Universities are being accused of pushing poorly performing students through social work degree courses for financial reasons. Louise Tickle reports
"Over the past three years I have assessed about 30 students and have often been dismayed at the standard," says one practice assessor, posting anonymously on Community Care's online discussion forum CareSpace.
"I have been asked to take on repeat placements and on reading the previous practice assessor's reports have been astounded that the student has been allowed to progress when they have clearly been unsuitable for social work."
The practice assessor concludes: "It sometimes feels that it is impossible to fail a student." Perhaps this is because the sector is desperate for social workers to fill vacancies which in England in 2008 were running at 9.5% compared with 0.7% for secondary school teachers.
The pressure also comes from funding arrangements for the 82 universities offering the social work degree in England which lose money whenever a student fails.
The funding is distributed by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) within overall block grants for universities covering all subjects (apart from teacher training). The size of each grant depends on the number of students who complete the course requirements each year and institutions lose funding if a high proportion of students fail – not only for that year, but also for successive years.
In order to recover the lost funds, universities have to bid against all other institutions for a "small pool of additional places" from the HEFCE.
Worries that the system was encouraging universities to allow social work students to pass despite not being up to scratch were highlighted by the Children, Schools and Families select committee of MPs' inquiry into children's social work training, published in July 2009. This found the "penalties for student attrition in the higher education funding regime encourage universities to keep students who are unfit for practice".
So are applicants without the right skills being admitted to social work courses, and are they gaining degrees?
"I know there are some universities taking people on with grade Es at A-level, and a moderator on a social work degree course was deeply alarmed that pass rates can be as low as 30%," says deputy children's commissioner for England, Sue Berelowitz.
"Social work requires high levels of cognitive ability - you're going in to look at a wide range of complex circumstances and you need to be able to research and build an evidence base. You need to be able to write good court reports and make your argument authoritatively."
The MPs found that almost half of students entering social work undergraduate degree programmes in 2006-7 had fewer than 240 Ucas points (three grade Cs or equivalent at A-level), compared with less than a quarter of teaching and nursing students. Berelowitz told the MPs that the entry requirements should be raised.
However, Sue White, professor of social work at Lancaster University, says selection procedures are generally rigorous. She admits, though, that where there are pressures to fill places this leads to institutions recruiting rather than having the opportunity to select.
"The data on this are patchy. However, I have been told too many times by professionals, from managers in social work services to family court judges, that some social workers are not up to the task to believe this to be entirely a myth, although I think these people are in a minority."
Peter Unwin, senior lecturer in social sciences at Worcester University, insists that only a tiny minority of social workers aren't up to the job.
Unwin teaches on a Masters course which has around 100 applications for 15 places, and Worcester insists on a 2:2 for entry. Social work training is absolutely not about recruiting "good-hearted people who can't string a sentence together", he says. But he adds: "I know some brilliant social workers who got a third at university."
Where students are thought to be failing each case should be considered individually, he says, but university financial pressures should never be a consideration.
"We give second chances to students, but don't keep them on if it's not in social work's best interests or their own best interests. Social work is a moral activity, and if we're moral and ethical in running the course, we should not rubber stamp people to work in one of the most critical jobs there is."
Unwin is highly critical of the funding system which penalises departments for failing students - or, looked at another way, incentivises them to keep such students on. The Training and Development Agency for Schools, which funds teacher training, has chosen to remove any incentives universities might have for retaining students who were not likely to pass the course or become competent teachers, and, says Unwin, this should be the same for social work.
"On vocational courses, it is immoral that the government insist on this punitive financial regime. It's not like maths or chemistry; in social work it is a quite different consequence to turn out people who are not up to scratch."
MPs on the children, schools and families select committee recommended that funding should be channelled through a sector-specific body "to reflect the fact that the degrees are not just an academic course - they are a test of fitness for professional practice". The HEFCE counters that shuffling the money from one institution to another, without changes in the rules as to how it's allocated, would make little difference.
No matter how the funding works, if there are gaping holes in a social work department's capacity, might it not be better to have any qualified person in post, even if they're not very good, rather than nobody?
There are better ways of approaching the problem, says Berelowitz. "Students need to be set a good level to attain, and then you need to have highly qualified, skilled social workers managing multidisciplinary teams."
"The social worker needs to do the highly skilled work of assessment and care planning, but then there may be children who are more stable, who've perhaps been taken into foster care, and in those cases some of the ongoing work could be done by someone who is not a social worker, but closely managed by a social worker."
The deputy children's commissioner's solution is backed up by the final report of the Social Work Task Force, which proposes more exit routes to lower level or non-qualifying courses in all programmes for people who are not competent or suitable to practise as social workers to work in other areas of social care.
Policies on failing students on social work courses
Policies on dealing with failing students on social work degree courses differ between universities. Here, two institutions explain their procedures
University of East London
If a student fails a practice placement:
● The practice assessor should tell the student midway through what they need to do to improve their practice to a standard required to pass.
● At the end of a placement the practice assessor and tutor assess the student's progress on placement and make recommendations based on available evidence. The student could be offered another chance to prove themselves on a different placement, or be asked to withdraw from the course.
● The practice assessor makes the recommendation to a panel of experienced practice assessors. If this is ratified, a final recommendation is made to an assessment board, made up of academics and external examiners.
University of Worcester
If a student fails academic modules:
● Depending on the level of failure, they will be required to retake the module or be given a re-assessment opportunity. In postgraduate there are two opportunities for re-assessment; in undergraduate there are three opportunities.
● Once a student has exhausted their re-assessment opportunities and continues to fail, they will be asked to withdraw from the course.
This article is published in the 4 February issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Is failure not an option?