What is the problem with social work education?

Last week's article from a social work academic, who resigned because of poor standards, has sparked a massive debate among social workers

Photo: Monkey Business/Rex Shutterstock

Every now and then an unsuspecting piece of content shoots an arrow, with laser like precision, into the heart of a social work issue.

Last week it was a blog from an academic who resigned after their university allowed social work students to graduate, even when they had been found guilty of plagiarising (in one case on two occasions).

It has had more than 23,000 views, 75 comments and sparked major debates across Facebook and Twitter.

Plagiarism: academic issue or a sign of a poor social worker?

Some have described it as illustrative of the gaping divide between the ivory towers of academia and the black reality of the coalface.

One commentator, Alex Boorman, pointed out: “As a busy professional social worker working in a hospital, I can attest that a significant proportion of my and my colleague’s reports tend to be cut and pasted. Are we negligent in our duties? Let’s get real, university is university, and real life and practice are different in many ways.”

Others pointed out copying and pasting should not be acceptable in social work either.

In reply, Charles Huddleston wrote: “Searching through an existing report and cutting and pasting saves no time, encourages poor to terrible practice and is not about the real world so much as sloppy social work. The sort that The Sun loves and the rest of us loathe.”

Some pointed out that in fact copying and pasting reports can be a breach of professional standards. The HCPC sanctioned two social workers last year for exactly that.

Many felt plagiarism was a warning sign about a person’s suitability for social work as a profession, showing a tendency for dishonesty and poor ethics. Sabine Ebert-Forbes said: “In my view if anyone only copies and pastes assignments and plagiarises content then I have questions about their integrity and honesty”.

This belief is backed up in guidance for universities and employers from the Higher Education Academy, The Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee and The College of Social Work.

But others argue academic skills are no indicator of social work skills.


Brigid Featherstone, Professor of Social Work at the Open University and the College of Social Work faculty lead for children’s social work, says plagiarism has become an increasing issue with the expanded use of the internet by students and the fact so many now work as well as study.

Featherstone believes it needs an audit by social work university departments to determine how big the problem is and how deep the level of wrong-doing goes.

“Plagiarism is a very serious issue. However, I would say that not all plagiarism is the same. There are degrees of seriousness and some students do it simply by accident or because no matter how much you try to drill it into them they still do not reference properly.”

The author of the blog, who chose to remain anonymous for fear of not being able to get another job in social work education, told Community Care the concern about the plagiarism is because it often suggests a student is not managing their workload.

“They then take risks by cutting corners and looking for quick and easy solutions. As social work educators it is these related issues we would want to talk to the student about. In other words, the plagiarism reveals a much bigger professional problem.”

Is there a problem with university standards?

But perhaps the greatest response was to the behaviour of the university in not only allowing the student to pass, but also in allowing students onto the course with less than the three C grades (at A-level), which is usually demanded.

Social worker and former practice educator, Tracy, commented on the story: “I too have experienced the conflict between maintaining sound, ethical practice and the market forces that now exist in universities. Academic institutions are afraid of failing a student – even those who exhibit poor standards and questionable behaviour. Standards and expectations are lower than they used to be – and I’ve seen some of the results of this in the work-place and upon clients. It’s not being pedantic at all.”

Another comment, from Leigh, said: “I have just qualified and worked hard to do so. However, the number of students in my year who failed modules was astonishing and somehow they qualify just like me.”

Yet another commentator, Annie, said: “I sat on a university selection panel for the social work course and thought ‘never again’. There was no selecting. The uni gave everyone a place, bar one, and only because I really dug my heels in after hearing some questionable value judgements in the group discussion.”

Ray Jones, professor of social work at Kingston University, believes there is a serious need to improve the intellectual requirements of students being accepted on university degrees.

“Yes, the emotional capacity of social work students is important, but we cannot shy away from the issue that social work requires a high level of intellectual capacity to be able to make judgements, based on extremely complex information. We do ourselves no favours at all if we ignore that.”

