Government-backed ‘fast track’ scheme will train graduates as mental health social workers

Think Ahead scheme designed by think-tank is likely to be piloted in 2016

Picture credit: Monkey Business Images/Rex Features

A government-backed fast track scheme is set to train up graduates to be social workers in mental health services, under plans published this week.

Trainees on the two-year ‘Think Ahead’ scheme will get up to 10 weeks of intensive classroom training followed by 12 months mixing ‘on-the-job’ training with further study, after which they will become a qualified social worker. In year two, graduates will hold a reduced caseload in a mental health team while working towards a masters’ degree in social work.

Recommendations for the design of the programme, which has the backing of care minister Norman Lamb, have been set out by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), the think-tank that developed the Frontline fast-track scheme for child protection social work. The IPPR recommends that Think Ahead should have a minimum entry requirement of an upper second class degree as it aims to attract graduates and career switchers. Applicants will also be assessed against various ‘capabilities’ including analytical skills, compassion and resilience.

A detailed programme for Think Ahead will be developed over the next eight months, overseen by a board that includes representation from The College of Social Work, the IPPR said.

Jonathan Clifton, senior research fellow at IPPR, said the scheme was an attempt to “attract the best and brightest into mental health social work”.

“A fast track programme has the potential to provide community mental health teams – the ‘hub’ from which most mental health services are organised within the community – with a cadre of highly trained mental health professionals who are able to lead the integration agenda,” he said.

Proponents of the scheme say it will attract a new tranche of candidates to social work and open up new opportunities to strengthen social work’s role in mental health. However, concerns have been voiced by some social workers that schemes like Think Ahead and Frontline risk turning social work into “specialist silos”.

The IPPR said that it has recommended that Think Ahead trainees work towards a generic social work qualification – not a specialist degree – and pointed out that recruits will undertake a range of placements, including in children and families services.

A recent Department of Health-commissioned review of social work education strongly backed the retention of a single, generic initial social work qualification. The review also said that fast-track routes should be encouraged so long as they met rigorous regulatory requirements. However, it voiced scepticism about the restriction of courses to certain practice areas or user groups – such as children’s services in the case of Frontline – and pointed to the contrasting international trend towards longer, rather than shorter qualifying periods for social workers.

Last month the Health and Care Professions Council, the regulator for social work courses, said Frontline had to provide further proof that it would meet the required standards for social work training. One issue raised by the HCPC inspectors was that they could not determine how the programme would set and assess relevant learning outcomes to ensure recruits gained knowledge of the adult perspective in social work.

Bridget Robb, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers, said the same challenges will apply to Think Ahead.

“BASW has been involved in the development of the IPPR report, but remains concerned at the duplication of structures around social work education. We support the challenges presented by HCPC to the Frontline programme, an equivalent scheme for training children’s social workers, before it can receive the regulator’s support, and we recognise these will apply to Think Ahead as well,” said Robb.

“BASW will work with those behind Think Ahead to see if it can produce a model capable of training high-quality social workers able to support the people who use mental health services. It is particularly important, however, that its implementation doesn’t further diminish the availability of statutory placements for the degree courses on which we will continue to rely for producing the vast majority of social work graduates.”

Jo Cleary, chair of The College of Social Work, said: “There are already many excellent mental health social workers, however, it is very important that the profession continues to attract the very best recruits, bringing both intellectual and emotional intelligence to the undoubted challenges of this work.  We need also to be open to new ways of reaching out to people who have the ability to be first class social workers but may not yet be considering the profession as a career choice.”

“The College looks forward to seeing further details about the design and delivery of the ‘Think Ahead’ model set out in this report,” she added. 

Speaking to Community Care last night, care minister Lamb said he was confident the scheme would meet regulatory standards.

“The experience of Frontline highlights the importance of early engagement with the regulator to make sure we address issues of this sort early on. I’m very mindful of that. I’ve met with the chief executive of the HCPC to talk about the lessons from Frontline’s experience. I absolutely want to get this right but I don’t think it is beyond us to achieve this,” he said.

More from Community Care

4 Responses to Government-backed ‘fast track’ scheme will train graduates as mental health social workers

  1. Deborah Sibbald May 8, 2014 at 2:33 pm #

    this seems rather ill conceived. i gave up a good job to study for two years on a masters course as a social worker as I was particularly interested in developing professionally and work within mental health. there were so few mental health placements, I ended up in a placement in another field and since qualifying have not obtained work as even agency roles need two years experience. surely efforts would be better placed in developing skills and opportunities for people who have already committed and trained ? Have become quite disillusioned with the culture of social work and may return to the third sector where I worked for twenty years, there was more creativity, training and opportunity to develop .there, and I feel deskilled and disillusioned.

  2. Dan May 10, 2014 at 7:39 am #

    I think that this is very sad. Are we really that short of good social workers in mental health services? The answer is no… The problem where we live is that social workers and other MH professionals are all MH care coordinators. I’ve asked a coordinator several times for a community care assessment, but it almost seems like they don’t know what to do with my request. It was even more worrying when they went away and found out that they would be the responsible worker for the completion of it… In my opinion, let professionals be professionals in their field, but in MH services, social work seems to have be lost in integration.

  3. Carol May 11, 2014 at 1:58 pm #

    One of the main problems in social work graduates having mental health experience is that getting placements in mental health teams is very difficult. Currently qualified practice educators are in short supply and are under pressure to supervise and assess NQSWs and AMHP trainees. If there was an effort to increase student placements then this issue would largely be sorted.

  4. daniimay@googlemail.com May 14, 2014 at 11:16 pm #

    I totally agree with Deborah. I am sure there are many Social workers who are currently unemployed because of the lack of opportunities out there for Newly Qualified social workers as most employers require social workers with two years experience or more. Instead of spending more government funds to train new graduates on a fast-track scheme why not just utilize the skills of the unemployed social workers to fill in the gaps? Why Not have a Scheme like the NHS Back to work Policy in social work? Nobody seems to be doing anything to address the problem of the vast number of trained and unemployed social workers. Instead we keep hearing again and again about ‘New fast-track-schemes to train other graduates as mental health or other type of social worker. What is the point of the government spending so much money on training social workers and then not following up to make sure that the social workers are placed in social work vacancies as they arise so that no trained social workers should face being unemployed just because employers decide that they want experienced social workers. How does a newly qualified social worker become an ‘experienced social worker’ if no one wants to give them the opportunity? Why bother to train social workers only for them to remain unemployed? and then ignore their plight by suggesting new schemes time and time again to train more and more on so called ‘fast-track-schemes?’