We need to talk about social work education…

Social work education is experiencing a period of unparalleled change that poses some significant risks to our profession, writes Donald Forrester

Picture: zinkevych/fotolia

by Donald Forrester

Last week I was given a tour of our dental school at Cardiff University by an inspiring professor of dentistry. He was outlining a vision for professional excellence that brings together practitioners and academics, so that every student is observed repeatedly in practice, and those observations are informed by extensive and ongoing research.

He argued that this melding of practice and research provides the best model for improving professional excellence. I could not agree more. These are my beliefs for social work too. Yet at present we seem far from achieving this type of integrated professionalism – and the decision by Frontline to sever its links with universities in providing social work training takes us still further away from this type of coherent and unified profession.

Social work education is experiencing a period of unparalleled change. Radically new approaches to training social workers, such as Frontline and Think Ahead, are being tried out. Simultaneously, other reforms, including the fast track Step-Up programme for child and family social work and new teaching partnerships between local authorities and universities for delivering qualifying social work courses, are being rolled out.

Funding for university programme students meanwhile is uncertain, with a delay over the announcement on this year’s bursary funding causing considerable anxiety at the time of writing.

A heated debate

The debates around these issues have often been heated, but proponents on both sides have too rarely demonstrated an understanding of the views of the other. This is a problem, because in my experience all those involved in the debate genuinely want the best for social work, and a more constructive type of conversation might be possible if we recognised this and put our shared aspirations at the heart of the discussion.

In these ongoing debates I occupy an unusual position. I was the first academic director of Frontline. I championed the programme as a new approach to social work education that has the potential to provide a better way of training social workers. Despite this, most of my experience has been with universities not delivering Frontline; and from those experiences I can understand the concerns expressed by many in the sector about the impact of Frontline, indeed I share some of those worries.

I am particularly concerned that Frontline has decided it can deliver its course without a university partner. I found the reasons it gave for doing this indicate a lack of understanding of the needs of our profession or a coherent vision for how Frontline might contribute to improving social work.

The role of universities

What I would like to do here is explain some of the issues that are at stake and suggest some next steps that might help create a more positive direction for us to develop social work.

Let me start by explaining a bit about the nature of social work in universities. It is my belief that for social work to be a strong profession it needs a major contribution from academics in our universities.

Most of the theories, knowledge and research that we currently expect social workers to incorporate into their practice originate from or were influenced by academics. I believe that academics can and should provide challenge and support for practice, empirical evidence and theoretical insight. Indeed, without this independent arm we are not genuinely a profession.

Yet over recent decades social work in universities has been vulnerable. We have seen LSE, Oxford, Reading, Southampton, Exeter and Liverpool stop offering social work education. These are all top universities. Their decision to stop teaching social work is a symptom of the difficulties involved in delivering social work education in our research intensive universities.

Three challenges

Three challenges in particular stand out. First, social work education is more complicated to deliver than a purely academic discipline: more than anything there are placements to be organised and managed.

Second, in purely academic disciplines staff have a fairly clear progression – they graduate, do a PhD and then start in academic life. In social work we have more complex needs, with strong practice skills and experience being crucial. Often the development of research skills needs to be developed once in an academic post. As a result – as a group – social work academics can appear to be less research active than those from conventional academic disciplines.

Third – and crucially – the funding per student does not reflect this. Universities get paid far less to train social work students than they do to train most other professionals. They even get paid less than they do to provide undergraduate psychology teaching which is entirely delivered in classrooms.

All of this contributes to social work in universities often feeling marginalised; many social work teams are aware that their university could decide to close social work as Reading and Southampton have recently.

The response to Frontline

Given this context it is easy to see why there is huge resistance to Frontline: along comes a new, often very brash, and undoubtedly extremely well funded route into social work that is specifically focused on recruiting the very students that research intensive universities have generally targeted.

The image that always springs into my mind is of Joseph and his many coloured coat: it is no wonder that his father giving it to him angered his brothers, and he would have been wise to show more modesty and understanding, rather than flaunting its grandeur.

Yet the response of many academics – while wholly understandable – has not been helpful. There has been a sustained barrage of criticism that has contributed to the worsening relationship between Frontline and the university sector.

This has been a key contributor to the decision by Frontline to attempt to deliver the course in-house. Teach First, considered to be Frontline’s equivalent and forerunner in teaching, is delivered by a consortium of universities each providing training for their region. It is difficult to imagine Frontline working constructively with universities given the widespread dislike most academics have expressed for the programme, and that is no doubt part of their thinking about delivering the course in-house.

A terrible blow to our profession

The consequences of this for the profession, for Frontline and for social work in universities are dire. In common with many other academics I find it easy to imagine in 20 years time social work no longer being taught in research rich universities.