This is well-trodden ground between academics and directors of children’s services with it reaching a head last year after Alan Wood, former president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), described universities as churning out “crap” social workers.

However, the ADCS appears to have moderated its views somewhat since then. Rachel Wardell, chair of the ADCS workforce committee, says there is no sound evidence the problem has increased in latter years.

Indeed, she is keen to widen the debate out. “We always focus on the quality of graduates and newly qualified social workers, yet the profession is just as damaged by good and experienced social workers leaving. That is just as much about us as employers being able to retain social workers and being able to work in partnership with Higher Education Institutions to improve standards across that continuum.”

Is there a hidden agenda?

When the blog was published, chief social worker for children’s social work, Isabelle Trowler, responded swiftly on Twitter.


Sir Martin Narey, the author of a Department for Education commissioned report on social work education, was also quick to point out the blog backed up many of his own conclusions about some of the issues with universities.

He told Community Care: “I have no doubt it happened when universities expanded very fast. That pressure means in some areas social work degrees are too easy to get onto and then too difficult to fail.”

But many academics have expressed private fears that his and Trowler’s instant taking-up of the story is a sign they are looking for “sticks to beat universities with”.

There is particular sensitivity to this in light of strong government support for fast-track, work-based routes into social work, such as Frontline and Step Up to Social Work – now joined by Firstline, for managers, and Think Ahead for mental health social workers.

Narey is adamant there is no hidden agenda.

“The only agenda here is to make sure we get the right people on degrees and they are being taught the things they will need in order to not just survive, but thrive in this profession and do a difficult job very well.

“I know there is anxiety about Frontline, but in actual fact it is being delivered by a university and, I would argue, being delivered brilliantly by the University of Bedfordshire.”

Narey warns that universities cannot afford to bury their heads in the sand and must respond to concerns.

“At the moment we have no way of really sorting the good universities from the rest and then the reputation of those very good universities becomes damaged.”

He dismisses the Health and Care Professions Council, the social work regulator in charge of approving social work courses, as part of the problem.

 

He recounts observing a joint visit to a university by the HCPC and the College of Social Work as part of their quality endorsement scheme.

“The HCPC gave immediate approval to the course on the day. The College was more cautious and in fact ended up failing to endorse that particular course.”

Quality assurance of social work education

A HCPC spokesperson says they listen to all concerns anyone expresses about approved programmes.

“They can report it to the HCPC’s Education Department. This may result in an education programme being reviewed. On average, less than 1% of approved programmes are subject to a concern investigation each year.”

However, another academic, who also preferred not to be named, points out the HCPC’s standards are designed to be “threshold” standards (ie good enough). The College endorsement scheme, now in danger of being lost, was about boosting standards.

“For example, there is nothing in the HCPC standards about how long practice placements should be, entry tariffs or the readiness to practice of graduates,” the academic states.

It is perhaps interesting to note that Frontline is a HCPC approved programme but did not apply to be endorsed by the College of Social Work.

What will happen to the College’s endorsement scheme, and the attempt to improve standards on academic courses, remains in doubt.

The endorsement of university courses does not form part of the packages the Department for Health is putting out to tender; nor was it part of the package of functions the British Association of Social Workers was allowed to bid on.

Instead, the endorsement framework will be temporarily hosted by the Greater Lancashire Social Work Education and Training Network, a regional partnership of employers and Higher Education Institutions. However, the network will not carry out endorsements.

Government decisions needed

College chief executive Annie Hudson says this is because the future of the endorsement framework largely depends on government decisions on the two reports on social work education, one by Sir Martin Narey and the other by Professor David Croisedale-Appleby, both published early last year.

“The two reports have made different recommendations in terms of the approval process for qualifying training. I suspect that issue has become more, not less, complicated,” Hudson says.

“Until we have clarity from central government about their intentions in this area it was felt to be premature to say it could be part of a bundle to seek expressions of interest on.”

A Department of Health spokesperson, responding to a question about their progress on the Croisedale-Appleby report, says they have made progress on improving the quality of social work education. They cite the Knowledge and Skills Statement, a system of moderation and validation of decisions made on the Assessed and Supported Year in Employment and the approval, with the Department for Education, of the first four early adopter sites for teaching partnerships. An external validation system for ASYE decisions also remains a priority.

