Councils failing to offer quality social work placements should be ‘held to account’, says think-tank

Employers must address shortage of quality social work placements that is damaging graduates’ employment prospects, says think-tank co-founded by education secretary Michael Gove.

Councils that fail to offer a suitable number or quality of statutory placements to social work students should be “held to account” and forced to work with a high-performing partner local authority until standards have improved, a right-leaning think-tank has said.

A shortage of quality social work placements for trainees is contributing to employers’ reluctance to take on newly qualified social workers (NQSWs) according to a report by Policy Exchange, a think-tank co-founded by Michael Gove and said to be a favourite policy unit of David Cameron.

The wide-ranging review of social work training and recruitment also controversially urges the government to merge the Step Up to Social Work and Frontline fast-track training schemes into one model. The merged scheme should replace Frontline’s focus on selecting recruits on the basis of “academic performance” with one on “finding the most effective social workers”, the report said.

“The effect in the long-term may mean that the typical fast-track intake is weighted towards career-switchers or those with ambitions to work in social work, but a desire to go through a more fast-tracked system, rather than high-calibre graduates,” the report states. “This would not be undesirable insofar as it selected those who were most likely to be effective social workers.”

The review, based on an analysis of existing research, feedback from current and former social workers and in-depth interviews with over 20 frontline staff and managers, makes a series of recommendations to reform social work placements. These include:

  • Local authorities should be forced to report their performance on how many “quality” placements they provide.
  • Councils should boost the value of voluntary sector placements by working with charities to provide statutory tasks, which can be carried out by supervised students.
  • The government and universities should ease local authority concerns about financing placements by paying student placement fees up-front rather than at the end of placements.
  • Local authorities delivering high quality placements should be awarded teaching organisation status, akin to the teaching hospital model used in the medical profession.
  • Councils should establish “student units” offering practice placements. The units should be staffed by newly-created practice educator roles – a job which would allow more senior social workers to progress their careers without leaving the frontline.

Data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act as part of the research revealed that 13 councils had 50 or more social work vacancies, while two local authorities had over 200 vacancies (read Community Care’s latest vacancy rate data here).

Guy Miscampbell, the report’s author, said: “A shortage of experienced social workers could have potentially tragic implications, especially for vulnerable children.”

Bridget Robb, interim chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers, said that any “alleged crisis” in social work was down to spending cuts and “a lack of appreciation” among ministers of the challenges faced by social workers. 
“Local authorities are choosing not to recruit newly qualified social workers because overstretched departments have little capacity to properly support and bring on new team members. While the report identifies many vacancies nationally this does not translate into available jobs, as there is no money to replace staff when they leave or retire,” said Robb.
“We are lucky that so many people are inspired to become social workers, but this initial enthusiasm is often crushed by the overwhelming demands of the job,” she added.

Jo Cleary, chair of The College of Social work, said the Policy Exchange report “helpfully” built on the work of the Social Work Reform Board and Munro Review.

“The College is actively working with the whole sector on the implementation of the reforms identified in this report. We are developing criteria to provide a teaching organisation endorsement scheme and we have already rolled out an endorsement scheme for qualifying education programmes,” said Cleary.
Other notable recommendations in the report include the fact that the government should claw-back the social work bursary from graduates who do not take up a position as a social worker, or related role, for a “given period, for instance three years”. The Department of Health should also consider developing a version of the Hackney model for adult services.

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