Instead, social work education would be provided through a variety of routes, all of which favour teaching and leave no time for staff to engage in scholarship or develop a research profile. And it is important to emphasise that the vast majority of research in social work is not externally funded – most books and articles are completed as part of academics’ day job, which combines scholarship and teaching in the belief that they enrich one another.

Having the largest social work course in the country, that aims to attract the best graduates, choose to remove itself from the university sector altogether is a terrible blow to our profession.

Furthermore, the defence of this, that suggests expertise could be brought in from universities as needed, is a failure to appreciate that Frontline has a contribution to make to the wider profession.

It is a bit like a top football club saying that its core business is keeping fans happy, and therefore it will not invest in developing or buying star players – instead it will hire top players from other teams as and when they are needed. If Frontline needs academic expertise it needs to invest in it. And if Frontline does not do so then it increases the risk of our whole profession failing to invest in producing excellent academics.

A more positive way forward

There are three steps that might help us move forward more positively. First, social work academics need to engage more positively with Frontline. It is not possible for Frontline to work with universities if they are not willing to partner with Frontline.

Second, Frontline needs to review this decision and commit to working with university partners – as recommended by the House of Commons select committee for education. Without such a commitment it is hard to see how Frontline can be serious about making a positive contribution to social work.

As part of this Frontline needs to articulate a more coherent plan for how it can support scholarship as well as professional learning. Having a narrow focus on the delivery of a course may work in the short term, but in the longer term it undermines the foundations the profession Frontline aspires to be a proud part of.

Third, more fundamentally, we need to agree a vision for academic social work that extends beyond social work education. This is a task for government in particular. We need to recognise that to be a thriving profession we need a thriving academic workforce.

It is only then that we stand any chance of realising the vision of my colleague in dentistry, a vision for social work in which practice and research, teaching and theory are brought together to support excellence and to develop our profession.

Donald Forrester is professor in child and family social work at Cardiff university and the director of CASCADE, the children’s social care research and development centre. He is a former academic director of the Frontline programme.

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17 Responses to We need to talk about social work education…

  1. David N Jones August 3, 2016 at 12:24 pm #

    Thank you Donald for this insightful and measured piece which illustrates the tensions which have run through social work qualifications for the past 40 years or more. They were very familiar to me when I chaired the CCETSW Education and Training Committee (1985-94) which decided the structure of social work qualifications for many years and then as Director of Operations for CCETSW (1994-1999). Social work is caught between often conflicting expectations of the university funding system and employer expectations; for many years CCETSW pioneered innovative solutions, many of which were sadly lost when it was disbanded. A failure to mediate these conflicts will result in social work loosing its professional and academic status worldwide. That is a risk not to be lightly dismissed! Managing the funding and qualification requirements is demanding and frustrating but the shortcut to a solution proposed by Frontline is a dead-end for social work and those who qualify on that route. Joseph (with his coat of many colours) had to resolve the family argument to find a way forward. Does Frontline really want to destroy academic social work in the UK which, paradoxically, is highly respected internationally? Donald rightly points to the risk that this will be the outcome of the narrow and sadly self-centred (and therefore unethical) approach which appears to be favoured. The leaders of the academy also need to pioneer recognition of the frustrations of employers and explore practical solutions to meet the growing social crisis which newly qualified practitioners have to face from day one. This all points to the need for a strong and unifying professional structure to mediate the different interests and negotiate workable solutions.

  2. Esther Hack August 3, 2016 at 3:31 pm #

    Thank you for this useful article, Donald. Social work suffers from a limited evidence base, for example in adult mental health where my background lies. It is through universities that this evidence base can be developed. Universities, such as York led by Martin Webber, are making honourable progress. But health services spend far more on research than is spent on social care. So the interventions we use depend largely on experience and reflection without the benefit of a strong body of evidence . At a time when mistakes can have life changing outcomes and each penny needs to be spent wisely this is not a rational way to make decisions. Social work teachers should have the latest knowledge, which makes social work training a natural fit with universities. There is a strong argument for massively increasing funding for social work and social care research and linking this to solid support for qualifying and post qualifying social work training.

  3. Joe Blue August 3, 2016 at 7:31 pm #

    Am I the only person who thinks that Donald Forrester has a cheek commenting on the state of social work education when he was the Professor at Bedfordshire who partnered with Frontline in the first place? If Professor Forrester had not taken this step, arguably Frontline would have struggled to set up their programme. Thus, he was inextricably involved in creating the programme that he is now critiquing. Now that Professor Forrester has made the move to Cardiff University (funnily enough, the University who carried out the mostly positive evaluation of Frontline) he has certainly changed his tune and has been ‘debating’ what he now sees as the problems with Frontline with Josh McAllister on twitter which is hypocritical in the extreme. I find it irritating at best that Professor Forrester feels that he is a position to comment. Many social work academics and practitioners have been saying this for a long time. It’s a shame Professor Forester has taken such a long time to develop this awareness. If he had listened in the first place, social work would not be experiencing the difficulties he discusses in his article. I do wonder why Professer Forrester is now so keen to re-position and distance himself from his association with Frontline. However, I am sure that the reason will become apparent over the course of time.

