculum.
I would welcome the development of a formalised and strengthened curriculum, but I would also be very surprised if all that is being suggested could be fitted into the two or three years available. Some would argue that this underlines the need for specialism early on. Others believe this move would weaken the profession. Far from existing in a vacuum, children inhabit families where other members may be struggling with poor mental health, physical or learning difficulties, substance use, or domestic violence, to name but a few. Children’s needs cannot be understood without this supporting knowledge. Indeed, placements in settings concerned with these issues may well support learning in the area of safeguarding and protection.
Yet we are trying to cram a quart into a pint pot: too much material – whether research, evidence, theory or legislation – to cover in the time available, given 200 days are also given over to practice learning. That begs the question of what we expect from a qualified social worker. Many would argue that hitting the ground running should not necessarily be part of the equation. The assessed and supported year in employment recognises this and needs to be better enacted with a stronger focus on continuing professional development, to support and nurture workers in their ongoing training.
The importance of placements
In support of his thesis for a specialised degree, Narey argues that the majority of students decide early on in which field they want to practice. Perhaps, but many students with whom I have worked have changed their minds after a particularly interesting placement, exposure to a previously unfamiliar area of work, or even a realisation that their long-term dream was unrealistic and not for them.
The quality of placements does not receive much attention in Narey’s review, other than the difficulties in organising statutory placements and whether this impacts on readiness for practice. This position is supported by a particular understanding and model of children’s social work, but, even if statutory settings were the only place in which work with children took place, I would still argue for a broader, more open approach. A greater focus on the primacy of work within children’s services seems to me to sit uneasily with the move towards social workers being based in non-traditional settings.
I fully support the imperative for social workers to be better informed and for high standards of practice to prevail. There remains room for further improvement in the education and training of social workers. But the question of moving towards a specialist degree requires further separate consideration. Any move that better protects the lives of vulnerable children is to be commended, but this is not a magic bullet and we should be wary of claims that it is.