Martin Narey: ‘The Social Workers Assembly and I agree – the current degree is not sufficient’

The government advisor responds to the Social Workers Assembly's open letter

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'A longer degree is not a possibility I reject'. Photo: Ikon Images/REX

By Martin Narey

The Social Workers Assembly wrote to Community Care last week to argue that my assertion of the need for separate directions for social work education would “contribute to a breakdown of the purpose, skills and values that underpin our profession”.

But at least we agree about something fundamental: the Assembly believe that a two year degree “is not sufficient to assure quality or to ensure trainees receive the breadth of experience that social workers require”.

A longer degree is not a possibility that I reject. But I’m not sure it would help to attract better candidates and the additional costs of a four-year period of study would further discourage some from pursuing a social work career. So the question has to be, can we produce high quality children and family social workers in two years through specialised degrees?

Specialised degrees

The SWA seem to believe that the notion of a specialised degree is something which I have invented and which carries no support. They express disappointment that “the current policy agenda appears to be discounting the experience and expertise of many in order to promote the views of a few”. Some academics have made similar claims.

Not so. First of all we have current evidence from Step Up and Frontline. Both are producing first class social workers. Of course I know that Frontline has yet to be assessed. But I must have spoken to dozens of directors of children’s services, some initially unenthusiastic about Frontline, but who have consistently high praise for the young people entering the profession from that route. Wishing that Frontline won’t be a success isn’t a strategy that’s going to work.

And historical evidence is that specialised educational routes can be effective. Before the introduction of the degree in 2003, many diploma students were allowed a degree of specialisation. Ironically, when that option was removed, concerns were expressed that generic degree graduates would not have sufficient knowledge and experience for the challenges of children’s social work. Those concerns have been echoed in the intervening twelve years.

The General Social Care Council (GSCC) examined the issue in 2008, and concluded that children’s issues were being adequately covered in the generic degree. But they admitted that: “the sample in the research is small and it is interesting that there is other evidence coming forward that suggests that the depth of understanding of new social workers is variable”.

Laming report

A year later, in his 2009 report, Lord Laming challenged the GSCC view and argued: “At the heart of the difficulty in preparing social workers through a degree course is that, without an opportunity to specialise in child protection work or even in children’s social work, students are covering too much ground without learning the skills and knowledge to support any particular client group well”.

He concluded that no graduate should enter frontline social work without having completed a specialised degree. And when the Education Select Committee looked at this in 2009, the chief executive of the Children’s Workforce Development Council and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services both argued there was a strong justification for specialisation in initial training.

Evidence from other professions

Evidence from other professions is that there is nothing to fear from separate routes to qualification. Nurses qualify through one of four specialist routes—adults, children, learning disability or mental health—but all courses include a common foundation. Nobody thinks of nursing as other than a single profession and there’s no reason why specialised preparation should challenge the notion of social work as a single profession. It might be however a profession in which better-prepared practitioners enjoy greater status.

Sir Martin Narey is a government advisor and former adoption tsar who wrote a review of the education of children’s social workers. 

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12 Responses to Martin Narey: ‘The Social Workers Assembly and I agree – the current degree is not sufficient’

  1. C Roby August 3, 2015 at 10:55 am #

    “martin narey: “the social workers assembly and I agree – the current degree is not sufficient.””
    again highlights the present push of divide and watering down of the greatest strengths of social work the generic knowledge.
    I have been a qualified social worker 15 years in mental health and adult fields. The value of colleagues in my learning who have experienced generic working or have previously worked in child and families can not be under estimated.
    From my contacts with children’s social work what seems often to be lacking is the adult social work experience.
    How can you “think family” if children’s teams do not have practitioners who understand i.e. mental health or drugs.
    Narey uses Nursing as a model. The model of training for social work should be more in line with doctors. With opportunities for rotation. However for this to happen less kicking, marginalisation of social workers and seeing social work as part of the answer instead of problem would have to happen.

  2. Rach M August 3, 2015 at 1:05 pm #

    As my local authority heads towards an ‘all age, all disability’ model it is difficult to see how specialised social work degrees will be beneficial if practitioners are expected to work within generic teams.

