A government-backed fast track scheme is set to train up graduates to be social workers in mental health services, under plans published this week.
Trainees on the two-year ‘Think Ahead’ scheme will get up to 10 weeks of intensive classroom training followed by 12 months mixing ‘on-the-job’ training with further study, after which they will become a qualified social worker. In year two, graduates will hold a reduced caseload in a mental health team while working towards a masters’ degree in social work.
Recommendations for the design of the programme, which has the backing of care minister Norman Lamb, have been set out by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), the think-tank that developed the Frontline fast-track scheme for child protection social work. The IPPR recommends that Think Ahead should have a minimum entry requirement of an upper second class degree as it aims to attract graduates and career switchers. Applicants will also be assessed against various ‘capabilities’ including analytical skills, compassion and resilience.
A detailed programme for Think Ahead will be developed over the next eight months, overseen by a board that includes representation from The College of Social Work, the IPPR said.
Jonathan Clifton, senior research fellow at IPPR, said the scheme was an attempt to “attract the best and brightest into mental health social work”.
“A fast track programme has the potential to provide community mental health teams – the ‘hub’ from which most mental health services are organised within the community – with a cadre of highly trained mental health professionals who are able to lead the integration agenda,” he said.
Proponents of the scheme say it will attract a new tranche of candidates to social work and open up new opportunities to strengthen social work’s role in mental health. However, concerns have been voiced by some social workers that schemes like Think Ahead and Frontline risk turning social work into “specialist silos”.
The IPPR said that it has recommended that Think Ahead trainees work towards a generic social work qualification – not a specialist degree – and pointed out that recruits will undertake a range of placements, including in children and families services.
A recent Department of Health-commissioned review of social work education strongly backed the retention of a single, generic initial social work qualification. The review also said that fast-track routes should be encouraged so long as they met rigorous regulatory requirements. However, it voiced scepticism about the restriction of courses to certain practice areas or user groups – such as children’s services in the case of Frontline – and pointed to the contrasting international trend towards longer, rather than shorter qualifying periods for social workers.
Last month the Health and Care Professions Council, the regulator for social work courses, said Frontline had to provide further proof that it would meet the required standards for social work training. One issue raised by the HCPC inspectors was that they could not determine how the programme would set and assess relevant learning outcomes to ensure recruits gained knowledge of the adult perspective in social work.
Bridget Robb, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers, said the same challenges will apply to Think Ahead.
“BASW has been involved in the development of the IPPR report, but remains concerned at the duplication of structures around social work education. We support the challenges presented by HCPC to the Frontline programme, an equivalent scheme for training children’s social workers, before it can receive the regulator’s support, and we recognise these will apply to Think Ahead as well,” said Robb.
“BASW will work with those behind Think Ahead to see if it can produce a model capable of training high-quality social workers able to support the people who use mental health services. It is particularly important, however, that its implementation doesn’t further diminish the availability of statutory placements for the degree courses on which we will continue to rely for producing the vast majority of social work graduates.”
Jo Cleary, chair of The College of Social Work, said: “There are already many excellent mental health social workers, however, it is very important that the profession continues to attract the very best recruits, bringing both intellectual and emotional intelligence to the undoubted challenges of this work. We need also to be open to new ways of reaching out to people who have the ability to be first class social workers but may not yet be considering the profession as a career choice.”
“The College looks forward to seeing further details about the design and delivery of the ‘Think Ahead’ model set out in this report,” she added.
Speaking to Community Care last night, care minister Lamb said he was confident the scheme would meet regulatory standards.
“The experience of Frontline highlights the importance of early engagement with the regulator to make sure we address issues of this sort early on. I’m very mindful of that. I’ve met with the chief executive of the HCPC to talk about the lessons from Frontline’s experience. I absolutely want to get this right but I don’t think it is beyond us to achieve this,” he said.