By Helen Gormley
After a succession of delays, this month social work students finally received confirmation of the government’s social work bursary allocations for this year.
The longer term future of the bursary, however, remains uncertain with reports suggesting ministers are considering scrapping the funding entirely. As chair of BASW’s reference group for students and newly qualified social workers I believe this is an important issue. It is also one our group has attempted to engage both the education and health ministers on.
Sadly our efforts have so far fallen on deaf ears. All we received was a response from a senior civil servant, who reiterated the government’s plan to consult on the future funding of social work education alongside a commitment to honour bursaries already awarded to students.
While it is good for those of us already in the throes of a social work degree to at least know that our expectations will be met, future social work students need clarity on the government’s plans to allow them to form their own opinions and make financially sound decisions about their studies.
The silence from ministers leaves us with many questions. With the announcement of £100m in new funding for ‘fast track’ schemes aimed at attracting high academic achievers into social work, will there be any money left in the pot to support students on other pathways? The government talks about the future for social work, but how inclusive or exclusive will this future be?
Ours is a profession underpinned by acceptance of diversity and equality. The opportunities the bursary opens up to people who may not otherwise be able to study social work is vital in promoting that equality and diversity.
Yet ministers seem to be ignoring the potential consequences of their education reforms. By funding routes that are only open to high achieving graduates (fast-track schemes have a minimum entry requirement of a 2:1 degree), and reducing the support on offer through bursaries, will people with lived experience who didn’t get the opportunity to study an undergraduate degree be frozen out?
This would be a great loss and could deny those with lived experience and genuine empathy the chance to share their knowledge with colleagues for the benefit of those we support.
There are concerns over racial diversity too. The evaluation reports on Step up to Social Work and Frontline both found both fast-track schemes had fewer participants from black and minority ethnic backgrounds compared to social work degree courses.
Let’s hope that the impending consultation is not a forgone conclusion of scrapping a much-needed bursary. Let’s hope also that social work students, practitioners and professional bodies will have a genuine chance to contribute to the debate.
While we wait for the consultation, our group will continue to seek answers from government. We aim to be fully representative of the national voice of students and future students who may be affected by the consultation outcome. Do contact us to add your voice.
Helen Gormley is Chair of the BASW England Student and Newly Qualified Social Workers Reference Group