Why we need ‘cradle to grave’ social work education – government adviser

Higher-calibre students, tougher regulation of courses and a licence to practise for professionals must be introduced to improve the quality of social work education, says review for government

Picture credit: Monkey Business Images/Rex Features

By Professor David Croisdale-Appleby 
Social work is an extraordinarily complex profession. Social workers have to cope with contradictory and partial information; they have to rely on their knowledge of the lives of vulnerable people and they then have to select interventions which take a balanced view of the risks.

The role of a social worker is about both enabling and protecting individuals. So the task for social work education is to equip practitioners with the theoretical knowledge and practical capability they need to do this highly complex work to the very highest standards.

Last year I was asked by Norman Lamb to look at social work education to make sure that it continues to best serve the profession. In taking on this task I didn’t just want to assess the current situation, I also wanted to set out a vision for the future. In a fast-changing world, we need an education system that supports individuals throughout their career – almost a “cradle to the grave” approach.

My recommendations apply to the complete spectrum of social work education – from the selection of students for qualifying courses and their education in a higher education institution (HEI) and in work-based practice placements, to their formal qualification and protected title as a social worker.

More rigorous student selection

Excellent social work demands high-quality social workers and to achieve this HEI entry selection processes need to be more rigorous and consistent. Entry standards to the profession should be raised from 240 to at least 300 UCAS points (equivalent to three B grades at A-level) for undergraduate, and a first or 2:1 degree for postgraduate students. But as well as raising the academic bar we need to ensure prospective students have the right attributes, such as resilience and the ability to deal with uncertainty and conflict. That’s why I’ve recommend that key organisations – the Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee, the Association of Professors of Social Work and The College of Social Work – should work together to ensure we deliver this rigorous selection procedure.

As well as making sure we attract high-calibre students we need to make sure those high standards continue as newly qualified social workers progress start their professional careers. That’s why I propose that we move to create a licence to practise, without which they would not be authorised to work professionally as a social worker. They would then be subject to the rigorous revalidation of their licence to practise every few years.

Career-long CPD

But the education process should not end there – we need a new, comprehensive and continuing professional development (CPD) framework to support social workers develop their skills and knowledge. The Assessed and Supported Year in Employment (ASYE) should form the initial entry point for CPD which will be undertaken throughout the career of a social worker in professional practice and this framework should be based on a recognition of the social worker as a practitioner, a professional, and as a social scientist.

The regulation of these education processes and standards needs to be coherent, seamless and rigorous. We should bring together the standards of the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) and the endorsement criteria of The College of Social Work into a new, single regulatory regime in which both the rigour of the regulatory process and the stringency of the levels assessed would be substantially strengthened. HCPC should continue to regulate social work education to these new standards. Alongside this, the internal quality assurance processes of the HEIs should be more consistent.

I also think that there will be a place for innovative educational routes, such as fast-track schemes, in the future of social work education. They should be encouraged but they should set high expectations so that they enhance the overall quality of students at the point of qualification – their focus should be as a quality-enhancer, not a faster provider. Such initiatives should be subject to a rigorous evaluation process in which action standards are set before such alternative routes are given approval and funding.

Funding reforms

All this requires funding and investment should be increased in areas such as practice placements, the ASYE programme (in preparation for instigating a licence to practise) and in professional development. The student bursary funding for postgraduates should be maintained but made subject to a means test and undergraduate bursaries should be reduced in numbers and amount, or gradually phased out.

In carrying out this work I have found a very great deal that is good about social work education, indeed some of it is truly world-leading. With the re-visioning presented in this review, we can take this to a new height to create great social workers whose capabilities will impact hugely on the quality of our society.