    • BC August 4, 2016 at 2:43 pm #

      Maybe it is a cheek but FL I’m sure had lots more options than just Bedfordshire so it would have happened with or without Professor Forrester. And it’s unfair to insinuate something untoward in the Cardiff evaluation of FL, it impugns the honesty of the academics who carried it out in, what was I’m sure, good faith (a group which did not include Professor Forrester anyway).

    • J D August 5, 2016 at 9:11 am #

      I agree, Prof Forrester’s article lacks self awareness of HIS role in Frontline and why he has changed his mind and job. Lamenting about the lack of joined up thinking about social work seems a bit naive. I too wait for more information, perhaps Front Line will suffer the same bad performance results and issues as the academisation of state education is now revealing?

      Frontline was developed by a Tory government with the co-operation of social work leaders who agree with the politics of austerity to implement cuts. Their rhetoric includes the service user’s journey to independence and how state disinvestment in the planning, development and provision of services is a helpful process.

      Privatisation is seen as a progressive and liberating force and this also includes university departments. There is an important difference between social and dentistry and that is about who pays and the level of profits they create. Social work provides services for vulnerable people, who are mostly economical dependent of state resources, so not make the same level of profits as private dentistry.

      However, I do support Prof Forrestor’s article to highlight his concerns but I hope he can now publicly support and be involved in the important ongoing campaigns challenging privatisation and cuts in academia, social care and more. For example, the current cohort of social work students have still not received their grants and shockingly we need to put pressure on Ms May’s government to pay their grant!

  4. Benedict Fell August 3, 2016 at 7:36 pm #

    Excellent article. I myself was a bit taken aback by the vehement attacks on Frontline by social work academic colleagues and consequently was not surprised when Frontline decided to deliver their training in-house. I decided to detach myself temporarily from social work academia amidst this apparent chasm and disagreement about the ‘best way’ to educate social workers. I remain firmly committed to pursuing the best training model. I just didn’t share the misgivings of colleagues and JUC-SWEC and welcomed this new approach that lets students spend far more time in placement settings than the degree routes currently do. Frontline finally acknowledges the important work social workers do by placing its trainees on decent liveable salaries rather than paltry bursaries. As Donald says, let’s get on board with it. There are lots of colleagues on degree programmes I have been involved with who have a massive positive contribution to make to the learning of Frontline trainees. I suspect that many social work academics teaching on degree routes today, given the choice between Frontline and the degree, would have opted for Frontline when they started their own training. I know I would.

  5. June Thoburn August 3, 2016 at 8:15 pm #

    Some important points made. But rose tinted glasses when it comes to Frontline. No mention of the fact that a top class research university can produce 3 top class Masters social workers for the cost of 1 Frontline diploma social worker, who will have had less time exploring and debating the complexities of the disciplines contributing to social work policy and practice than their Masters counterparts. There needs to be a serious conversation with DFE and DH , LGA, ADASS and ADCS and the Universities about how to make best use of the available government funding for social work initial and post qualifying education. TheRe is I think a place for a limited number of ‘fast track’ places , but more on the lines of Set-up than Frontline or Think ahead, with prior relevant experience and learning being prerequisites. And with a fairer treatment financially of those who opt for the ful 2 or 3 year initial training. There is some learning to be had from a full reading of the evaluations of Frontline and Step up, that looks at caveats as well as positives and takes a longer view. Teaching partnerships have the potential to take us further towards the sort of Practice and scholarship integration Donald envisages, but they are being strangled at birth by the disgusting fact that whilst Frontline has its preferential funding for staff and students for the next 3 years, DH and DFE have not announced bursary funding a month before the thousands of students are due to take up a place on a BA or MA social work course. Some will have decided not to take the risk and given up their places. What a terrible waste to have unfilled places when there is more need than ever of well qualified social workers.

  6. Lee Pardy-Mclaughlin August 3, 2016 at 8:25 pm #

    Donald- thank you for bringing this challenging situation to a head in a carefully constructed manner. There is learning on both sides of the camp, social work needs a strong research led culture, where research both informs and indeed shapes teaching and learning. Frontline is a new brave and bold approach to social work education, but this should not be the only show in town. As a previous academic and having been heavily involved in the pilot phase of the teaching partnerships I have been impressed by the approach from academics to engage, promote and indeed have a clear footprint in the practice and teaching system. Outward facing academic social work departments need to be celebrated, take a look at Birmingham, UCLan, Sheffield and Huddersflied and other institutions in the country who readily commit and support practice development, research, learning and scholarly activity to enhance our profession. More recently, FL have been seeking a stronger dialogue with Universities and perhaps now is the time for this to happen with senior academic leaders and FL to come together to take forward a joint approach with mutual appreciation, collaboration and investment. I fear if we don’t do this then social work as a profession will be worse off. Professional Social Work at pre and post qualifying levels needs a sustainable research and evidence based culture embedded in a university system. I have recently worked with an academic at a University, the academic completed their PHD research- this research has supported improvement and reflection for front line practitioners in a deep and collaborative model. We need to continue to foster this, galvanise it further and indeed respect it- because when it is gone it is gone!

