The final report of the Social Work Task Force has challenged the social work training sector to produce a “consistently high quality” of initial education and continuing professional development across England within the next 10 years.
Universities and employers are under no illusions about the challenges posed by the recommendations, which require them to forge stronger partnerships to ensure social workers are fully prepared for frontline practice and “supported to improve their skills and specialisms throughout their careers”.
To strengthen initial training, entry requirements will be revised to drive up the calibre of students, including a written test and a new interview structure.
The content and delivery of the social work degree will be overhauled, while the length of practice placements will be reduced from 200 days to 130, which should be carried out with two different service user groups and in one statutory setting.
A supported and assessed first year in employment will act as the final stage in obtaining a licence to practise, which will replace the current registration system.
Requirements for renewal will be strengthened and more closely linked to a framework for continuing professional development, which will include a new practice-based masters degree qualification.
Although some experts are raising questions about implementation, many have heaped praise on the final report, with one representative body, the Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee (Jucswec), hailing it as a “renaissance” moment for the profession.
Hilary Tompsett, chair of Jucswec, which represents more than 60 universities providing the social work degree, welcomed the new probationary year for graduates.
“Higher education institutions (HEIs) would see the assessed year as a really excellent way of building on joint work on support programmes for newly qualified social workers and post-qualifying year in employment and consolidation models, which HEIs and employers have already started.”
Tompsett said the taskforce made the right decision in retaining the generic degree, allowing graduates to specialise in children’s or adult services during the probationary year.
But in a joint statement responding to the report, Jackie Rafferty, director of the Higher Education Academy Subject Centre for Social Work and Social Policy, and Sue White, chair of the Association of Professors of Social Work and a taskforce member, said this raised further questions.
“If a student gets their social work degree and successfully completes their assessed year in a children and families agency, will they be able to transfer to later work within adult social care services or vice versa?
“How will the university sector make resources stretch further to work with employers to assess the probationary year in employment if there is no additional funding?”
The concerns about resources were echoed by Roger Smith, professor of social work research at De Montfort University in Leicester.
“If we’re thinking about the quality of teaching, and reducing the number of placement days, those days will have to be filled with something else by the university and that will cost money.”
Rafferty and White said social work academic staff teams were already under pressure because of cuts in higher education funding.
However, they suggested employers would face one of the biggest challenges: to embed a learning culture in organisations similar to that found in medicine, nursing and teaching.
Jill Manthorpe, director of the Social Care Workforce Research Unit at King’s College London, said more work was needed on the development of the CPD framework.
“It will be important that this really extends social workers’ analytical skills and reflection and not be just reliant on ‘top up modules’ or portfolios.”
One solution, according to Andrea Rowe, chief executive of Skills for Care, is to strengthen existing regional networks of employers and HEIs to facilitate joint working such as developing post-qualifying qualifications.
“We have argued for a long time that it is essential to recognise that learning and development is essential across a whole career,” she said.
The issue of resources may yet be addressed in the government’s implementation plan, which is expected early next year, but Rafferty and White are clear that delivering high training standards across the board will not be a short-term fix.
“It will require a sustained collaborative effort by stakeholders over a number of years.”