  3. Ray Jones August 3, 2015 at 1:41 pm #

    I recommend a reading of the 2010 Social Work Task Force report and the even more recent well-considered and thoughtful Croisdale-Appleby report for their views on social work education. Both argue for a generic initial qualifying education followed by specialist continuing professional development and education. Why? Because as Roby notes in his response to Narey, those working in adult services need knowledge of children’s development and behaviour. These social workers are often the eyes and ears of child protection. And social workers working in children’s services need to understand adult carer and child interactions and the behaviour of adults, and to understand adult behaviours as, when necessary, a first step to changing the behaviours. Unlike nurses, and Narey could also have drawn a comparison with teachers, social workers are required to see and assess children and adults in their family contexts. Unlike these other two professional groups social workers are out their with families with no doctor as the assessor and decision-maker and no senior teacher on site to take immediate responsibility. It is why it would be good to see Narey arguing for a national framework for enhanced continuing professional education and development for social workers rather than a truncated and shortened blinkered social work education.

    • HelenSparkles August 3, 2015 at 11:27 pm #

      Completely agree with everything you say!

  4. Richard A Leighton August 3, 2015 at 4:46 pm #

    Mr Narey,
    You are quoted as saying, “Wishing that Frontline won’t be a success isn’t a strategy that’s going to work.” I would counter that neither is claiming Frontline‘s success without any rigorous assessment of its output or value! So, if we can’t wish for its demise, equally you cannot, yet, tout it as anything but a costly and unproven experiment.

    You argue for specialisation by claiming, “..concerns were expressed that generic degree graduates would not have sufficient knowledge and experience for the challenges of children’s social work. Those concerns have been echoed in the intervening twelve years”. As is often the way in your arguments, your choice of selective quotes shows the thinness of your case. There are equally plentiful quotes detailing concerns about ‘specialised’ degrees, in those ‘intervening’ years. It is often the regurgitation of such weak arguments that your vigorously attack, when your position is challenged when misguidedly advocacy for the neoliberalisation of public services, during your government sponsored ‘consultation’ exercises.

    You, sir, are the worst kind of puppet, the ill-informed ideologue who cannot see beyond your own ‘blinkered’ perceptions.

    Take heed from those who DO understand the wider situation. Consult meaningfully with the likes of Prof Ray Jones and those who take a contrary position to your own narrow field of view. You will be surprised how much you can learn by really listening to those who oppose you. Listen to the concerns raised by profession leaders, not just the strategic manager, from local authorities, but those cultivating the current crop of practitioners and have experience of operational and strategic management within the profession.

    Most importantly, put aside your preconceptions, listen, evaluate and then consider the impacts of your decisions, before publishing them.

    • Victoria McLeod August 5, 2015 at 3:06 pm #

      I completely agree with what has been said here and with the question that is posed by Gavin Hutchinson: what qualification is Narey talking about, does he even know? The Government tout Step up as being the way forward as workers will be more resilient and equipped to managed the demands of the job. I left front line child protection practice not to long ago not because I felt I was working with under qualified social workers or social workers who were unable to do the job as they only had a degree, DipSW etc but because of the lack of resources and support. Why was there a lack of resources, I think Government cuts may have something to do with that. As a manager I saw social workers (who are also humans) crying as they struggled to provide a service to the high number of children and families that they had on their caseloads even with supervision and support. When will the Government wake up and see the real issue and look at what is happening on the ground, rising caseloads, rising CP, rising poverty etc etc etc. We have a work force who are resilient, dedicated and do provide in the majority of cases a high quality service and until they are supported they will continue to leave and no qualification be it front line or step up will prepare them to meet the demands of the job.
      Maybe the Governments next step will be automated social workers who can be pre programmed!!!!

  5. Gavin Hutchison August 3, 2015 at 5:24 pm #

    Can anyone explain to me this two year degree Mr Neary is in disagreement with? Social Work undergraduate degrees are three years? Routes under three years include Masters level, step up and frontline? These are the routes Me Neary advocates I believe?

    • J Robb August 5, 2015 at 2:26 pm #

      I often wonder what is classed as a two year degree, as well. Not forgetting that we now also have to complete an ASYE year which in itself is another large piece of work in some authorities.

  6. Stephen J. Mordue August 5, 2015 at 1:42 pm #

    As others have rightly said the degree programme is a three year one – so we appear left perplexed by the singular reference to two years – as though all that exists are Masters programmes and other options that equally aren’t two years but shorter.

    Mr Narey’s debate centre’s around childcare social work – it is his area of concern – but such a focus misses the point – Social Work is about understanding an individual within their context and the context of a child will include adults. The whole family should be the focus – therefore requiring knowledge of both children and adults and how structures like ‘family’ operate. This requires a generic qualification.

    It is interesting that Mr Narey suggests he wouldn’t dismiss a longer programme of study – interesting – given that everyone else seems to be pushing (wrongly in my view) for shorter periods – Masters, Step Up, Frontline.