  7. Robert J. Nisbet August 4, 2016 at 11:55 am #

    Perhaps less ‘need to talk’ and more need for action [now] on social education! If the various bodies currently providing social work education, be they academic institutions or the new services such as ‘Frontline’, ‘ThinkaAhead’,don’t start working together now, then I fear ‘solutions’ will be imposed on the qualification training required of social workers. A massive risk to an already embattled profession! More concerning would be the effect upon those who require competent, well trained and knowledgeable professionals to participate, advocate and give confidence to individuals needing the very skills that social work does best or should! University libraries are stacked full of research papers, books etc on creating positive change, organisational theory, effective service delivery, working together etc etc. Indeed I have many such books from my days as a post grad S.W. student at Cardiff University [be it some decades ago]. Far be it for me to suggest to such esteemed academics & those who direct the new training organisations that perhaps they should [re]visit such eminent & sensible texts. Seminal texts that inform how damaging & stressful it is [for everyone] working in ‘silo’s’ over protecting your little patch of ‘territory’, & how creative change & solutions to problems are achieved by everyone’s taking responsibility, entirely committed & focused on getting this sorted. Maybe start with Eric Byrne’s ‘Games People Play’ – ‘Transactional Analysis’ was big at Cardiff then ! My own SW professional training at Cardiff was excellent and though a large course [over a 100 students] it did a brilliant job in preparing me for the profession. Then, so did a lot of other opportunities for developing my practice skills, which were not part of the formal curriculum. You go out & find these yourselves – and ensure that they contribute to your learning & development at the time. Taking personal responsibility for your own learning & development – universities, or any other organisation providing professional training can’t do everything – it’s a partnership in which the student has an equal responsibility for ensuring they are equipped to do the job. Talking of Partnership’! Pity we see more ‘effort’ seemingly being put into getting ‘divorced’ then on working on a marriage by those key players for training our future professionals! In these days ‘adult’ partners share the washing up, have joint accounts, pay the bills equally, [maybe] argue, make up – and if they are responsible fort children, work together to provide them the best now and for their future.

  8. Old School August 4, 2016 at 6:03 pm #

    Hi Joe …….you are not the only one who remembers Donald’s ‘brief encounter’ with Josh Mcallister and Michael Goves vision for the future of social work education. Lets hope now that Donald is in Cardiff he dosnt try to change the way that Wales under the Care Council for Wales organises their education for Social Work students – ‘leave well enough alone!!’ Donald, and reflect on the contribution you have made to the future of Frontline practice in England.
    Funny thing that absolutely wasnt it Cardiff who endorsed Frontline?…….I dont believe in conspiracy theories 🙂

  9. Jonathan Parker August 4, 2016 at 7:37 pm #

    Some good points made by Donald with inside knowledge of the programmes a first conceived and some good comments. I wonder, however, how much of Frontline’s decision is driven by a wider political will to wrest social work education from the universities and to construct a more manageable, malleable and governmentally-politicised social work. We do need to collect our research strengths and our pedagogical strengths and promote what many others recognise: social work education is of high quality in the UK.

  10. HT August 7, 2016 at 2:37 pm #

    Top universities still offering social work programmes (7 of the top 20) – that’s more than for some other applied subjects.

    Edinburgh (6th best in UK)
    Bristol (9th)
    Glasgow (11th)
    Warwick (12th)
    Southampton (17th) – despite what it says in the article – http://www.southampton.ac.uk/socsci/postgraduate/taught_courses/socialwork/pgdip_msc_social_work.page
    Birmingham (18th)
    Lancaster (20th)

    I’d be interested to know when Oxford, LSE, Reading, Exeter etc. stopped offering social work courses? If Professor Forrester genuinely wants to talk about social work education, he’s more than welcome to join the debate ‘below the line’.

    Did these courses close as a result of Frontline (i.e. after it was launched?) or before? The ‘sorry we are now closed page’ for the University of Reading’s School of Health and Social Care refers to the GSCC, so they at least closed before. In which case, I’m not sure what that’s got to do with Frontline?

