‘Social work education is being shaped and changed by those with little understanding of social work’

Early specialisation, excessive focus on technical competence and the neglect of post-qualifying education are storing up problems for the future, warns Ray Jones

Photo: Guy Cali/REX

By Ray Jones, professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London

This is the second of a series of reflections on the state of children’s social work today. This week the focus is on recent and planned developments in social work education, now largely led by non-social workers.

Protected title status

Thirteen years ago, social work received a considerable boost. Until then anyone could call themselves a social worker, including the bigoted driver for a voluntary organisation who regularly used it in letters published in my local paper.

But from 2002 “social worker” in the United Kingdom became a protected title which could only be used by those who were registered as a social worker. Registration was only available for those with an appropriate qualification – now to be at degree level – and only those who demonstrated continuing professional learning and development could continue their registration.

Push on post-qualifying education

There had already been a big push on post-qualifying (PQ) education and learning with PQ and advanced specialist awards introduced, overseen by regional post-qualifying education and training consortia. I was involved in setting up and then chairing the Top South West PQ Consortium, a partnership of employers and educators.

This has largely been the framework for the past ten years, albeit with the demise of regional consortia for PQ. It was enhanced by the 2010 recommendations of the Social Work Task Force with work undertaken by the Social Work Reform Board to specify the competencies and knowledge needed by social workers at different levels of experience and status.

Challenge, confusion and compromise

So far, so good … but this is all now being challenged, confused and compromised. Firstly, the review undertaken by Sir Martin Narey for the then secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, is leading to early – too early, in my view – specialisation for social work students.

This has a number of implications. It forces students to make a career-limiting decision before their social work identity and interests are given the time and opportunity to develop.

Change is happening more quickly for social work with children than other social work career paths in a way that favours and privileges children’s social work – a concern if other areas of social work practice are to be seen as equally valued and important.

A fragmented profession

But most importantly, it fragments the social work profession and its education base and will produce social workers with a limited knowledge. They won’t have the initial professional education that covers the wider territory in which they will operate.

Children feel the impact of having parents who misuse drugs or alcohol, or have acute and enduring mental health issues and other impairments, or where there is domestic violence. Children’s social workers need to know about adults, and adults’ social workers need to know about – and look out for – children.

Education is overly technical and task-focused

Secondly, social workers are in danger of having an education which is overwhelmingly technical and focused on task. Having social workers who are task-competent is important, but so is having social workers who are “head-up”: thinking broadly in their assessments and action planning, driven by social work’s value base. Tightly focused, fast-tracked education and training, with very early exposure to sharp-end high risk social work, creates vulnerability for students and for agencies.

This is not generally deemed appropriate for new social workers in their first assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE), but for a new small cohort of preferred and privileged students, with the enticement that they can quickly move into management roles, it’s considered sensible and acceptable.

The Frontline programme is seen as the way to attract bright, (hopefully emotionally as well as intellectually) intelligent young graduates into social work. But intellectual capacity and knowledge alone are inadequate without practice wisdom, professional identity and confidence built through time and experience.

We should develop foundation degrees

Recruiting intellectually competent students into the intellectually demanding role of social worker –  which involves making crucial judgements based on complex but often partial information –  is more important than may previously have been recognised.

For those with less intellectual competence and capacity, but who still have a core contribution to make to the care and welfare of others, foundation degrees for entry into social care should become more developed and prevalent.

Social science or social control?

Thirdly, limiting the curriculum so that it focuses on competencies but not values moves social work to being a technical occupation rather than a profession. This is recognised by David Croisdale-Appleby in his more extensive review of social work education than Narey’s.

Croisdale-Appleby persuasively describes social workers as being social scientists as well as practitioners and professionals. Having awareness of, knowledge about, and an eagerness to tackle deprivation (and destitution for increasing numbers of children and adults as a consequence of austerity policies), is a part of social work’s tradition and value base.

Anything else would position social work as an agent of social control rather than of social care and social reform.

Such a re-positioning may be attractive to the government but should not go unchallenged by social workers.

Development is being neglected

Fourthly, the overwhelming focus on fragmenting and fast-tracking initial social work education is leading to the neglect of post-qualifying education and learning and continuing professional development (CPD).

Indeed, what should be developed through post-qualifying education as social workers’ confidence and competence is enhanced, enriched and embedded is now being squeezed into client-group specialised initial education.

