By Professor David Croisdale-Appleby
Social work is an extraordinarily complex profession. Social workers have to cope with contradictory and partial information; they have to rely on their knowledge of the lives of vulnerable people and they then have to select interventions which take a balanced view of the risks.
The role of a social worker is about both enabling and protecting individuals. So the task for social work education is to equip practitioners with the theoretical knowledge and practical capability they need to do this highly complex work to the very highest standards.
Last year I was asked by Norman Lamb to look at social work education to make sure that it continues to best serve the profession. In taking on this task I didn’t just want to assess the current situation, I also wanted to set out a vision for the future. In a fast-changing world, we need an education system that supports individuals throughout their career – almost a “cradle to the grave” approach.
My recommendations apply to the complete spectrum of social work education – from the selection of students for qualifying courses and their education in a higher education institution (HEI) and in work-based practice placements, to their formal qualification and protected title as a social worker.
More rigorous student selection
Excellent social work demands high-quality social workers and to achieve this HEI entry selection processes need to be more rigorous and consistent. Entry standards to the profession should be raised from 240 to at least 300 UCAS points (equivalent to three B grades at A-level) for undergraduate, and a first or 2:1 degree for postgraduate students. But as well as raising the academic bar we need to ensure prospective students have the right attributes, such as resilience and the ability to deal with uncertainty and conflict. That’s why I’ve recommend that key organisations – the Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee, the Association of Professors of Social Work and The College of Social Work – should work together to ensure we deliver this rigorous selection procedure.
As well as making sure we attract high-calibre students we need to make sure those high standards continue as newly qualified social workers progress start their professional careers. That’s why I propose that we move to create a licence to practise, without which they would not be authorised to work professionally as a social worker. They would then be subject to the rigorous revalidation of their licence to practise every few years.
But the education process should not end there – we need a new, comprehensive and continuing professional development (CPD) framework to support social workers develop their skills and knowledge. The Assessed and Supported Year in Employment (ASYE) should form the initial entry point for CPD which will be undertaken throughout the career of a social worker in professional practice and this framework should be based on a recognition of the social worker as a practitioner, a professional, and as a social scientist.
The regulation of these education processes and standards needs to be coherent, seamless and rigorous. We should bring together the standards of the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) and the endorsement criteria of The College of Social Work into a new, single regulatory regime in which both the rigour of the regulatory process and the stringency of the levels assessed would be substantially strengthened. HCPC should continue to regulate social work education to these new standards. Alongside this, the internal quality assurance processes of the HEIs should be more consistent.
I also think that there will be a place for innovative educational routes, such as fast-track schemes, in the future of social work education. They should be encouraged but they should set high expectations so that they enhance the overall quality of students at the point of qualification – their focus should be as a quality-enhancer, not a faster provider. Such initiatives should be subject to a rigorous evaluation process in which action standards are set before such alternative routes are given approval and funding.
All this requires funding and investment should be increased in areas such as practice placements, the ASYE programme (in preparation for instigating a licence to practise) and in professional development. The student bursary funding for postgraduates should be maintained but made subject to a means test and undergraduate bursaries should be reduced in numbers and amount, or gradually phased out.
In carrying out this work I have found a very great deal that is good about social work education, indeed some of it is truly world-leading. With the re-visioning presented in this review, we can take this to a new height to create great social workers whose capabilities will impact hugely on the quality of our society.