Local authorities and NHS trusts will be paid around £7,000 for each student they host from the government-backed Think Ahead fast-track scheme for mental health social work.
The two-year programme has issued an invitation to councils and NHS mental health trusts to become ‘host organisations’ for its trainees. The hosts will commit to giving Think Ahead participants a year-long practice placement overseen by a consultant social worker. At the end of the first year the trainees will qualify with a postgraduate diploma in social work and their host will employ them as a newly qualified social worker on a one-year contract.
Think Ahead hopes to boost social work’s standing in mental health services and attract a new tranche of entrants to the profession. But academics have raised concerns that financial support for students on fast-track schemes is ”far more generous” than that available to other social work students. Employers that take on students from traditional courses are paid £20 per placement day. Students must complete at least 174 placement days, so total placement spending per student is around £3,500.
The £7,000 fee that Think Ahead host organisations will receive for each student is designed to contribute to specific costs. These include a pay top-up for staff appointed to the consultant social worker posts in order to bring their salaries in line with team manager rates and a contribution to the newly qualified social worker salaries for second year trainees.
‘A chance for collaboration’
Ella Joseph, Think Ahead’s chief executive, told Community Care that the programme represented an “exciting opportunity” for employers and frontline social workers.
“We’re going to train our participants in the best evidence-based practice there is and they will join the trust or local authority ready to practice. We will make sure employers not only get the funding but also the support to really make the best of that training experience,” she said.
“The consultant social worker role also offers a CPD opportunity for social workers to be trained in some of the therapeutic approaches that we think have got the strong evidence-base to bring the social perspective to the fore in mental health delivery. So the consultant social workers get to retain a caseload but also work with some really talented people through the programme.”
Think Ahead, which mirrors the Frontline fast-track children’s social work scheme, hopes to attract high-performing graduates and career switchers into mental health social work. Applications will open in September 2015, with the first cohort of training starting in summer 2016. The scheme is supported by care minister Norman Lamb and has been developed with input from The College of Social Work.
In addition to the funding for employers, Think Ahead will also provide a bursary to trainees during the first year, the value of which has yet to be finalised. Frontline trainees receive £19,000 during their first year. Social work students on traditional courses can apply for bursaries of up to £5,262 per year if they are undergraduates and up to £3,762 per year if they are postgraduates. Students on traditional courses will also be liable for tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year.
Fears of ‘two-tier system’
The student funding on offer from fast-track schemes has sparked concerns among leading social work academics that a two-tier social work education system is being created. In a paper on Frontline, the Association of Professors of Social Work raised concerns that the profession is “witnessing a level of inequality in student support and access to resources that is unprecedented”.
Responding to these concerns, Joseph told Community Care: “What I’d say is that we are setting out to attract the very best and the most talented people into the profession. And when I say best, it’s really important to stress that I”m not just talking about academically strongest but people who have the qualities and dedication that mental health social workers need – everything from resilience, to self-reflection, to compassion and empathy to engage with people from all walks of life.
“We’re setting out to attract the highest calibre people to the sector and part of our approach to doing that is to offer them a bursary while they are going through this very intensive training in their first year. I feel that there’s a huge amount of value to be gained from this model. But this is a new programme and it’s something we’ll be assessing as we go along.”
How Think Ahead will work
Stage 1: Pre-placement programme
Participants will spend three to six weeks getting classroom-based training, including a ‘comprehensive introduction’ to fundamental concepts of social work theory. The programme’s curriculum will be designed with a partner university to be announced next month.
Stage 2: Year-long practice placement
Trainees will begin a year-long practice placement in a host organisation complemented by additional teaching days. The placement will mainly be based in integrated community mental health services but additional placement days in other settings – including potentially children’s social work – will also be required.
The placement will take place in a Think Ahead unit of four participants overseen by a consultant social worker. The consultant social worker will supervise the trainees and share his or her caseload with them (including the potential to co-work cases with them). The unit may span cases taken on by the consultant social worker from across different community mental health services.
At the end of the year, successful participants will get a postgraduate diploma in social work enabling them to practise as a newly qualified social worker.
Stage 3: The ASYE
The trainees will be employed on a fixed-term one year contract as newly qualified social workers at their host organisations. They will be required to undertake the Assessed and Supported Year in Employment during this time and also complete a Master’s degree in social work. At the end of the second year the participant can seek employment opportunities across social work.