by June Thoburn, Brid Featherstone and Kate Morris
Much attention has been paid to the climbdowns the government was forced into on key clauses in the Children and Social Work Bill last week, with critics labelling the handling of the bill a shambles.
Far less profile has been given to another area the bill contains measures on – social work education. We would contend that the government’s current policy direction poses grave dangers in terms of whether social work education can survive in universities and what it might consist of even if it does.
In the last decade qualifying social work education has attracted considerable attention in England as a result of high profile child deaths. Policies have emerged to favour fast-track graduate trainee schemes, with generous government funding awarded to a small but growing band of recruits complemented by large sums from the private sector.
Meanwhile, government funding for the majority of entrants to social work via well-established university honours and masters’ degree routes has been declining. The future of social work bursaries is also uncertain. This is putting well-established research-led university courses at risk.
These financial inequalities reflect a narrative promoted by successive government ministers and civil servants, starting with New Labour but latched onto by the coalition and now the Conservative government.
The calibre of those entering social work education, the story goes, is not good enough and the education offered in universities is deficient if not downright inappropriate.
This was the view promoted in Sir Martin Narey’s Department for Education-commissioned review of social work education. He called for stronger regulation of courses and a revised specialist curriculum that equipped social work students to carry out predefined tasks from a narrowly focused knowledge-base.
Narey’s particular focus was on developing practitioners to do ‘child protection’ as distinct from social work with individuals and families across the life course.
Another review by David Croisdale-Appleby, this time commissioned by the Department of Health, disagreed. Croisdale-Appleby promoted an expanded understanding of the social worker as practitioner, professional and social scientist working with individuals and families across the life course.
He also highlighted the importance of research in expanding the knowledge base of the profession and the role of university schools of social work in developing high quality research.
These two reviews, commissioned by differing government departments, have never been reconciled. The result has been muddle and confusion.
The funding inequalities do, however, suggest that Professor Croisdale -Appleby’s view of the importance of social work being located in universities and in an organic relationship with research is not the one being implemented.
The role of universities
Since the reviews, one of the fast-track programmes has essentially cut its ties in any meaningful sense with the HEI sector and is now virtually a stand alone training provider. Under the current law it does still require a HEI to award its degrees. This could change however in the very near future.
The highly controversial Higher Education Bill currently going through Parliament could, if its key proposals are implemented, allow programmes to have degree awarding powers and become stand-alone providers. It opens the door to increasing the number of private providers as lowering the barriers to entry for such providers is a stated aim of the bill.
In the post-qualifying sector, the award of very large contracts to consortia led by large for-profit providers (with limited input from universities) to develop an accreditation framework and permanence curriculum points to a continuation of this direction of travel and the increasing marginalisation of university educators, despite their extensive record of research based scholarship in both these areas.
A volatile landscape
It is in this very uncertain and volatile landscape that some current and little discussed developments need to be understood and interrogated. They concern how social work education will be regulated and the shape of post-qualifying education in the future.
The Children and Social Work Bill contains some important clauses authorising the setting up of a bespoke regulator for social work and others relating to continuing education and development for qualified social workers (notably NC17 and 48).
In terms of the regulator, the government has rowed back on its original intent to have such a body directly run by the Secretary of State, as a result of trenchant criticisms from a wide range of stakeholders. The new body ‘Social Work England’ will be a non-departmental public body. However, it is unclear exactly what the relationship with government will be.
When compared with the legislation it replaces, the wording in the bill appears to increase the control of the Secretary of State over social work education vis-a-vis that of the regulator. Certainly, the new body will be less independent from government than is the current regulator, the HCPC.
The last minute introduction of new clauses on, and the wording of, ministerial powers and duties relevant to social work education (replacing section 67 in the 2000 Act) also raise concerns.
Of particular concern is that reference to the minister discharging her duties via the regulator is omitted from the new wording as is any reference to courses being approved by her via the regulator. This could open the door to the minister holding untrammelled powers over qualifying education.
Finally, NC48 empowers the minister to take full responsibility for the assessment and accreditation of qualified social workers working in statutory child and family social work. This offers an unprecedented level of control to a government minister over a key aspect of post-qualifying development and opens the door very explicitly to political control.
It is important that an area such as social work education is not subject to the whims of any government whatever its political hue. It is vital that it is rooted in research and intellectual and practice based inquiry. The direction of travel is such that legitimate fears need to be raised about whether this will remain the case for social work education in England.
June Thoburn is emeritus professor of social work at the University of East Anglia. Brid Featherstone is professor of social work at the University of Huddersfield. Kate Morris is professor of social work at the University of Sheffield.