There are strengths too

It should not and does not have to be like this. The strengths of recent changes include greater social work practice agency involvement in social work education, social work educators’ ongoing engagement with practice and practice developments, greater clarity about necessary social competencies for social workers and about their knowledge-base, and heightened requirements for those entering social work.

Community Care Live 2015
Ray Jones will be a panellist at Question Time during Community Care Live 2015 in May. Social workers will be able to ask our panel of experts their burning questions on policy and practice.
See the full programme here.

But these positive developments should be embedded within a context of a generic initial qualifying degree, then a specialist ASYE, plus a nationally consistent programme of PQ and advanced awards.

Make education part of inspection criteria

It would also be beneficial for the regulators (currently Ofsted for children’s services and the CQC for adults’) to inspect organisations on their contribution to initial and post-qualifying education and development, with education and teaching agency status awarded to employers who commit and perform adequately.

Organisations would give this commitment and seek this status because, in a competitive market, it would be necessary for recruitment and retention. It would also enhance quality of practice and performance.

All social workers work at the children and adults interface

Social work needs to regain control of its education and values base. Some of the fragmentation being created is because social work education is being shaped and changed by those with little understanding of social work.

Social work is not like teaching where you train to teach early years, primary, secondary or further education. All social workers work with children and adults in their family and community contexts and all social workers work at, and need to be alert to, the children and adults interface. Losing this understanding, focus and professional base will lead to problems ahead.

Dr Ray Jones is professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London. A social worker and former director of social services, for two days each week he oversees child protection improvement in areas rated as ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted. 

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9 Responses to ‘Social work education is being shaped and changed by those with little understanding of social work’

  1. CK April 16, 2015 at 10:48 am #

    I wholeheartedly agree. The model of specialistion that has taken root in social work training and practice has only served to undermine practitioner confidence and ability to adress ‘whole system’ issues. All social workers should be equipped with the skills to work with individuals and groups with diverse and varied needs across a range of settings. Of course, specialist knowledge within those various arenas is crucial, but this can be gained quite readily. What takes longer to develop and nurture are the relational skills and professional judgement necessary to effective engagement with human beings with a diverse range of needs and goals – and that’s, surely, where the focus should be.

  2. Graham Luetchford April 16, 2015 at 11:31 am #

    I agree with Prof Jones. My CQSW, obtained 30 years ago, has allowed me to work across the fields of childcare, adult care, learning disability, substance misuse and latterly mental health. Without that ability to change and refresh my career at regular intervals I would have left the profession years ago.
    However I am afraid the move from profession to technical occupation began many years ago when the term client (a respectful term used by professions such as law, accountancy, engineering, advertising etc) was replaced by the mechanistic term ‘service user’ – thereby at a stroke redefining social workers as functionaries in a service industry rather than professionals with a degree of autonomy and responsibility.
    Now (in my area at least) we are attempting to meet the needs of ‘customers’. Does this make us shop assistants?

  3. Graham Luetchford April 16, 2015 at 12:27 pm #

    I agree with Prof Jones. My CQSW, obtained 30 years ago, has allowed me to work across the fields of childcare, adult care, learning disability, substance misuse and latterly mental health. In fact I got my job in substance misuse because of my experience in childcare. Without that ability to change and refresh my career at regular intervals I would have left the profession years ago.
    However I am afraid the move from profession to technical occupation began many years ago when the term client (as use by most professions such as law, accountancy, engineering, advertising) was replaced by the mechanistic term ‘service user’ – thereby at a stroke redefining social workers as functionaries in a service industry. This coincided with attacks on trade unionism and other workplace organisation and heralded the subsequent dominance of managerialism over professionalism.
    Now (in my area at least) we are attempting to meet the needs of ‘customers’. Does this make us shop assistants?

  4. Tammy April 16, 2015 at 11:08 pm #

    Thank God someone who really knows what they’re talking about. This ‘fast track’ trend is dangerous and those who’re going to suffer the most as a result are service users.

  5. George Bragan April 17, 2015 at 1:59 pm #

    I would agree with, Professor Jones in all that is stated. in a previous life I was an engineer and worked amongst many different indivuals and families as a manager/ supervisor. Coming into social work a little later in my career and many years of work and life experience, I would suggest this as given me an all round understanding of people and thier cultures. Has a social worker I feel that a diverse knowledge and life experience aswellas the learning and post learning is essential in dealing with the complexities of social work in its many forms, society being one of those complexities. Academia is required, but social work is more than Academia!