Wardell says what is clear is that it has been a busy year for social work education so far and the signs are this is likely to continue in the short-term at least.

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10 Responses to What is the problem with social work education?

  1. Jacob Daly August 26, 2015 at 11:16 am #

    Really interesting article. At our University we take a very serious view towards plagiarism and it is always a fitness to practice issue. Our curriculum is closely aligned to practice and I think this is backed up by the majority of our students getting employment soon after graduation. We have increased our entry requirements and our selection process is robust. We are a small programme with high tutor student ratio. We get to know students really well and are able to challenge. Our students succeed on merit and I am very proud of them. Not everything is gloomy and we do have challenges. For me the key question is would I feel safe and confident being referred to one of our graduates. The answer is yes. I am very proud of them and their abilities, personal qualities and professional growth and development. Not everything is gloomy in the world of social work education.

  2. Tom Patterson August 26, 2015 at 11:23 am #

    Intelligence required for Social Workers; the ability to mentally upload information from several different interviews and reports; interrogate them for consistency of incongruence; postulate and test out explanatory hypotheses, and then conceptualise a course of intervention which will maintain the integrity of positive factors in a service users life at the same time as opening up and facilitating the use of alternatives to the negative ones.

    This is vital in a social worker. But it is ignored in selection

    It is viewed by some as social fascism to recognise and apply the threshold of IQ which is essential for a professional as opposed to a worker who follows tightly specified procedures.

    However, given that the role of the Social Worker is rapidly being redefined by increasing layers of tightly specified procedures to be followed and recorded in a disciplined way….perhaps the “system” works easier if social workers do have lower intelligence and if they therefore accept the blame when the system which prescribed their intervention fails?

  3. Martin Fletcher August 26, 2015 at 12:52 pm #

    It may be regarded as illustrating a high level of ignorance or naivety, but I have watched academic study around caring professions become more about the referencing than the practice.

    I’m including my partners Return to Nursing course in this, as she found that the structure of the essay and how it was referenced was more heavily marked than the content (which was actually quite innovative, and therefore not heavily researched academically).

    Examining journals and magazines in social work proves my point. The content is minimal, the referencing maximal.

    Social Work practice requires a range of skills and university courses are not introducing those skills: e.g. fact vs opinion / how Children Act Principles, if properly explained and understood, guide every aspect of our daily work with a remarkable consistency.

    The standard of English is appalling, and unlike the government, I’m talking about the indigenous social work population not the imported staff. So many workers struggle to spell, construct a sentence and/or express ideas coherently. It is shameful.

    Inadequate management focusing on targets and using fear are also rife. I have recent experience of this in a failing authority. The situation is toxic and requires the sort of honesty and radical approaches most of our public agencies are not prepared to consider.

    I hope to get out completely soon…I can’t wait.

  4. Sam August 26, 2015 at 1:37 pm #

    Plagiarism is not the simple act of “cutting and pasting” work you have written earlier; is “the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.” (Google.co.uk 2015). It is purposeful in nature; that is you do it on purpose, not by accident.

    And while academics may not bear resemblance to social work skills, the ethics of each is/ should be shared. When I undertook my degree, then represented by the GSCC not so many years ago, we had to show how the GSCC code of conduct, a code followed by social workers in practice, related to our academic writing. Integrity and honesty were not something to aspire to; there were pre-requisites for the degree. And while I am not aware of any of my fellow students committing plagiarism, some failed to follow referencing guidelines and others failed modules and years. They in turn left the course or repeated modules to satisfy the accreditors.

    I read the article last week regarding the lecturer who left the program as any and all were being allowed to pass and celebrated the authors courage. Social work is not a “party degree”; nor is it a easy path to walk in life. Cutting corners and passing work off as your own leads to more than sparking a debate within the profession; we affect peoples lives. Negatively and positively, we do both. Therefore, we need to be sure we are doing so for the right reasons, and this can’t be “copy and pasted”. It has to be done with our careful consideration.

