Lamb: ‘Fast track scheme will bolster, not threaten, social work in mental health’

Care minister says Think Ahead scheme will be part of a mix of routes into social work and can boost profession

Norman Lamb
Care and support minister Norman Lamb (Credit: Steve Meddle/Rex Features)

A government-backed fast-track scheme is to train up graduates to be social workers in mental health services. The ‘Think Ahead’ programme is likely to be piloted in 2016 and has the backing of care minister Norman Lamb.

Proponents of the scheme hope it will widen the opportunities for social work in mental health and address recruitment issues but some social workers have raised concerns over the programme. Community Care spoke to Norman Lamb about some of the concerns we’ve seen raised and his hopes for Think Ahead.

The recent review of social work education commissioned by your department gave a very strong endorsement of generic social work training. One criticism of Think Ahead – and Frontline before it – that I’ve seen is that it risks moving away from that generic value base and instead turning social work into ‘specialist silos’. What do you think of that?

Norman Lamb (NL): I totally understand the importance of that value base that social workers describe. I don’t think that Think Ahead needs to conflict in any way with it.

People will still get the wide ranging training that social workers get (note: The IPPR recommends that Think Ahead trainees will work to a generic social work qualification and do placements in a range of settings, including children’s services) but we know already that in a rather kind of ad hoc way specialisms do happen. Someone who happens to get a work placement in a particular area will end up specialising in that area. It’s all a bit pot luck at the moment. It’s not in any way systematic or transparent or planned. This recognises that there is a particular area [mental health] where there are specific problems at the moment. The fact that only 8% of trainees are choosing mental health placements should be a real concern.

I think this programme’s value is as part of a mix of routes into social work. This is no takeover, this is one contribution and another route to ensure we get a diverse, talented group of entrants. If it achieves making this critical profession attractive to a group of people who wouldn’t have previously considered social work then that must be a good thing.

How will Think Ahead ensure that it covers a wide enough curriculum. We’ve seen, for example, that the HCPC has raised issues with Frontline that they need to provide further proof of how students will gain a suitable knowledge of adult perspectives on social work. Is there a risk the reverse will be true of Think Ahead?

NL: It’s all about the design of the scheme and the programmes. 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 and so forth. I absolutely want to get this right but I don’t think it’s beyond us to achieve that. It’s an important issue that has to be addressed but I think it’s one that can be tackled.

How does the scheme fit in with the reality of mental health services at the moment? Many social workers that I speak to are routinely struggling to do their jobs due to a real lack of resources. They feel they have little time to do ‘real’ social work. Many teams aren’t short-staffed because of a lack of demand for jobs, or potential recruits, but because posts have been frozen or cut.

NL: This initiative isn’t designed to resolve all the problems facing health and care services. Whilst I think there are massive existential challenges that we face, there are also massive opportunities. I think getting as many of the best people we can into social work through the traditional routes, but also this new route, must be what everybody wants.

Any thought given to meeting these challenges must surely make sense. It seems to me that there is quite a powerful case for that. Alongside this programme, and my excitement about this, yes there is absolutely the need to fight – as I try to articulate whenever I can – for parity of funding for mental health services and better resources for preventive care.

The truth is, as I suspect we all know if we’re prepared to admit it, is that whoever is in power the challenges are the same. We need to make better use of our resources. Sometimes there are posts that are frozen, but we also know from some of the IPPR’s research that some local authorities have struggled to recruit to posts.

Research by the IPPR found that social services directors’ felt social work job applicants lacked analytical ability and critical thinking skills. Some people take this scheme as a sleight against those already in the profession. What are your thoughts on that?

NL: Of course I look at Twitter like many other people do. I see the comments. At the launch event for Think Ahead we heard from Frances, a social worker in mental health services who has gone through the traditional route. She said she wants to attract more people, great people to social work who have something to offer but don’t know how to get into it. There was also a senior manager in social work who said he would have done this scheme 15 years ago if it had been available to him but at the time there was nothing like it available.

I don’t want to denigrate anyone. Earlier today I was at the social work awards ceremony where we were congratulating the winners of the 2013 social work awards. To see and meet great people doing brilliant work, I’m constantly impressed by people I meet working as social workers. I don’t see how that is in anyway inconsistent with saying that if we can attract some great people who have real intellect but also empathy [through Think Ahead] then surely anything we can do in terms of strengthening the profession must be welcomed by anyone who cares about this profession?

What would your message be to social workers about this scheme?

NL: For me, social work is one of the most important public services. As a government we have chosen to appoint two chief social workers so that social work has a seat at the national table. We’ve done that because we want to elevate the status of social work and because of the central importance I see of social work to meeting some extraordinary challenges in health and care services.

I want a powerful, assertive voice for social work and I want a self-confident profession. For me, I would encourage anyone who is in social work already to embrace this as a way of bolstering and strengthening the profession so that it has an even stronger voice in the future.

I want it to be seen as a very attractive profession for a whole range of people to go into because it is doing vital work. There are some great people going into social work just now, there will continue to be great people going into social work going through the traditional routes. But what’s not to like about an alternative route [Think Ahead] that might bring in more talented people either fresh out of university or who have done other careers and want to move into social work? I hope people embrace it and recognise that Teach First has done a lot to bring into teaching people who just weren’t thinking about it in the past.

If social workers have feedback on Think Ahead how can they raise it with you?

NL: I’m very keen to hear feedback. People can communicate with me through the Department of Health to raise concerns, ideas. I hope they’ll be constructive. I hope people recognise that I’m doing this with the best of motives and intentions. I’m very happy to engage with people in discussing this initiative and encourage people to come forward with their ideas.

Norman Lamb is one of several speakers appearing at this year’s Community Care Live event on 20th and 21st of May. The event is free for registered social workers. See details and book your place here.

More from Community Care

3 Responses to Lamb: ‘Fast track scheme will bolster, not threaten, social work in mental health’

  1. Niall May 7, 2014 at 3:18 pm #

    I applied for a 2 year social work course, I have two degrees and a masters, one of which is a law degree from a Russel Group university. My personal
    experience ranges from having 8 plus years working in a care home, being
    part of a family who owns a care home, I have profoundly deaf brother who
    we have made sure he has had all the opportunities he deserves, I was a
    manager of a project which created meaning employment for people with a
    learning disability for 2 years, a project officer in a community based
    Fall prevention project, through this I achieved my MVQ level 2 in health
    and social care and also completed my OTAGO fall prevention training. With
    what I feel is vast experience at 27 years old (male)in a very focused
    field along with good standard Law degree from as I said a Russell group
    university was rejected a place on the Social Work course because I did not
    score high enough on a interview. I do accept nerves may have played a
    small part but having recently join a students forum on the internet I was
    shock to find out that other students with less educational, professional
    and personal experience were being accepted before me. My point being that
    top graduates do apply but yet are over looked by the universities, I am
    currently on a waiting list unlikely to get a place on the course and will
    be unlikely to apply again because I feel the system is bias towards a
    certain type of person.

    • resource_led May 9, 2014 at 2:19 pm #

      Cambridge graduate here who had no problem being accepted onto a social work course. I suspect it may indeed be interview nerves which let you down. You can always try again. To be honest, if you let one setback put you off, maybe a social work career isn’t for you?

  2. Leanne May 13, 2014 at 3:48 pm #

    Perhaps you got in no problem because you are a Cambridge grad?

    I went through the traditional route and found it extremely difficult to get a mental health post as a newly qualified due to lack of post grad experience. My pre degree experience was irrelevant. where are the jobs coming from??