by Professor Martin Webber
Last year I led a team from the University of York and University of Central Lancashire to successfully bid to run the academic teaching on the Think Ahead programme – the new graduate-entry scheme for mental health social work.
When I first read the report which made the case for Think Ahead, I was sceptical. I’ve since progressed from being a sceptic to a supporter, realising that – while Think Ahead is not a silver bullet – it has the potential to help transform mental health social work.
Like many, I had concerns about Think Ahead. Would the programme give participants enough knowledge and experience before they began practising? Would it focus on applicants with prestigious degrees rather than suitability for the role? Did it herald the introduction of specialisation in social work?
From the outset Think Ahead has taken these issues seriously and worked with social workers, service users, carers, and the wider community to develop its approach. The programme’s genuinely consultative process, which for me started with contributing to Think Ahead’s call for input and culminated in designing the curriculum, has addressed my concerns.
We have planned the programme to ensure participants learn at a rapid but safe pace, stretched and supported in equal measure.
They do six weeks of intense preparation before they enter the workplace, then spend their first year in a unit under the supervision of a consultant social worker (who has legal responsibility for the unit’s cases), with guidance from academic tutors from two very experienced university social work teams.
By the end of the year, when they gain a postgraduate diploma and can apply to become social workers, they will have built up more days of pre-qualifying experience than students on our other undergraduate and postgraduate social work courses.
It’s true that, in amongst applicants from over 140 different universities, Think Ahead has attracted many from Oxbridge and the Russell Group. That means we are reaching a group who are simply not entering the profession at present. We should welcome ambitious, enthusiastic, and talented graduates, provided they share our social work values and have the attributes to make excellent practitioners.
I’ve seen candidates being put through their paces, and once they step into the Think Ahead assessment centre their degree is irrelevant. What matters is how they perform in exercises designed and assessed by social workers and service users.
I would worry about splitting social work into separate specialisms, but that’s not what Think Ahead is doing.
The programme has a strong focus on mental health experience for people aiming to work in the field, which is much-needed given that there are few placement opportunities in community mental health teams. But it includes experience in other services, notably children and families social work teams, and leads to a generic qualification.
Think Ahead isn’t a replacement for specialist post-qualification training, which I strongly believe in, but I have found that difficult to achieve in the current environment. Above all, I applied to lead the development and delivery of the programme’s teaching because I believe it has the potential to make a difference.
It’s an opportunity to bring social work research, education, and practice closer together. The training model involves academics more in practice education and assessment, which allows participants to enhance practice skills with theory and research. This particularly supports training in evidence-informed social interventions, which most courses can only achieve at an introductory level.
More than that, Think Ahead is an opportunity to influence the future of mental health social work. The role’s identity has become too closely bound with its statutory functions; we need to challenge the bureaucratisation and medicalisation of mental health services, and unlock the therapeutic potential inherent in social work. To this end, Think Ahead is working closely with Ruth Allen and her colleagues implementing the Social Work for Better Mental Health strategy.
Social workers need to engage not only with individuals with mental health problems, but also with their families and friends, and the communities in which they live. The social dimension of mental health care is frequently neglected, and social workers are best placed to do something about this.
There is consensus about this vision amongst social work practitioners, managers, leaders, educators, and students – which has come through strongly in national discussions convened by Think Ahead – and as defined in The Role of the Social Worker in Adult Mental Health Services. I believe Think Ahead has the potential to catalyse change, and as a result to significantly improve outcomes for people experiencing mental health difficulties.
My position has always been to critically engage with new initiatives like Think Ahead, and I intend to continue doing just that.