  5. Samantha Baron August 26, 2015 at 2:30 pm #

    I am disappointed yet again to see further ‘news’ articles which continue to criticise social work education on the assumption that ALL social work education is of poor quality. An assumption that appears to be suggesting that ALL social work programmes are in need of ‘rescuing’ from academics who live in distant ivory towers divorced from the reality of professional practice. Whilst claiming to raise concerns around the quality of social work students, in addition to identifying organisational changes to key stakeholders within social work education, the issue is less about poor quality (an assumption that has little evidence other than anecdote) and more about the increasing polarisation between key stakeholders and government which is increasingly ‘played’ out though social media. An appalling state of affairs.

    Our role as educators, members of a profession and members of key stakeholder groups is to work together to continually strive to improve standards and be responsive to changes in society to protect and empower the most vulnerable within our society. Let’s focus and work together to avoid simplistic assumptions and antagonistic discussions which become viral in minutes and appear to claim a certain status for their presence on social media rather than the content of the discussion. We need to move on, together to strengthen our profesion not weaken it.

  6. Jackie Barron August 26, 2015 at 3:20 pm #

    I joined an Adult Social Services Team as a Social Work Assistant in 2010. I was in my mid forties with a solid professional career behind me which although not in Social Care, was in the public sector and meant that I had a wealth of experience in working with people and families in extremely difficult and sensitive circumstances, probably more so than most Social Workers will ever experience.
    I also put myself through an Access Course and got myself a place on a Social Work Degree Course at my local university, (funded by me). The local authority that I work for agreed to reduce my hours so that I could do the course but still keep a position so that once qualified, I could return as a Social Worker. I already had been working on a ‘Complex’ Team because my manager recognised my skill and experience and matched me accordingly despite not being qualified. I loved my job ( and still do) and see it as a second career for life. I just needed that qualification if I was ever going to progress or have the recognition of the work I do.
    I started Uni with so much enthusiam and commitment – I was sorely disappointed. The course I was on consisted of about 70 students. It was unorganised from the start – and my worries soon started to be about what to do and when and how rather than what to actually write in an assignment.
    The tutors, two in particular, enjoyed talking about themselves throughout the lectures and two others did not seem as clued up on their subjects as I would expect. The level of tuition was aimed at college leavers so for those of us with experience, it was under stimulating. My main gripe however was the lack of discipline and respect from the students towards their peers and the tutors. If a lecture started at 9.30am, half the class would wander in thereafter, disturbing everyone and this was never addressed. Mobile telephones would be ringing throughout and students getting up to leave the room to answer them. Some younger students were silly, giggly, chatted throughout lectures (never told off) and clearly were not there to learn, one chap sat there ripping up paper throughout the lessons and just walked out leaving a pile of torn bits of paper on the floor. This same chap scored about 8% I think on one of his assignments but he still came back in Year 2.
    I acknowledge that times have changed and I went to high school in the early 80’s but I did not expect it to be that bad. Half the time, we were spilt into smaller groups and had arranged to meet at a later date to prepare a presentation and half of them never turned up. I passed year 1 and at the start of Year 2, the lack of organisation around placements was something else, I got fed up and decided that I was not prepared to suffer this for the next two years and pulled out, returning to my job.
    I also felt that it was not necessary of somone who has a wealth of relevant experience and can demonstrate this through competency based interviews and on the job learning, to necessarily have to go through the same journey as someone who has just left college and has no life or relevant work professional experience. I understand the need to learn the theory and enjoyed doing so but some aspects of the coursework was not necessary for me to do, in my opinion. However, if the University experience had been an enjoyable one, I would have accepted that I had to do it and continued. I might not have pulled out just after starting Year 2. The profession would now have a sound qualified worker who has the ability to progress up the ladder – instead I remain as a SW Assistant, still loving my job but the profession has lost out in my opinion.
    I did raise these issues with the University, in fact I wrote to the course director. She never responded. Other students shared my views, there was a very general lack of satisfaction around things. No wonder Social Work has such a bad name – we really do need to sharpen up our act. In my opinion, potential Social Workers need to be able to demonstrate behavioural qualities, not just be able to write assignments.

