Degree of hope as diploma is set to bite the dust

Will the replacement of the Diploma in Social Work with a
vocational degree boost the reputation and attractiveness of social
work? Mark Hunter reports

After years of asking, social work is finally to be given the
professional status it has craved. The Diploma in Social Work is to
be replaced by a three-year vocational degree as the entry level
qualification for social work (News, page 2, 29 March). Social care
specialists have received the news with near universal

The National Institute for Social Work claims the degree course
will help social workers cope better with the “modernisation
agenda” while putting their professional status on a par with
teaching. Training organisation TOPSS has welcomed the extra year
which will be used to address “the increasing complexity and
importance of social work”, while the Local Government Association
hopes the move will help improve both the recruitment and retention
of social workers.

There is no doubt that the new training programme, with its
greater emphasis on practice learning and integration into national
occupational standards, should result in better trained social
workers offering higher standards of care to the public.

Nevertheless, there are several issues that need to addressed
before the new course is introduced in 2003. A key question is
whether a conventional university-based undergraduate course will
fit in with social work’s traditionally high intake of mature
students. Many of the 4,000 students who achieve the DipSW each
year do so through part-time and distance learning routes and might
find it impossible to attend regular university lectures.

“It is important that wide access arrangements are maintained,
particularly for older students, and that the qualification can be
achieved through flexible routes,” says Arthur Keefe, chairperson
of TOPSS England. Keefe recommends that the degree should also
include arrangements for those who are already graduates.
Accreditation of prior experience and learning could exempt
students from those parts of the study programme they could show
they had covered elsewhere.

TOPSS is also recommending that the degree is based on national
occupational standards and given a clear relationship with National
Vocational Qualification levels 3 and 4, newer developments such as
foundation degrees and modern or graduate apprenticeships. The
training organisation claims this will help improve the range of
pathways into social work and ensure the degree remains relevant to
employers’ requirements.

“We support proposals for stronger links between higher and
further education and between both these and employers, in order to
develop flexible formats of the degree,” says Keefe.

Funding will also be crucial. Nobody is suggesting that social
work’s newly found professional status will be accompanied by a
corresponding hike in salaries. So it will be important that the
extra year of training does not leave newly-qualified social
workers even deeper in debt. TOPSS has suggested a system of
bursaries similar to that available for nurses and probation
officers. The government has made a few encouraging noises, but has
refused to commit itself so far.

“Obviously this falls under the next public spending review, so
the ministry is having to be very cautious,” acknowledges TOPSS
chief executive Andrea Rowe. “But they’ve just put £2 million
into the training support programme so I expect they will want to
evaluate that before committing themselves further.”

The current two-year DipSW course will continue taking students
until the first new degree course begins in 2003. The government
has pledged that those obtaining DipSWs will not be disadvantaged
when the General Social Care Council and its UKcounterparts
introduce registration for social workers later this year.

It is currently unclear what will happen in the interim period
before the new graduates appear in 2006. However, Rowe is confident
that there will not be a corresponding drop in numbers of newly
qualified social workers.

“CCETSW is working to make sure the new degree is introduced in
tandem (with the outgoing DipSW). Our view is that it shouldn’t
make a great impact on the numbers of social workers other than to
make it easier to recruit a better quality of staff.”

Indeed, Rowe is hopeful that the professional status offered by
a degree may help social work recruitment compete against other
caring professions.

“One problem in the past is that we’ve found ourselves competing
with professions such as nursing whose training was seen as more
comprehensive. I wouldn’t wish any greater recruitment problems on
nursing, but they’ve had the march on us in the past and at least
now it will be a level playing field,” she says.

Kevin Wilson, chairperson of the Local Government Association’s
workforce task group, is also hopeful that the degree course could
help tackle the negative public perceptions that are said to damage
recruitment to the social care profession.

“It is clear that when you compare social work with other
professions there’s a public perception that it has a lack of
recognition and respect. Hopefully the new qualification will help
to improve its reputation,” he says.

However, while Wilson is pleased that the degree brings social
work into line with other professions, he warns that a great deal
more needs to be done to help combat the recruitment crisis in
social work.

“It doesn’t necessarily follow that a degree confers more
respect. Look at teachers – they still have recruitment problems.
We still have to work hard to bring people into the profession.
We’ve got to get into the schools and colleges and keep selling the
message that this is a job that is worthwhile and valuable.”

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