    He seems to suggest that there is a lack of preparedness for practice of newly qualified social workers yet has stated elsewhere that newly qualified social workers aren’t the finished article. There are two issues here. The first is the availability of quality statutory placements and the second the support of newly qualified social workers once in post. On the first point – the decimation of local government in the name of austerity has removed many Practice Educators from the field who could have provided quality placements. The same measures have led to depleted teams who we may find are simply too busy to focus on students on placement – understandable as the ‘day job’ has to continue. On the second point – once a newly qualified social worker is in post they need to continue to be developed. Given the depleted work force and high caseloads NQSW’s are inevitably allocated challenging, complex work from day one. Social workers in their initial period of practice need a carefully selected manageable caseload that allows them to develop the skills and knowledge acquired through the degree programme in a safe and supportive way. This was certainly my experience as an NQSW some years ago and worked very well.

  7. David Mortimer August 5, 2015 at 3:34 pm #

    There is no specific legislation or regulations which require local authorities to collect & hold information on child abuse perpetrators or for them to use that information to formulate evidence based child protection policies.

  8. Lee Pardy-mclaughlin August 5, 2015 at 8:59 pm #

    As a profession we now need to shape, craft and influence government advisors and work with the chief social worker’s for both adults and children to ensure that social work has a continued foundation, the comments left are timely and show the degree of feeling and passion felt by social workers for social work. I agree that we need to assess and indeed evaluate front line, one shoe size of pre-qualifying social work needs to be revisited. I am also mindful of the fact that we do have a social work degree and a masters level entry, having said that the debate around seperate pathways with common modules requires greater and deeper debate. The announcement of the teaching partnerships perhaps provides an opportunity to test and learn some of this thinking, I wholeheartedly support and advocate for a generic degree, with specialist pathways. This is not new, when I completed my initial social work qualification there was an both an adults and children pathway- the landscape of social work in adults and children is changing-lets influence this change and be at the table, owning and taking our profession forward is crucial. The richness of our academic community and practice leadership is simply crucial to the debate and the proposed change agenda.

  9. Chokwadi August 7, 2015 at 8:10 am #

    The view that social work training needs a wholesome change appears to be motivated by the underlying assumption that child protection social work has failed to deliver. What this assumption ignores are the thousands of children each year whose lives are changed for the better by social workers. I know this because I worked at the coal face. When serious case reviews have been undertaken what has been evident is that systemic failures e.g. high case loads, poor supervision, staff shortages, strict adherence to policy and procedure at the expense of spending quality time with families have had a strong impact on the outcomes of the children subject to the reviews. As Munro pointed out the question that should be asked is what would a social worker facing the same pressures, and with the same level of experience done anything different. Without a doubt the training can always improve in social work as it can in all professions. Let us start from what is working well, off which there is plenty, and let us build from there. Is a complete change really necessary?

    Turning to nursing as a training model to draw form. Nurse training itself has gone through several changes over the years from ward based training, to project 2000 to inquiry based learning and is still in a state of flux. The Mid Staffordshire crisis led to the Francis report which has led to further recommendations for changes to nurse training. One can draw parallels between the nurse bashing when things go wrong and the usual calls for more revision of the training when the evidence suggests that there are thousands of satisfied patients every year. But the point that I wish to make is that the nursing professions itself is uncertain about the direction that it wishes to take insofar as nurse training is concerned. Currently there are debates about nurse training becoming generic once again as it used to be. I would urge those drawing inspiration from the current nurse model to take a look at these debates before advocating for social work to take the nursing route. Let me quote one of the arguments against separate streams at an early stage “Current student nurse education that sees them specialise in one of four areas leaves them in “silos” and will fail to “adequately prepare” them for the future varied role that will be required” .

    Another point that I wish to make is the current social work education system produces very practitioners who are able to work effectively in a wide range of roles. This is a fact. Within many CMHTs social workers work alongside their nursing colleagues undertaking identical roles as CPA care coordinators apart from the administration of medications. In fact social workers do even more because they also have to care manage. I have known my nurse colleagues to be highly appreciative of their social work colleagues and to become distraught when any mention of the LA and trust splitting up is made. Some of my social work colleagues are actually former nurses who were drawn into social work by what they saw as the effectiveness and holistic nature of social work intervention.

    Let us recognise the tremendous value of social work and the skills and professionalism that dedicated social workers have and let us not fall into negative thinking that will lead to the destruction of our profession.