    Of course, it may show the difficulty in delivering social work courses at some top universities but that is an issue for the profession, if it’s an issue at all, not something that can be blamed on Frontline surely? Professor Forrester’s solution seems to be ‘Frontline should partner with these top universities in order to save them’ (which would mean of course partnering with some of the very same academics who have been implacably opposed to Frontline from the outset) and everything will be ok. Others seem to want Frontline abolished entirely. If it were, would Liverpool, Exeter, Oxford, etc. re-open their courses?

    • HT August 8, 2016 at 10:41 pm #

      By way of comparison, dentistry degrees are offered by 2 of the top 20 UK universities.

  11. Robin Sen August 9, 2016 at 8:39 pm #

    Hi Donald
    I welcome your contribution here – more so, not less, because of your previous involvement. It does though raise a number of further questions for me. Amongst these are: 1) All the university courses you list as closing are based in England. I do not know of social work courses in research intensive universities in Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales which have closed – why do you think there is this difference? 2) What makes you believe that closer engagement with Frontline will be the salvation of social work in research intensive universities rather than hastening its demise? 3) You call on social work academics to engage more positively with Frontline. Will you also call on Frontline to: (a) Recognise the value and merit of other routes to social work qualification (b) Recognise that traditional social work routes are currently producing many excellent social workers (c) Join calls for the continuation of the social work bursary for students on traditional social work routes? All the best, Robin

  12. Daniel Comach August 11, 2016 at 2:42 am #

    I am currently involved as a practice educator with FL, so must acknowledge my potential biases. I am also really clear that my allegiances lay very firmly with those who need social work support, not FL, not my LA, not the government and not academia.

    Just a point of clarification before I start my main plea, FL was not set up by the Tory government, the chair of the programme is Lord Adonis (Labour), who alongside Donald Forrester and Josh McAllister, managed to engage the government as a key stake holder in progressing the programme. (I would suggest that it would appear prudent that the government is always seen a key stake holder and government support should sought regardless of the fit with the political ideology!)

    I have worked in statutory social work for children and families in 3 inner London boroughs (‘good’ LA’s) for well over a decade and my observations during this time, albeit anecdotal, offers very little qualitative evidence of genuine cohesion or collaboration between the LA’s and Academia.

    LA’s very occasionally commission research or participate with a research project. Some training is offered, but as We know culture eats training for breakfast!

    Research informed practice is really difficult to impliment within ‘real life’ context and can we not seek ways to bring about partnerships that improve the lives of those that require SW help?

    The tensions between LA’s and Academia span much longer than the inception of FL, and I fear without some new thinking and new ways of working, the tensions will still be around after FL is replaced by whatever new scheme comes into effect whenever that might be!

    Donald gave the example of speaking with a professor of dentistry and wonder about models used in medicine for combining research with practice in hospitals. I can’t imagine that a professor in dentistry could have last undertaken direct dental practice some 20 years ago. Not wanting to be flippant, but how many professors of SW are still involved in direct statutory social work practice and how many doctors in SW (PhD of ProfD) are actively undertaking case work or management with LA’s. ( in my 12 year career I have come across 1 Dr working as a service manager and 1 professor still undertaking clinical work)

    The fundamental question is how do unversities and Local Authorities work together in way that meets the needs those that require Social work? This question seems absent from the debate.

  13. Lee Pardy-Mclaughlin August 11, 2016 at 5:53 pm #

    Daniel thank you for the posting, there is much to take forward and we need to find a dialogue, I know a lot of academics including a leading professor of social work who engage in direct practice. You may also want to know that this is a requirement of the teaching partnership stretch criteria for academics to be engaged in practice.

  14. Ellie August 15, 2016 at 1:36 pm #

    First off… apologies in advance for the long comment… but it is something I have really thought through, and – if you take them time to read it, may contain some useful (perhaps?) insights…

    I’m going to say something, here, which may appear difficult to stomach – even controversial. However, I firmly believe that it NEEDS to be said, because it brings something to this whole debate that has been consistently overlooked, but which actually happens to be of huge significance…

    This issue with respect to the Social Work profession is SO NOT just about what type of training a worker should undergo, or where; no, it is about FAR MORE than that. It is about issues which hover there, in the background, causing so much damage to the profession, but rarely, if ever, being discussed. It is about the fact that the Social Work profession – as do many other professions – skirts around problems that have, in effect, become multiple “elephants in the room”, without daring to address them. It is about the fact that there are now so many “elephants in the rooms” that the room is overcrowded, yet the profession, as a whole, remains adamant that the elephants are not there! I

    This is an issue not only of what nature of training a Social Worker should undergo. Here, we touch only upon the tip of a VERY large iceberg! Probably the iceberg that could finally sink the Social Work profession in much the same way as the “SS Titanic” was sunk, and lost forever! This is an issue that concerns such things as organizational culture, management style, career opportunities and progression, old-school versus new-school ideology, and so much more…

    I say this because a profession – ANY profession – is not simply a product of training. Training, and entry into a specific career, is only a small part of the whole. As far as Social Work is concerned, the debate that currently rages – a debate ostensibly about Social Work education and training – is NOT really about what it appears to be about. What we are dealing with, here, is a “smokescreen” for issues which have been bubbling away, under the surface, perhaps for many years.

