‘In case you missed it, social work education in England has just gone through a comprehensive change’

The College of Social Work’s endorsement programme for social work educators has revealed many examples of excellent practice, says Professor Aidan Worsley, chair of the scheme’s ratification panel


So much happens so quickly in the political world of social work that it’s easy to let significant milestones slip by unnoticed. In case you missed it, qualifying social work education in England has just gone through a comprehensive series of changes and, in September 2013, recruited its first students to the new degree programmes.

Many readers will remember the Social Work Reform Board chaired by Dame Moira Gibb. The reform board pulled together representatives from the entire sector – employers, academics, practitioners, service users, professional bodies and unions – and enjoyed significant ministerial support. Its work, together with the Munro Review, led to the establishment of The College of Social Work, two new chief social workers, and the assessed and supported year in employment.

The reform board also developed a whole range of recommendations about reforming qualifying social work education, which included:

  • Applying the Professional Capabilities Framework (PCF) at differing stages of admission, first and final placement as a way of assessing students
  • Assessing students’ readiness for direct practice using the PCF
  • The introduction of 30 days of focused social work skills development with practitioners and service users
  • Tougher admissions requirements
  • New practice educator professional standards and a new placement structure
  • Stronger partnership arrangements with employers and strategic workforce planning expectations

However, another change in this period was the move from the General Social Care Council to the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC). What became immediately apparent was that the HCPC, despite having a legal mandate for approving courses, would not have any role in ensuring the reform agenda was met. Its generic standards apply to all professions, but require only a “good enough” standard of evidence to meet them.

In response to this, the college developed a new quality assurance or endorsement process. The college said good enough wasn’t good enough: and in February 2013, began to visit the qualifying programmes that were validating their new provision in line with the reform board’s recommendations.

The college recruited just under 50 reviewers from a diverse range of backgrounds, around half from academia, a quarter with experience as servicer users or carers and the remainder practitioners. They were trained and given a range of criteria against which to assess new programmes. They reported their recommendations to a national ratification panel, which I chair.

Some early findings about the endorsement process

Our annual report, which is published today, notes that 28 reviews were conducted in 2012/13 – 21 of them in conjunction with the HCPC’s approval visits. A further seven were visits for endorsement only, requested by universities eager to gain endorsement ahead of HCPC approval.

The panel accepted 39% of these 28 cases for endorsement. This means 61% were not initially endorsed and were asked to provide further information or develop policy and practice in certain areas to assure or ensure compliance with various elements of the reform agenda within a short timeframe.

To date, of those universities and colleges that applied for endorsement in 2012/13, 25 universities and colleges have had all of their programmes endorsed – 52 programmes in total. At one university, only one of its two programmes was endorsed. At two universities, none of their programmes were endorsed. As programmes are endorsed, they appear on the college’s website. The current position, following the recent October panel, is that we have endorsed 55 different programmes at 27 universities and colleges; two of those programmes are from this year’s activity.

Setting a new bar

So what does this all mean? Well, it suggests the higher education sector is fully engaged with the reform agenda and has almost unanimously bought into the endorsement process despite it being voluntary and additional to the HCPC process.

It is also clear that universities have responded positively to the challenges of upgrading their provision and the majority appear able to achieve these new higher standards. There are many examples of excellent social work education practice, which we intend to share around the sector in the coming year. Finally, it also suggests that the provision out there is not just of a “good enough” standard – it has clearly moved beyond that and the college has done well to set a new bar.

It is, of course, too early to tell what eventual impact these changes will have, with them only being in place a matter of weeks. The proof of the pudding will only really be known when the graduates from the class of 2015 and 2016 emerge. But the early signs are very encouraging. Given that two separate government reviews are looking at qualifying social work education, we must encourage them to build on – and acknowledge – these successes.

Aidan Worsley is dean of social work for the University of Central Lancashire

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