By Ray Jones, professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London
This is the second of a series of reflections on the state of children’s social work today. This week the focus is on recent and planned developments in social work education, now largely led by non-social workers.
Protected title status
Thirteen years ago, social work received a considerable boost. Until then anyone could call themselves a social worker, including the bigoted driver for a voluntary organisation who regularly used it in letters published in my local paper.
But from 2002 “social worker” in the United Kingdom became a protected title which could only be used by those who were registered as a social worker. Registration was only available for those with an appropriate qualification – now to be at degree level – and only those who demonstrated continuing professional learning and development could continue their registration.
Push on post-qualifying education
There had already been a big push on post-qualifying (PQ) education and learning with PQ and advanced specialist awards introduced, overseen by regional post-qualifying education and training consortia. I was involved in setting up and then chairing the Top South West PQ Consortium, a partnership of employers and educators.
This has largely been the framework for the past ten years, albeit with the demise of regional consortia for PQ. It was enhanced by the 2010 recommendations of the Social Work Task Force with work undertaken by the Social Work Reform Board to specify the competencies and knowledge needed by social workers at different levels of experience and status.
Challenge, confusion and compromise
So far, so good … but this is all now being challenged, confused and compromised. Firstly, the review undertaken by Sir Martin Narey for the then secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, is leading to early – too early, in my view – specialisation for social work students.
This has a number of implications. It forces students to make a career-limiting decision before their social work identity and interests are given the time and opportunity to develop.
Change is happening more quickly for social work with children than other social work career paths in a way that favours and privileges children’s social work – a concern if other areas of social work practice are to be seen as equally valued and important.
A fragmented profession
But most importantly, it fragments the social work profession and its education base and will produce social workers with a limited knowledge. They won’t have the initial professional education that covers the wider territory in which they will operate.
Children feel the impact of having parents who misuse drugs or alcohol, or have acute and enduring mental health issues and other impairments, or where there is domestic violence. Children’s social workers need to know about adults, and adults’ social workers need to know about – and look out for – children.
Education is overly technical and task-focused
Secondly, social workers are in danger of having an education which is overwhelmingly technical and focused on task. Having social workers who are task-competent is important, but so is having social workers who are “head-up”: thinking broadly in their assessments and action planning, driven by social work’s value base. Tightly focused, fast-tracked education and training, with very early exposure to sharp-end high risk social work, creates vulnerability for students and for agencies.
This is not generally deemed appropriate for new social workers in their first assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE), but for a new small cohort of preferred and privileged students, with the enticement that they can quickly move into management roles, it’s considered sensible and acceptable.
The Frontline programme is seen as the way to attract bright, (hopefully emotionally as well as intellectually) intelligent young graduates into social work. But intellectual capacity and knowledge alone are inadequate without practice wisdom, professional identity and confidence built through time and experience.
We should develop foundation degrees
Recruiting intellectually competent students into the intellectually demanding role of social worker – which involves making crucial judgements based on complex but often partial information – is more important than may previously have been recognised.
For those with less intellectual competence and capacity, but who still have a core contribution to make to the care and welfare of others, foundation degrees for entry into social care should become more developed and prevalent.
Social science or social control?
Thirdly, limiting the curriculum so that it focuses on competencies but not values moves social work to being a technical occupation rather than a profession. This is recognised by David Croisdale-Appleby in his more extensive review of social work education than Narey’s.
Croisdale-Appleby persuasively describes social workers as being social scientists as well as practitioners and professionals. Having awareness of, knowledge about, and an eagerness to tackle deprivation (and destitution for increasing numbers of children and adults as a consequence of austerity policies), is a part of social work’s tradition and value base.
Anything else would position social work as an agent of social control rather than of social care and social reform.
Such a re-positioning may be attractive to the government but should not go unchallenged by social workers.
Development is being neglected
Fourthly, the overwhelming focus on fragmenting and fast-tracking initial social work education is leading to the neglect of post-qualifying education and learning and continuing professional development (CPD).
Indeed, what should be developed through post-qualifying education as social workers’ confidence and competence is enhanced, enriched and embedded is now being squeezed into client-group specialised initial education.
There are strengths too
It should not and does not have to be like this. The strengths of recent changes include greater social work practice agency involvement in social work education, social work educators’ ongoing engagement with practice and practice developments, greater clarity about necessary social competencies for social workers and about their knowledge-base, and heightened requirements for those entering social work.
Ray Jones will be a panellist at Question Time during Community Care Live 2015 in May. Social workers will be able to ask our panel of experts their burning questions on policy and practice.
See the full programme here.
But these positive developments should be embedded within a context of a generic initial qualifying degree, then a specialist ASYE, plus a nationally consistent programme of PQ and advanced awards.
Make education part of inspection criteria
It would also be beneficial for the regulators (currently Ofsted for children’s services and the CQC for adults’) to inspect organisations on their contribution to initial and post-qualifying education and development, with education and teaching agency status awarded to employers who commit and perform adequately.
Organisations would give this commitment and seek this status because, in a competitive market, it would be necessary for recruitment and retention. It would also enhance quality of practice and performance.
All social workers work at the children and adults interface
Social work needs to regain control of its education and values base. Some of the fragmentation being created is because social work education is being shaped and changed by those with little understanding of social work.
Social work is not like teaching where you train to teach early years, primary, secondary or further education. All social workers work with children and adults in their family and community contexts and all social workers work at, and need to be alert to, the children and adults interface. Losing this understanding, focus and professional base will lead to problems ahead.
Dr Ray Jones is professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London. A social worker and former director of social services, for two days each week he oversees child protection improvement in areas rated as ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted.
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