‘Some universities have let students down’ – a practice educator’s response to Narey’s review of social work training

There is room for improvement in the education and training of social workers, but the question of moving towards a specialist degree requires further consideration, says practice educator Helen Bonnick

University students
Academics' book argues for a new approach. Rex/Blend Images (posed by models)
Helen Bonnick

Helen Bonnick

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.

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5 Responses to ‘Some universities have let students down’ – a practice educator’s response to Narey’s review of social work training

  1. Lorna Fitzpatrick February 18, 2014 at 10:59 am #

    When the degree in social work was introduced, it was intended that SW education be driven by practice and I was really excited because I believed that employers would take their responsibilty for teaching social workers seriously. I don’t think that has happened and I see employers in the statutory sector laying the blame for perceived shortfalls on the HEIs without understanding that practice based education is half of the degree and the repsonsibility of the sector.

  2. Ann Bowen February 18, 2014 at 1:35 pm #

    Lets just remeber that the families welcome skills such as empathy, getting the job done, problem solving and sometimes a little bit of warmth and humor.
    I do not have a degree in Social work but I do the job of my collegues who do, at a high level that safeguards the most vulnrable children and families.
    I have searched every avenue to train in social work but as a mum and full time worker i cannot meet the entry criteria despite my two a levels and 12 years experience working in a leading child protection Charity.
    Narey should reply to me and come and inspect my high standards of practice even talk to the people who count ie Children and families that we are working with.

  3. Louie February 18, 2014 at 4:43 pm #

    I’m a newly qualified social worker still not employed as a social worker and I recently read the Narey report. Thought the degree I never received support or indications or careers advice for what employers wanted from qualified social workers. It only after the degree did I realise there appears a mismatch in what is needed to know as a social worker and experiences requires to understand the a particular job. Such as what can a social worker consider or action for a particular job.

    With competition high for limited NQSW positions, these gaps of knowledge or experience can make a different in selection. However, this could be argued in the context of other jobs; but what I don’t understand during the degree is why a NQSW isn’t good enough for various social work jobs. I thought the AYSE would help address this on the employers end for CPD but then how does a social worker that is new get on to the first run of the ladder.

    This I didn’t spot in the Narey report and I feel it just build on the litany of social work education reform reports, regardless if specific child or adult service users. Social Education and Employment shouldn’t exist in my opinion in separate bubbles. It would be interesting if employers were given teaching status, like teaching hospitals so there is an effective framework for CPD of NQSWs.

  4. Sarah Rosson February 18, 2014 at 10:21 pm #

    There are excellent universities with highly committed tutors but balance this with social workers who are overworked already and little financial incentive to train as practice educators and hence the choice of good quality placements are limited. The culprit is this government not investing in social work education and they are entirely to blame for letting social work students down.

  5. Joan Revill February 24, 2014 at 12:00 pm #

    Having worked in social work for 40 years and recently gone back into front-line work after teaching social work in a university, it seems to me that the profession has become overly bureaucratic, managerialist and painfully lacking in funding. Social workers are being disciplined, warned and dismissed for mainly bureaucratic reasons.

    The service users I meet, however, in children and families work, are more aware of their rights, more intelligent but also more disadvantaged by their social circumstances. Social work values are paid lip-service to but due to fiancial pressures -on local authorities – and pressures on workloads – they are not always able to be adhered to. This is despite enthusiasm and commitment from most newly-qualified workers.

    The training of social work is not necessarily at fault as society has become more complex and decisions about needing to specialise or not, have been around since I started in social work.

    Teaching social work also is plagued by dilemmas – how much emphasis is given to practice, for example, is a huge question mark on most courses – and I have taught on several. Linking theory to practice is also full of conflicts. Some of these issues are about how much relevant and current social work experience the teaching staff have.

    Having gone back into practice all of the above have become more meaningful and I would stubbornly suggest that lectures, practice educators, professors need to do the same. Most other professionals are still in practice even when they are teaching eg doctors, lawyers.

    Another review of social work training – one of the most interesting and relevant professions today – will not solve the problems.