    I note the article talks of a divide, of a distancing, between Social Work in practice, and Social Work as related to academia. This, it is suggested, is what lies behind the problematic nature of debate concerning education and training. Well, that is, at least in part, correct. There IS a divide, and distancing, between the two; but this, in itself, is not the sum total of the issue. Ought we not to be asking WHY there is this problem?

    It seems to me that there exists a much bigger issue – the question of what Social Work, as a profession, actually IS (and what Social Workers actually DO). I recall that, when I undertook my own Social Work training, I was taught that Social Work has a strong value base. I was taught about such things as tolerance, acceptance of diversity, the desire for equality for all. I was taught that Social Work provided a valuable insight into people’s problems – social, economic, health, lifestyle – that was different to what such organizations as the NHS provided. Social Work used SOCIAL MODELS of care, as opposed to the MEDICAL MODEL favoured by the NHS, which tended to pathologize the nature of individuals’ problems. I learned that the social model was important because it did NOT label and stigmatize people in this was – it did NOT argue that the problem was THEM. Instead, it argued that society was the cause of many human problems – that society, and how it was created and structured – had a hand in creating poverty, unemployment, homelessness, ill-health, and so forth. Social Work encouraged preventative work, and educative work – as opposed to mere crisis resolution. THAT was the sort of stuff I learned – and THAT was what enthused me to enter Social Work.

    BUT… and this is a BIG but… In today’s age of austerity, I think that many Social Workers are finding that our profession’s value base is being eroded – indeed, it is being treated increasingly like something that society (or, rather, those in power) wishes to do away with. We are increasingly seeing Social Work becoming a job that is about little more than “firefighting” – about crisis resolution work, with little time for anything preventative or educational. Besides, austerity-related cuts have hit those at the bottom of society hardest – the people that Social Workers generally work with. The nature of these cuts has been severe, leaving many services under-funded, leading to some service closures, leading to raising of threshold levels for acceptance that a person needs help… Worse, these cuts have had the impact of making certain people appear TO BLAME for their probems. For instance, cuts to disability benefits, and changes to eligibility criteria, have made it harder for people who ARE truly disabled to the point of it making life difficult to claim benefit assistance. People have lost their jobs due to the recession, but little help has been available to them. Nursing homes and residential facilities have closed due to lack of funding, leaving fewer paces for elderly and disabled people. Day centres and respite care centres have closed for similar reasons – again impacting negatively upon disabled, learning-disabled, mentally ill, and elderly people. ALL of this, and more, has had the effect of PATHOLOGIZING such groups of people; of making them appear to be “problems” that “burden” society. And… Social Work – a profession most likely to work with such people – has been sidelined along with them. It seems to me that, in our current society, there is NO PLACE for a SOCIAL MODEL OF CARE. Instead, the rhetoric is one that insists people “take responsibility” for their own problems; the onus is placed upon them. This may be fine, if a person has a problem that he/she truly WAS the cause of… BUT many service-users who come into contact with Social Services are NOT the cause of the problems they live with (or are not the sole cause).

    This may be why we increasingly hear Social Workers saying things like “the job is not what it used to be”, or “I can no longer cope with all these changes”. Social Work is being made to change into something that no longer adheres to its own value base. THIS could, perhaps, account for the split between Social Work in practice, and Social Work academia. In practice, the profession is having to change rapidly, and in ways that are increasingly leading it away from its own value base – from its academia (if we consider Social Work academia to be about values, ethics, models of care, etc.). Furthermore, such change is NOT by choice, it is enforced. As a result, Social Work academia CANNOT keep pace. Research informed practice cannot be implemented when
    a) there is little research taking place in Social Work because practising Social Workers are so short of time (the only people with time to do research are those who do NOT work in Social Work itself, which makes it harder to marry research with practice because these researchers do NOT have the insight that practising Social Workers have)
    b) Social Work in practice is facing so many current challenges and changes it cannot keep up, leaving it little time even to research the impact of these challenges and changes, let alone undertake wider research
    c) Social Work has become more about crisis intervention work, and less about preventative and educational work – and constant working with crises leaves little time for anything else
    d) the above issues have all been forced upon the Social Work profession

    Still, even the above does NOT address the full problem. No… at the heart of the Social Work education problem is this… Social Work education has changed, and evolved so much, and so quickly, that Social Work has become a profession divided as much from within, as from without. Put simply, there is a huge amount of tension building up within professional ranks as a result of all the changes to education. This is a tension between what I shall term “old school” Social Work, and “new school”. Oh… and a somewhat awkwardly-placed cohort of Social Workers whose education and training falls somewhere in-between!

