A fast track to social work?

Craig Kenny gauges the arguments surrounding the plan for professionals to switch careers and become social workers

When Lord Laming published his progress report on child protection services in March, he called for efforts to be made to “engage professionals in mid-career in other sectors to retrain to enter the social care workforce and reward them for doing so”.

At the beginning of July, children’s secretary Ed Balls obliged. He announced that 200 professionals such as lawyers and teachers looking for a career change would be able to access a fast-track, on-the-job route to become children’s social workers.

And there are certainly yawning gaps to fill. In 2006, the vacancy rate for local authority children’s social workers was nearing 10% – more than 10 times the vacancy rate for teachers. Moreover, accelerated training programmes for graduates have been available in teaching and nursing for many years now. One in 10 new teachers now enters the profession via the Graduate Teacher Programme (GTP)

The development, however, has not been overly popular among frontline social workers and social work students. Comments on Community Care’s CareSpace forum reveal deep scepticism about a career-switcher successfully becoming a social worker after a year’s placement and without returning to university. There are also doubts as to whether lawyers in particular would want to give up their hefty fees for the modest rewards associated with social work.

Fairness to degree students?

Perhaps there is also a tinge of envy among social work students that these on-the-job trainees would be paid a £15,000 salary, rather than being saddled with years of student loans and fees.

In fact, the scheme has a lot in common with the GTP for teachers, including an emphasis on learning while on placement. Employers set student assessments with one university overseeing everything.

A similar scheme has been tried in Scotland. An evaluation of its first cohort was encouraging, with trainees emphasising that the salary paid during training was crucial in encouraging them to switch careers.

“Attracting people to the profession by paying good bursaries did work in terms of numbers on the fast-track scheme in Scotland,” says Joan Orme, professor of social work at Strathclyde University. “But no follow-up was done to see if they were good social workers or stayed in the profession. We have had several knee-jerk schemes over the years which have not been evaluated, or have not been given time to bed down and improve the qualifications and practice of the profession.”

Placement concerns

Orme doubts whether this on-the-job approach will successfully integrate theory with practice. “Such placements would require the best possible teaching, learning and supervision from qualified social work staff,” she says. “Obviously there are workers who can provide this. But they are likely to be the workers who are carrying the most complex caseloads.”

The difficulty of finding enough good placements for students on existing social work training courses is well-documented, and Howard Cooper, chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services workforce development committee and director of children’s services in Wirral, admits that finding good longer-term placements for these students will be a challenge.

But Cooper adds that, as the programme will be run by a consortia of local authorities, there will be scope for finding students from areas with a shortage of the right placements training in another area.

Knowledge in the field

He flags up the potential benefits of learning on the job, such as working in multi-disciplinary teams. “Our profession is so fast-moving, and there have been such profound changes, that there’s an understanding that much knowledge and wisdom is in the field,” he says.

Despite £9m funding behind the scheme, Cooper warns that local authorities may need to find additional funding. “The sort of people who might be interested in this will be earning more than £15k a year – considerably more for some lawyers,” he explains.

“It would be hard to see in the current financial climate local authorities being able to top up those bursaries to anything approaching their previous salary levels. Also, if we are to do this well, it will involve extra costs in terms of the quality of supervision and practice learning.”

BASW welcome

Despite some concerns on the ground, the scheme has been welcomed by the British Association of Social Workers. “It’s about time we had some positive intervention in social work – it’s been lacking for decades,” says chief executive Hilton Dawson (pictured). “This scheme is a very small step. But anything to support bringing qualified, able people into the profession is worth doing.”

But there are no guarantees of success. A six-month accelerated training scheme to turn bankers into teachers has recently run into problems when trying to recruit the right calibre of candidates.

Allan Norman, of Celtic Knot legal practice, is qualified in both social work and law, and teaches both. He says that social work is not likely to appeal to many lawyers unless they have a sense of vocation. “But it is worth observing there is a surplus of lawyers graduating from the legal practice course and unable to find training contracts, especially with many firms contracting or deferring their training programmes. By contrast, vacancies in social work remain comparatively high, and the prospect of getting a post may itself be an incentive.”

Graduate standards

The Children’s Workforce Development Council’s national programme manager for strategy, Amy Tait, says the course will require applicants to attain a 2.1 in their first degree, and professional experience of working with children. “As such, graduates who meet the criteria and who are working as care assistants, youth workers, Connexions staff and early years staff would be eligible to apply,” she says.

On completion of the fast-track on-the-job training, the scheme’s graduates will be able to register with the GSCC as newly qualified social workers. They will then begin on a NQSW pay rate.

Hopefully this should go some way to dampening suspicions among those NQSWs who completed the longer, costlier conventional social work degree that high-fliers are being parachuted into senior positions with minimal preparation.

Join the discussion on this issue at CareSpace

Published in Community Care 27 August 2009 under headline ‘On the fast track into social work’

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