    • chesters August 26, 2015 at 7:14 pm #

      Jackie that is so sad, but in my experience, all too common.( I posted my own experiences, as a lecturer, external examiner, practice teacher, and practice assessment panel chair, on the original article.)

      I’m afraid to say I think that the quality of social work qualifying/pq programmes in universities, and in colleges where the course is ‘validated’ by another HE institution – more of those in a minute- to some extent is a reflection of the quality of the institution itself. If you want good teaching and a well organised course, there are some serious questions to ask.

      Questions/criteria such as:
      what is the level of student satisfaction in this university and its courses?
      what is the staff/student ratio?
      how large is the student drop-out rate?
      what are the entry requirements?

      are all important. The Sunday Times annual ranking of UK universities and colleges sets out this important information and should be a guide to all prospective students.
      I have bad personal experience of the quality of sw degree programmes in colleges where the programme is validated by another HEI. (the amount of monitoring and critical scrutiny in the validating process was minimal and basically amounted to rubber stamping)

      I am sorry if this sounds elitist. But I can’t see it getting any better at the moment.

  7. Joanne Groom August 27, 2015 at 7:52 am #

    I have recently qualified and I have to say I am pleased with this discussion. There are students who have qualified along side me who plagiarised several assignments, one student had questionable behaviour, another failed most modules on first attempts but subsequently passed with extensive tutor support.

    I did raise concerns with my university and it was very clear the university were driven by monetary incentives.

    Sadly knowing this leads to feelings that the efforts I applied to achieving my degree are discredited in the knowledge that I may have to work alongside someone who could be a time bomb of malpractice.

  8. Jeremy Millar August 27, 2015 at 12:54 pm #

    I have been fascinated by the responses to these articles. This is all part of the neo liberal agenda to discredit and privatise.

    I have 35 years of practice and teaching experience and I have tried in my own small way to resist. However, it is increasingly apparent that the major triumph of the neo liberal project is to eradicate any sense of collective action being possible.

    Solidarity between students, teaching staff and social work providers now appears an impossible, or irrational, dream. We have lost the political narratives of working class struggle, colonialism and standing up for the Other.

    We have global corporations already detaining children, asylum seekers, older people and those with a range of impairments. Social workers feed into this system and by and large the leaders in the field remain quietly complicit.

    “That’s the standard technique of privatization: defund, make sure things don’t work, people get angry, you hand it over to private capital.”
    Noam Chomsky,

    http://www.chomsky.info/talks/20110407.htm

    Lessons from history and all that jazz. We are ignoring them at our peril and currently our vulnerable citizens are dying in increasing numbers as a result of recent Governmental policies and we are not angry as a profession. This is the real triumph of the right. We are cowed and turning on each other.

    In solidarity

    Jeremy Millar

  9. Jo Mclaughlin August 28, 2015 at 1:07 am #

    I think my experience of education 30 years ago was being asked to regurgitate a lot of other people’s opinions and not a lot of value placed on independent thought. That said, its very true that social workers do need the intellectual ability to evaluate a whole range of complex psychological, environmental and legislative issues that we face every day in adult and children’s social work. And as for Nareys scathing comments of the HCPC, I think they are very misplaced, as someone who was audited this year I found their requirements very thorough and demanding in terms of evidence and range of skills and the way they have been used to benefit clients.
    One of the big problems for me with social work today is the lack of challenge, the lack of social context and the wide gap between the aims of legislation and the reality of austerity which make it impossible for local authorities to meet the ideals of personalisation. That and the over processed micro managed performance indicating systems which have been inflicted upon our profession.
    And to put the icing on the cake, the government now want to jail social workers for wilful neglect of children, when the issues are so complex and the systems which perpetuate, and indeed depend upon, inequality and poverty go unchallenged.
    Jo mclaughlin,