    To explain… in Social Work, as in any profession, there will be employees with different lengths of service. This is only natural – there will be new-starters, and staff who have been in service for longer. However, in Social Work, the length of time one has been doing the job has a direct impact upon the nature of education and training one is likely to have received. New starters are more likely to be fast-track “Frontline”, or similarly-trained Social Workers. There will still be some who undertook the University Degree or Masters programmes – but numbers of such candidates are dwindling due to funding problems and issues around bursaries (whilst Frontline funding is pretty secure). By contrast, Social Workers who have been many years in practice (the “old guard”) often hold a CCETSW or sometimes DIPSW qualification only. Then, there are those in the middle – like myself – who have fewer years of service than the “old guard”, but are anything but new-starters. OUR training was most likely a combined Degree or Masters with DIPSW. With all these different types of qualification, training and educational experience amongst the workforce, it I no wonder that confusion reigns supreme, and that debates about education of the workforce run heated! Just HOW can Social Workers feel like a unified workforce if their qualifications and education have all been different – and have offered perhaps different educational experiences, and maybe even a different understanding of Social Work?

    I ask, does a Social Worker with 30 years’ experience, and a CCETSW qualification view Social Work in the same way as a newly qualified “Frontline” educated worker? Does the worker with a Degree and DIPSW view Social Work in the same way as a “Frontline” trainee, or as a CCETSW educated member of staff? Somehow, I think not! These qualifications changed over time – and they changed for a REASON. They changed to reflect the ideologies and value bases of the society – and of the Government – that ushered them in! The content of these various courses DIFFERED, perhaps subtly, perhaps obviously – BUT IT DIFFERED. And, because it differed, it meant that said courses produced DIFFERENT TYPES OF SOCIAL WORKER. Each type of training had the end result of producing a Social Worker whose value base, style of working, ideologies, and so forth… reflected WHAT WAS TAUGHT AT THE TIME. Perhaps the reality of this – the impact of this – is something that the Social Work profession REALLY DOES NEED TO STUDY.

    If, as I suggest is the case, Social Workers with a different understanding and view of Social Work are produced by different types of Social Work education, then it is only natural that a workforce made up of such diverse educational experiences will feel somehow confused as to its identity – and divided. No wonder older-style trained Social Workers are suspicious of, and apprehensive about, new changes to training and education. How can they not be? They are never going to have the same training and experiences as these new recruits – so how can they see through their eyes? In return, how can the new recruits ever identify with an “old guard” of Social Workers whose training was nothing like their own? This “clash of cultures” is made further worse by the fact that Social Work as a whole is facing significant problems in terms of staffing levels, spiralling caseloads, lack of resources… all things that raise stress levels, lower staff morale, and test individual workers’ patience.

    NOW look at it again… So, we have different Social Workers who were all trained differently, and thus do not share commonality of educational experience, or of learning. These workers are then placed under increasingly stressful working conditions with spiralling caseloads, funding cuts, reduces resources… Many workers are reaching “burnout”, many feel unsupported – Social Work as a whole feels disrespected and lacking recognition. So… workers become defensive, and “territorial”. When a workforce face such an unpleasant situation as Social Workers are currently facing – a situation in which they, as a profession, feel undervalued and sidelined – any cracks, any divides in the workforce will be highlighted. And… I have seen this time and time again in some of the comments to “Community Care” articles about the current state of Social Work.

    The problem is this… The “old guard” of Social Work – those staff with many years’ service, and with qualifications such as CCETSW – currently feel undervalued and disrespected. They are seeing Social Work (as are ALL Social Workers) being forced to suffer budget cuts, service closures, imposition of legislative changes, imposition of new policies, massive caseloads, “hotdesking”… they see Social Work being plagued with such problems, and they see that those in charge, or in power, do not listen when such problems are mentioned, and do not sort them out. As a result, these long-serving Social Workers feel that they are not cared about; they feel disempowered. Such feelings can, as noted above, become “territorial” and angry. Such workers may ask themselves “why do I do a job which gains me no respect?”, or “what have I given all these years of service for – nothing?”. They want to claw back some respect. One result is that they come to see new staff, with different educational backgrounds and qualifications, as a “threat”. As “impostors”. Perhaps they wonder whether their own qualifications and experience are still valued at a time when the nature of Social Work education is changing so dramatically. Perhaps they ask WHY it is changing, and what this means for THEM.

    A good example of the above can be seen in a comment to this very article, penned (ironically!) by somebody calling him/herself “Old School”. This person writes about changes to Social Work education a phrase which I think sums up the “old school view” perfectly… “Leave well enough alone”. In other words, the “old guard” liked things the way they had them, and don’t welcome change. Which, on one level, is valid – if we are simply talking about change for the sake of change!

