A training scheme to fast-track graduates into mental health social work will be backed by £1.6m of government funding next year, care minister Norman Lamb is expected to announce tonight.
The Think Ahead programme will use the money to fund its operational costs in 2015-16. Costs include recruiting students, designing the academic curriculum, and developing a leadership training element for the scheme.
The £1.6m of Department of Health funding will also be used to design placements with selected NHS Trusts and local authorities. Employers will be paid around £7,000 for each student they host from the scheme.
Think Ahead was announced by the government in 2014 and participants will go through an intensive two year on-the-job training programme. The scheme aims to recruit ‘high-calibre’ graduates into mental health social work and mirrors the Frontline fast-track training programme for children’s social work.
Social workers involved in the programme’s design hope it will promote social models of mental health and boost social work’s status in the sector. However, some social workers have raised concerns that fast-track schemes risk creating an “inequality” between the resources available to fast-track students and those on traditional degree courses.
Speaking to Community Care, Lamb said the funding was being given to Think Ahead to ensure “the very best people” are recruited into mental health social work, but it was not a case of “either or” in terms of finding resources for the existing workforce.
“I’ve been really clear all the way through that this programme is completely consistent with recognising that there are great people [already] working in mental health social work,” he said.
“But if you look to the future, it must surely make sense to explore all sorts of different ways to attract the very best people into social work. This can only benefit the profession and the people who rely on social workers in often quite vulnerable circumstances.”
The programme, which will be formally launched at an event in London tonight, aims to attract 80 to 100 trainees in its first year. All students will be expected to hold at least a 2.1 degree and will have to demonstrate their suitability for a job that requires emotional intelligence, good judgement and resilience.
Think Ahead has been developed with input from Ruth Allen, chair of The College of Social Work’s mental health faculty. Allen told Community Care she is hopeful that the programme will boost the visibility of the profession.
“I am impressed with the people who are working on this project and with their openness and inclusivity,” she said. “I see this as a real opportunity to promote the importance of a social focus in mental health services and to boost the status of social work.”
Allen added that she understood the views of some social work academics, who have raised concerns about the impact Think Ahead might have on the shortage of mental health placements currently available to social work students on traditional degree courses.
“The response from the College faculty is that we will be keeping a very close eye that unhelpful elitism is not the focus of Think Ahead,” she said.
“My intention is to make sure it is offering something positive to the whole of social work by helping to improve standing, education and the social focus in mental health services for all social workers going forward.”
How Think Ahead will work
Stage 1: Pre-placement programme
Participants will spend three to six weeks getting classroom-based training, including a ‘comprehensive introduction’ to fundamental concepts of social work theory. The programme’s curriculum will be designed with a partner university to be announced next month.
Stage 2: Year-long practice placement
Trainees will begin a year-long practice placement in a host organisation complemented by additional teaching days. The placement will mainly be based in integrated community mental health services but additional placement days in other settings – including potentially children’s social work – will also be required.
The placement will take place in a Think Ahead unit of four participants overseen by a consultant social worker. The consultant social worker will supervise the trainees and share his or her caseload with them (including the potential to co-work cases with them). The unit may span cases taken on by the consultant social worker from across different community mental health services.
At the end of the year, successful participants will get a postgraduate diploma in social work enabling them to practise as a newly qualified social worker.
Stage 3: The ASYE
The trainees will be employed on a fixed-term one year contract as newly qualified social workers at their host organisations. They will be required to undertake the Assessed and Supported Year in Employment during this time and also complete a Master’s degree in social work. At the end of the second year the participant can seek employment opportunities across social work.