The planned introduction of social worker apprenticeships next year won’t “dumb down” or “dilute” the standards underpinning the profession, according to the team behind the scheme.
Speaking at the national Principal Social Workers conference last week, representatives of Skills for Care and a ‘trailblazer group’ of more than 85 social work employers said apprenticeships offered a chance to widen the pool of trainees and provide new opportunities for career progression within social care.
The three-year apprenticeship, which the group hopes will start from Autumn 2018, will see trainees completing a social work degree alongside practice. They will also sit a test set by their employer. The HCPC has approved a national apprenticeships standard, which includes a definition of social work specific to the scheme, put forward by the group.
Responding to questions from delegates on the plans, Graham Woodham, head of programmes at Skills for Care, said: “We’ve always been very clear that anyone going through the apprenticeship route has to be able to meet the same standards as any other route. There is no dumbing down of the academic standard. It’s actually a different way of delivering the training.”
Jane Hanrahan, chair of the social work apprenticeships trailblazer group, agreed and said trainees would end up with a degree from a higher education institution, approved by the regulator. “It’s not in any way diluting the profession,” she said.
“We’ve lots of people in social care interested in moving into the social work workforce but at the moment there’s a barrier for them. This scheme is all about removing the barrier.”
But Tony Stanley, chief social worker in Birmingham, told Community Care he had four main concerns over the group’s proposals.
He said: “One is that they didn’t seem to present any kind of research base to draw on to make the argument for going down this route. Secondly, this is employer-driven and employer-led and I would argue many local authorities are already failing in leadership and management of social workers, so how are we gauging quality when it comes to employer-led apprenticeships?
“Thirdly, if we’re going to offer an undergraduate degree in a workplace then we’re going to need excellent workplaces that support learning and training, and we don’t have enough of them just now, we clearly don’t based on what Ofsted has found. Lastly, I think it’s a fundamental mistake that they are moving away from the international definition of social work to a localised version for their degree.”
Ruth Allen, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers, said there was merit in exploring new options for developing social workers but admitted her organisation had some concerns over the apprenticeships plans.
She said: “We need to ensure that the standards of learning and the breadth of social work expertise is maintained and that this [apprenticeships] doesn’t squeeze out attention on mainstream undergraduate and postgraduate training routes. Those routes are really important to the development of a research-rich, university-based profession.
“We also don’t think it’s acceptable to unilaterally redefine social work around one scheme. There is an international definition. We should have a definition that’s rooted in the fact we’re a global profession, even if it is tailored for our national requirements.”
Allen said there was a risk that the employer-driven nature of the apprenticeships could lead to a narrow view of social work being taught.
“It depends how much employers are going to work with the profession, which means working with educationalists, the professional body and their own professional leaders, to ensure that their conception of social work is not shrunken down to something that is overly functional,” she said.
“I think the point here is that they won’t get a high achieving, ambitious, sustainable workforce if they over constrain what they allow people to do or if they test people on the wrong things.”
The social worker programme is being developed in response to the government’s introduction of a national apprenticeships levy in April this year. The levy means any employer with a pay bill of more than £3m, will have 0.5 per cent of their outlay put towards an apprenticeship scheme.
Woodham told delegates that with all councils covered by the levy, running social work apprenticeships offered an opportunity to get funding to help reverse the declining number of ‘grow your own social worker’ schemes in recent years.
“It is a chance to bring staff through the system who are excellent care workers, or maybe people with lived experience who are working in the system and need the opportunity,” he said.
The social work standard has been approved by the government’s Institute for Apprenticeships. The trailblazer group must now submit its plans for the employer assessment later this year and gain HCPC approval for the courses themselves.
Woodham said 40 universities and colleges had expressed interest in delivering the scheme. Similar schemes are being developed for occupational therapists, physios and nurses, he added.
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