CareSpace debate hots up over age of social workers

A debate has been raging on Community Care’s CareSpace forum over the last two weeks ask over what age new recruits should be allowed to enter social work. We present some of the highlights from the discussion and ask BASW for an expert view.

(Illustration: Spike Gerrell)

Community Care readers are divided over whether the minimum age to become a social worker should be 25, this week’s biggest debate on CareSpace, our online discussion forum shows.

Contributors ranging from students to mature entrants to the profession have been weighing up the value of life experience versus youth for practitioners.

The comments were sparked by one contributor who claimed social workers could not be taken seriously if they were under 25. Here are some of the responses so far:

surfer: “I don’t think that a blanket ‘no under 25s’ statement is fair. However, I do think it is true that ‘life experience’ is important in social work”.

KDx: “I will begin my BA in social work this year and I will be 22 when graduating. What’s wrong with wanting a career in social work under the age of 25? I don’t think age difference will make you more of an effective social worker. When I went to my interviews the mature students did seem to have more life experience but I felt I made as equally good points as they did.”

Bulldog Allan: “There are some excellent social workers who are younger than 25, I have worked with some and benefited. But, I see it as an issue more about percentages.”

aitch: “There is another hurdle younger social workers have to overcome as well – and that’s the prejudice of the client groups they are working with – who also often take the view that the younger social worker cannot be of any help to them because they have no life experience.”

vivky29: “Nobody suggests that doctors, nurses or teachers need to be over 25 to train and nobody suggests that other professionals need ‘life experience’ in order to do their job competently. Social workers are really bad at getting across the substance of their expertise, which is why many people think anyone can do the job with a bit of life experience.”

Adra: “Where is the empirical evidence that younger social workers are worse than older ones? Furthermore, who the hell said that ‘life experience’ is some sort of codex of how to deal with social work issues? How dare someone of 50 say they have a better understanding of the law, abuse, services, empowerment, client groups, families and communities than someone of 20.”

isthatuitsme: “Poor practice can come at any age. Not necessarily because someone is lacking in ‘life experience’. Newly qualified social workers, especially younger ones, can often bring with them a new enthusiasm about the work that we are doing and they can often provide valuable information about new trends and ideas in social work. Life experience does play a role, but it can also hinder a very good social worker from being effective if they have not dealt effectively with that ‘life experience’, ie needing to go to counselling themselves.”

Nadine: “I can see why a family with a spread of children of all ages will not take kindly to a 20-something telling them how to parent. I do not like having to step in, as it completely undermines the case worker, but sometimes it is necessary. There are some clients who will do their utmost to intimidate a young worker out of the door. However, complaints against young social workers are not a frequent occurrence.”

queenb: “At the end of the day, what is life experience? For example, I am not a parent. I have also never been old, had dementia, had Down’s Syndrome or been confined to a wheelchair. Does that mean then, that due to my lack of experience of these things, I am not suitable to work in children’s services, or in a disability team or with the elderly?”

alib: “I have trained and have worked with social workers in their 20s who are very skilled and good at the job and been very worried about older colleagues, some of whom have very dodgy attitudes.”

stevienicks76: “I waited until I was 32 to undertake the MA. I purposefully did not enter this profession at an earlier age as I did not feel I could undertake the job to the best of my ability. So many times have I seen individuals who are a lot younger than me ‘out of their depth’ due to limited life experience.”

Pips: “I believe with 100% certainty that service users would rather have a 22-year old with some optimism and enthusiasm than a cynical and judgemental ‘older’ worker who thinks ‘life experience’ gives them the claim to all knowledge.”

The view from the British Association of Social Workers

Fran McDonnell, social care workforce development consultant and chair of BASW’s learning and development committee, writes:

“Personally, as someone who became a trainee at 18 and went on my CQSW course at 20, qualifying at 22, I don’t have a problem with younger people becoming trainees or students on social work courses.

“I think what matters is a thorough selection process to ensure applicants are suitable and that they have shown interest and aptitude in working with others: such as whether they have done some voluntary work.

“It could be detrimental to recruiting high quality practitioners if there was no career pathway directly into social work from school, further education or higher education as in teaching and nursing etc. I think it is more important to have good practice teachers and appropriate placements and that universities filter out students who are not fit to practice.

“Appropriate funding should enable this to happen.”

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