More from Community Care

5 Responses to Why we need ‘cradle to grave’ social work education – government adviser

  1. Brian Smith February 27, 2014 at 2:04 am #

    I strongly disagree with the required entry level for courses as this will prevent less academic people from applying to become registered social workers. As a team manager for many tears I have found some of the best social workers have been unqualified social work assistants. They are naturally people persons and can notice when something is not what it appears or is presented and can instinctively work with the service users/carers to arrange the best outcomes for the service user(s). I have always encouraged and supported such individuals to become qualified. I would prefer an entry to the profession based on a minimum of a year as a social work assistant before anyone starts the course for qualification. Completing a year as a social work assistant before going onto study would give the individual an opportunity to see if dealing with people in very difficult circumstances is right for them and allow a professional assessment of their abilities to work with the client group(s), within a team of professionals and within the resource restraints that are going to become even tighter.

  2. Lorna Fitzpatrick February 27, 2014 at 11:43 am #

    I’d disappointed that thE ASYE programme is referred to as the Assisted Supported Year in Employment when it is the ASSESSED and Supported Year in Employment

    • mithran samuel
      mithran samuel February 27, 2014 at 1:56 pm #

      Apologies Lorna! Not my finest editing hour but corrected now.

  3. DAVID HAMBLY February 27, 2014 at 12:11 pm #

    Gove is a waste of space while busy slandering our profession his Government is busy freezing our pay, brining in performance managment and utterly destroying staff morale. Cuts to Local Authority funding 40% sacking 1 million public sector workers will not encourage anyone in their right mind to consider social work as a career. Cuts are destroying jobs and services. How about also looking at the pay for this complex job as presently the pay is a joke. Bankers meanwhile can be paid millions for destroying our society but no one is subjecting them to continuous professional review. Gove wants to do to Social Work what he has done to teaching. This Government are a sick joke as far as we are concerned. What we do not need is more Tory Social Workers, we have enough of these people already.

  4. Theresa Mullins March 4, 2014 at 9:43 pm #

    I’m not a social worker, nor in the care profession but have been a carer to my son for the past 8 years. Looking for help on the internet yet again today for my son brought me accidently to this forum.

    My family came under the spotlight of social services, when my son got ill as the way he handled diagnosis was very frightening (only last year finally diagnosed with High Functioning Asperger’s so explains how he handled and saw situation in his eyes). He was classified at the time as high risk which should have spoken volumes to any social worker, even more so, as I had younger child. I’ve put a complaint in to my local council about the lack of care and support as a family we received, even though hospitals/ school/doctors were all contacting them to intervene. Due to no assistance, now my younger child aged 15, is awaiting an appointment for CAMS to help her over the effects of the past 8 years.

    That’s why when I read the above by Mr Gove ” I propose that we move to create a licence to practise, without which they would not be authorised to work professionally as a social worker. They would then be subject to the rigorous revalidation of their licence to practise every few years”, I totally agreed. Accountants and Lawyers etc can’t practice without a licence and the same should be for social workers, as there are many in the filed giving the whole field a bad name. Whole families land up damaged if they don’t get support, creating more problems for SS & Mental Health in the future, more burden on resources, if people only do their jobs properly in the first place.

    I’ve even been sent trainee SS workers the same age as my oldest child (24) to assess my youngest of 15, alone, no supervisor with them at all and this is not acceptable practice in my eyes.

    Personally, I like to see end users of the system, who totally have experienced the frustration of it, go into social work as they have first hand experience which no book on this planet could ever teach. What book can teach anyone the harsh realities of a teenager with severe depression, who self harms, as no two individuals are the same? If you’ve never had to live with a youngster in such a state, grown up with a sibling that struggled to cope, had children to know that parents don’t have remote controls that can control their mood swings, how on earth can SS expect a parent to welcome a 24 year old SS worker into their home and resolve their issues?

    I know first hand Social workers have stressful jobs but what profession doesn’t? The only difference to me in my professional work, if I don’t deliver results, meet deadlines, I’m out. Step out of place, I loose my practice licence. These responsibilities of the job I accepted when I went into my trade.

    David Hambly: what profession hasn’t seen their salaries frozen over the past few years?
    I trained and studied for years in mine to see the pay now as a professional the same rate as 10 years ago as so much competition in all professional trades, due to increased competition and more than enough graduates to walk into any of our shoes. I know plenty of graduates wanting to go into social work even though their families have tried to talk them out of it. They know it’s not going to be easy, yet still happily want to go into it.