  6. Bernie Walsh April 19, 2015 at 12:30 pm #

    I am in total agreement. Coming into social work over 30 years was at a time when social work had gone generic. There were some opportunities to specialise early in my career, but having time to familiarise myself with social work and having the time to absorb what multi-agency working can produce. I accept that social work was in a very different place and some of the more recent developments in the profession must not be diluted. We need to preserve the best of what the profession has achieved and build, not with ‘fast track’.

  7. Cod April 20, 2015 at 10:58 am #

    We need people teaching Social Work, particularly those with a responsibility for supervision of students in placement, to have actually worked as a Social Worker once they have finished their academic learning.

    Too many people have used the qualification as a cheap (or funded) way into an academic life. Those people have not worked as Social Workers other than for a short placement in one specific team. How can they have the breadth and knowledge to understand the experience??

    I can understand if someone has done a good few years in practice and then moved over to teach, but to have NEVER been employed as a Social Worker outside of statutory placement and to be responsible for the supervision of Student Social Workers, how can that be helpful to anyone and how can that give someone credibility?

    It is a damning indictment of the state of Social Work today when young people are coming out into the workforce without real expectations of what to expect if the person over seeing them from the University has not done the job in any ‘real’ capacity outside of a placement.

  8. Ros Gowers April 21, 2015 at 1:42 pm #

    Well said Professor Jones! Having recently renewed my experience in a Local Authority Children’s Services setting after several years away, I was both dismayed and genuinely concerned at the apparent inability of more recently qualified workers to be able to distinguish and discuss the impact of societal influences on the adults in families and how this might impact on their ability to parent effectively. Such concepts were seen as irrelevant excuses. Links between adult and children’s services were much diminished and unappreciated. A sad, and from the standpoint above, avoidable state of affairs!

  9. Tom Kirtley April 23, 2015 at 1:53 pm #

    I repeatedly wrote my thoughts on this subject and gave up in frustration after ten years practicing – 7 years in a CP team and 3 years in a S47 Investigation Team I’d had enough……

    I was sick of hearing insignificant politicians and academics blame social workers and their training …. hello please wake up they repeatedly redesign – tinker – and come up with new five year plans and blame just like Chairman Mao blame the Social Workers for the failings. If there was any honour and integrity left it is the politicians and academics who would fall on their swords

    Was the training at fault – well I admit of course there was room for improvement however I would like to voice the views of most of my colleagues

    1. Stop trying to turn an Art into a quantifiable Science Social Work in an Art
    2. Give us the resources to use the training we already have in abundance most of which is learned at the coal face not in a classroom
    3. Give us the time to develop relationships with clients not spend out time flying a computer
    4. let us and out management go back to child focussed work as opposed to Ofsted focussed social work ‘Haringey demonstrated they are a joke – manipulating figures to suit political agendas’
    5. Cease the blame culture driven by the fear of Ofsted – although I feel sorry for the inspectors their world always has the smell of new paint and a carpet fibres (much like the queen)
    6. I was previously a Carpenter and learned my craft under the guidance of an experienced mentor and thankfully came into the SW profession and was assigned to a PCM and for the next few years learned my craft under her guidance just like an apprenticeship it was a wonderful experience – time effort and energy was expended on my development. Sadly despite the rhetoric that is no longer the case the newbies have to spend their time in process led target driven supervision and of course the writing up of development files for another inspector to read some day
    7. I was the last of the Dip/SW then and now learning starts on the battlefield not in the classroom. I would have loved a module on interviewing techniques (learned from generous Police CPU officers) – one on how not to go to pieces in the witness box (learned from a friend and lawyer) – One on stress management (learned from a good friend and mentor) – One on the moral and ethical dilemmas between legal / illegal vs morally right and wrong. I have also seen SW break under the strain of following the code of ethics and the demands of the local authority guess who wins every-time
    8. I was once in training where the theme was affecting change, it was depressing at the end we came to the conclusion we couldn’t even get the light bulb changes above the photocopier that had blown six month earlier,,,, the trainers solution was to quote a line from a prayer ‘accept the things you cannot change but left out the second line ‘the courage to change the things you can

    I resigned

    Lord protect me from politicians and academics