Universities in England should offer specialist children’s social work degrees and ramp up efforts to improve the calibre of the students they accept onto courses, a report by Martin Narey recommends today.
Narey’s review of social work education in England, which was commissioned by education secretary Michael Gove, finds standards of initial training vary across the country, with some graduates coming off courses “barely literate”.
While he stresses that some excellent courses do exists, Narey says there is no clear guidance on what a newly qualified children’s social worker should know or be able to do and there is still a question mark over the quality of students entering the undergraduate degree. As a result, employers do not have confidence in newly qualified social workers.
In all, Narey makes 18 recommendations for improving qualifying social work education, which he says “will significantly increase the confidence we can have in the initial training, and therefore the calibre, of newly qualified social workers” if properly implemented.
These include allowing undergraduate students to specialise in children’s social work within their degree and giving them the option to complete all of their practice placements in a children’s setting.
Narey suggests commissioning the chief social worker for children in England, Isabelle Trowler, to produce a single definition of what a newly qualified children’s social worker needs to understand.
He also concludes that the Health and Care Professions Council’s (HCPC) approval process and The College of Social Work’s (TCSW) endorsement scheme for social work degrees are both inadequate and need to be replaced by a “single and robust system of inspection”.
He recommends that TCSW should become the single inspector of social work training courses and take on a full regulatory role.
Outlining what is expected of newly qualified children’s social workers
Narey notes in his review that the General Medical Council (GMC) outlines in a single, nine-page document the things it expects newly qualified doctors to understand; however, there is no equivalent in social work.
Instead, social work courses are faced with five documents: the HCPC’s standards of proficiency, standards of education and training and standards of conduct, performance and ethics; TCSW’s professional capabilities framework; and the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education’s benchmark statements for social work.
“Despite (or because of) the hundreds of pages to be found in this plethora of guidance documents for universities, there is very little clarity about what a newly qualified social worker needs to know,” says Narey.
He therefore recommends that Trowler lead the way in drafting a single document, offering a GMC-style summary of what a newly qualified children’s social worker needs to understand. This should be underpinned by a clearer definition of the role of children’s social workers.
Continuing efforts to improve the calibre of students
One academic interviewed by Narey admitted that some social workers graduating from other institutions were “barely literate”.
Narey goes on to conclude that entry to the social work degree is still too easy. He notes the “startling absence” of any serious workforce planning and the appearance that some higher education institutions (HEIs) take on social work students for their fees or because it improves their performance when it comes to student diversity.
Concern about the calibre of new social workers focuses largely on those coming off the bachelor’s degree. Some employers told Narey they keep a list of universities where they believe standards to be poor. Meanwhile, more and more good universities are closing their undergraduate social work courses for fear of reputational damage.
There has been a recent attempt to increase the minimum requirements for entry to undergraduate social work courses to 240 UCAS points, equivalent to three Cs at A level, yet Narey has been told that many HEIs “routinely relax” this requirement as the annual recruitment cycle closes and vacancies on courses need to be filled.
He recommends that entry to degree courses should be properly audited to ensure only the best candidates secure places. Those taking the A level route must have 240 UCAS points and HEIs should review the quality of Access courses and other alternatives to A level entry.
In addition, Narey suggests that universities should only receive Education Support Grant funding for those students whose practice placement experience is satisfactory and at least one of their placements has taken place in a statutory setting.
Criticisms of the inspection process
Social work courses in England are subject to various forms of inspection and audit by a number of different bodies, yet employers and prospective students still find it difficult to distinguish good universities from bad, says Narey.
The HCPC formally approves social work courses in England, while TCSW operates a complementary endorsement scheme.
However, Narey notes that the HCPC has yet to decline or withdraw approval for a course – and neither did its predecessor, the General Social Care Council.
Furthermore, both the HCPC’s approval process and TCSW’s scheme rely heavily on paperwork, rather than direct observation. “Essentially, we have two weak inspection processes instead of single robust one,” says Narey.
He recommends that TCSW “radically increase the rigour of the endorsement scheme” and make it compulsory for all institutions offering the social work degree.
Going a step further, he says the Department for Education should consider whether there is too much duplication between the HCPC and TCSW – and, if so, whether the HCPC’s responsibility for regulating social workers in England should be transferred to TCSW.
A children’s social work degree
Narey argues strongly in favour of developing the option of a more specialist, children’s social work undergraduate degree. The course would be generic for the first year, but students could specialise in the second and third.
He also recommends relaxing the practice education requirements so that students could choose to spend all 170 days in a children’s setting.
In Narey’s view, students usually already know what they would like to specialise in by the time they start the course, or decide early on.
He adds that teaching time on social work degrees is “severely limited”, so it would be more efficient to encourage universities to develop specialist courses. “The alternative is that we will continue to produce some graduates whose knowledge of key issues is inadequate.”
However, he is keen to point out that he does not recommend splitting the social work profession. “Those following a specialised course of study to equip them to work with children or adults would still qualify as a social worker.”
Narey’s report, Making the education of social workers consistently effective, is based on conversations with a wide cross section of people in social work education and employment, as well as students and social workers.