    By contrast, the newly-trained workers have had a completely different educational experience, that does NOT prepare them for having to work alongside staff with different qualifications and educational experiences. It does NOT prepare them for working alongside some staff who may resent them, or be suspicious of them. I am NOT saying that all of the “old guard” resent new-style trained Social Workers. What I am saying is that organizational and management culture plays a role, here.

    When staffing an organization, one expects to have a mix of staff – all of whom are different ages, with different backgrounds and experiences. The trick is to encourage these diverse people to gel together to form a cohesive team. This necessitates valuing individual workers, and valuing the different skills, experiences, abilities and understanding of Social Work that they bring to the table. It necessitates understanding that there IS an “old guard” who differ from new starters, and from Social Workers of a few years’ standing, who again trained differently. It necessitates understanding that different qualifications equal different educational experiences, and thus different skills and expertise. It necessitates understanding that differing lengths of time in service can mean different views of Social Work – views that can be beneficial, or problematic, dependent upon the individual and how the organization handles it. It necessitates understanding that, to get the best of EACH and EVERY member of a team, the organization they work for has to:
    Value them all
    Provide physical and emotional support for them all
    Permit workers to use their own individual strengths and talents and work according to their individual style
    Help integrate new starters into the team, and help integrate them with existing, “old guard” staff
    Forge a coherent team identity
    Encourage regular supervision, de-briefing opportunities and peer support opportunities
    Support the career development of all
    Provide sufficient and appropriate P.Q. training opportunities for all
    Provide a safe, pleasant working environment that is conducive to getting work done
    Hold regular team meetings, both to encourage the team to gel, and to encourage sharing of ideas

    The above is, as I pointed out, an issue of management an organizational culture. An organization that caters for its staff’s needs will throve better than one that does not. An organization that makes sure new starters are inducted in such a way as to help them gel with the rest of the team – and which provides new starters with support and encouragement to develop their talents and abilities, and find a place, an identity, within the team – is less likely to have problems with the loss, or “burnout” of new starters. An organization that recognizes the contributions of its existing staff, reminds them that they are valued, encourages them to get to know new starters and to share experiences with them… is less likely to have problems with the loss, or “burnout”, of existing staff. An organization that encourages new starters and existing staff to gel from the outset, to get together, and to share and exchange experiences, ideologies, insights, learning… is one most likely to recruit and retain happy staff who feel valued.

    Organizations, and management teams that simply “throw” staff together without recognizing their individual differences – differences in training, in experiences, in understanding, in outlook, in skills and abilities – is one that may well end up with an unhappy team, low staff morale and high staff turnover. A team of staff, if supposed to be cohesive, CANNOT simply be “thrown” together and then left to it. Managers are there to MANAGE – to sort out staffing issues such as training needs, conflict, inductions, recruitment and retention. Managers and employing organizations therefore NEED to know, and recognise, the individual natures, and talents, of their workforce. As I have written in a reply to another article from “Community Care”, Social Workers, like any human workforce, are NOT ROBOTS. They are INDIVIDUAL PEOPLE, and should be treated as such. If the individual nature of members of the Social care workforce is NOT recognized – including their differing experiences, educations, length of time in service, skills, and so forth – then workers feel undervalued, and become defensive. The workforce takes on a “dog eat dog” mentality of everyone for themselves. The “old guard” resent new starters; new starters cannot get a foot in the door, and gel with the “old guard”. Fights break out, and discussions become arguments. Changes to education and training are viewed with suspicion. Staff fail to see eye-to-eye. Existing staff become “antsy”, feeling that their years of service, and the insights these afford, are not valued. They may decide to quit. Newly-trained staff question their desire to join a profession that they see treats them as “undesirable”, and where existing staff do not seem to see their potential, or allow them time to develop their skills and talents, before writing them off as mere “waste of time training experiments”. They may also decide to quit.

    Overall, the above – if true of Social Work – is a recipe for disaster. What we NEED to understand now is that CHANGES take time to process, and that staff should be permitted time to process them. Staff also ALL need to feel valued, and supported, no matter what their background and training. Staff NEED to be able to engage in dialogue about change, and the direction that Social Work is going in – they NEED to feel included in this process, as though they have at least some say in it, and some control over it. Staff NEED to be encouraged to view themselves as a cohesive workforce – EVERYONE as a Social Worker, again irrespective of background or type of education.

    THIS is what is important. Too many changes, and too fast changes have lead to a profession at risk of losing touch with its identity. Time, perhaps, for a firm decision about the nature of what Social Work is intended to be; and about how we can ensure that ALL Social Workers understand what Social Work is, and represents, plus understand how to uphold this. Such groundwork NEEDS to take pace BEFORE we can even begin to tackle matters such as how education should be delivered, whether research should be taking place, how to marry academia and practice… First and foremost, Social Work (as well as the Government, and the rest of society) NEEDS to be absolutely clear as to what Social Work actually IS.