The case for better training for social workers is gathering momentum. Amy Taylor examines what changes the Social Work Task Force and MPs believe are needed
Social work training rarely makes the headlines. But, if you unpick many of the social care stories that do make the cut, the subject of training usually crops up.
Last month saw the publication of a parliamentary select committee report into the training of children’s and families’ social workers and a second interim report from the Social Work Task Force, set up by the government to review social work in England from February 2009, covering social work training generally.
The picture painted by the reports is worrying. They outline a fragmented sector, where the division of responsibilities between universities, employers and social workers is unclear. Both conclude that improvements are needed in pre- and post- qualifying training.
The introduction of the social work degree in 2003 undoubtedly raised the status of the profession. However, six years on, the taskforce and select committee are both questioning its content. The reports also back up previous research by the Children’s Workforce Development Council which found that many newly qualified social workers do not feel ready for the frontline.
The social work degree is equally split between theoretical and practical teaching, and opinions is divided as to which part needs to be improved. Andrew Webb, deputy chair of the taskforce, says that the quality of the degree overall is mixed.
“The quality is too variable and that’s our biggest concern,” Webb says.
Lack of shared understanding
Another issue is a lack of shared understanding on the type of work newly qualified social workers should be expected to take on. Webb says that, before the degree can be made fit for purpose, the sector needs to agree what it expects from it: “If you are going to award a degree that doesn’t automatically give out a licence to practice then you might have a different standard.”
The 200 days students spend on practice placements is widely seen as a key part of the degree. Yet the reports reiterate the reluctance on the part of many employers to offer such placements. Webb adds that the quality of practice teaching in overstretched teams is also an issue sometimes overlooked.
John Barraclough, senior lecturer in social work at London Metropolitan University, says the scarcity of placements means many are organised at the last minute, resulting in many practice teachers going into placements unprepared.
“Local authorities need to be forced to provide placements,” Barraclough says. “[With more forward planning], universities could then work more in partnership with the practice teacher to clarify what should be expected of a student.
“Instead, we arrange placements right up to the end of October and a lot of practice teachers go into it in a rush without any forethought about the workload they are going to get.”
The select committee raises concerns about gaps in the degree’s teaching and questions whether it places enough emphasis on practical skills. In response, the MPs are proposing the development of a common curriculum for social work. However, Michael Preston-Shoot, professor of social work at the University of Bedfordshire, says that this already exists.
“In terms of a core curriculum, I would say there already is one in that the Department of Health already specifies five areas which must be covered by the degree,” Preston-Shoot says. “We have then got the social work benchmark statement – which is the quality assurance mechanism [for the degree] – and the National Occupational Standards. My question to the committee is ‘what more do you need?’.”
The A-level grades required for a place on a social work course vary dramatically between institutions but are lower overall than for teaching and nursing courses. The select committee says that, alongside this, social work degrees also have a reputation for being “difficult to fail”. It calls for course funding to be channelled through a sector-specific body in order to remove any possible financial incentives for universities to pass students.
But Preston-Shoot insists there is no more of a financial incentive to pass students on social work courses than on any other course. “I know of several instances where social work academics and social work managers and practitioners have really gone to considerable lengths to uphold their professional judgement that a student is not fit to practice and should fail,” he says.
The select committee flags up this gulf in understanding between employers and universities and recommends that all social work education be delivered by formal partnerships between the two in order to address the problem.
In terms of newly qualified social workers, although the new pilot programmes in children’s and adults social services recognise this group’s need for extra support, both reports suggest going further and propose delaying full qualification until students have completed an assessed and supported first year in practice.
Webb says such a move would align social work with other professional groups and allow students to develop their practical skills. “If you look at other professions, in very few when you finish your academic qualification do you get an automatic right to practice,” he says. “In law, medicine and teaching there’s an expectation that there’s a transitional period. It seems to us that this has to be built in as you can’t expect newly qualified social workers to manage child protection cases without very close supervision and joint working.”
For the development of more experienced social workers, post-qualifying training is essential. But, while the completion of 90 hours of Post Registration Training and Learning is a requirement of social workers’ three-yearly re-registration, what that training constitutes remains vague. In addition, the taskforce says it has been told of subject gaps in the post-qualifying framework, and that continuous professional development is not enough of a priority among employers.
Lack of prioritisation
The General Social Care Council is responsible for approving universities to run pre- and post-qualifying training. Director of strategy Lin Hinnigan says the GSCC has also come across this lack of prioritisation, and that although money is given to councils for post-qualifying training, it is not ring-fenced.
“The degree is the beginning,” says Hinnigan. “But continuous learning needs to be really embedded in the process, and it isn’t being given enough prominence.”
The select committee is critical of post-qualifying training arrangements. It says courses are too scattered and that social workers’ re-registration should be dependent on completing some post-qualifying training. It also calls for funding to be guaranteed centrally rather than being dependent on local priorities, and for courses that count towards PRTL to be accredited by a newly developed social work body.
It will be impossible to provide extra support to newly qualified social workers or release people for post-qualifying training, though, if caseload and vacancy rates remain high. But, while the select committee is adamant that mores resources are required, the taskforce is not so sure.
“We are not saying at the moment that there needs to be more money,” says Webb, suggesting that some changes may save money which can then be ploughed into other reforms. “We have to see all our proposals in the round.”
From the children and families select committee:
● A common curriculum and review of funding arrangements for the social work degree.
● Placements in statutory agencies to be a compulsory condition of passing the social work degree.
● Funding for participation in post-qualifying training to be guaranteed centrally.
● Registration as a social worker to be specific to different social work specialisms.
● Re-registration to be dependent on completion of post-qualifying training.
● The creation of a Social Work Development Agency covering functions relating to training and development. Only training approved by the agency could qualify for PRTL.
● Ofsted to inspect local authorities on their provision and delivery of practice placements.
● The development of a chief social work position in local authorities to champion professional practice.
From the Social Work Task Force:
● New social work performance indicators to measure quality of practice rather than just processes.
● The creation of a National College for Social Work to provide a strong voice for social work.
● An assessed and supported first year in practice before social work students can become qualified.
● A national pay structure for social work in England.
● A tightening of the regulation of the social work degree.
● A greater partnership between employers and higher education institutions in relation to social work education.
Published in the 27 August 2009 issue of Community Care under the heading ‘In need of a skills upgrade’