By Martin Narey
The Social Workers Assembly wrote to Community Care last week to argue that my assertion of the need for separate directions for social work education would “contribute to a breakdown of the purpose, skills and values that underpin our profession”.
But at least we agree about something fundamental: the Assembly believe that a two year degree “is not sufficient to assure quality or to ensure trainees receive the breadth of experience that social workers require”.
A longer degree is not a possibility that I reject. But I’m not sure it would help to attract better candidates and the additional costs of a four-year period of study would further discourage some from pursuing a social work career. So the question has to be, can we produce high quality children and family social workers in two years through specialised degrees?
The SWA seem to believe that the notion of a specialised degree is something which I have invented and which carries no support. They express disappointment that “the current policy agenda appears to be discounting the experience and expertise of many in order to promote the views of a few”. Some academics have made similar claims.
Not so. First of all we have current evidence from Step Up and Frontline. Both are producing first class social workers. Of course I know that Frontline has yet to be assessed. But I must have spoken to dozens of directors of children’s services, some initially unenthusiastic about Frontline, but who have consistently high praise for the young people entering the profession from that route. Wishing that Frontline won’t be a success isn’t a strategy that’s going to work.
And historical evidence is that specialised educational routes can be effective. Before the introduction of the degree in 2003, many diploma students were allowed a degree of specialisation. Ironically, when that option was removed, concerns were expressed that generic degree graduates would not have sufficient knowledge and experience for the challenges of children’s social work. Those concerns have been echoed in the intervening twelve years.
The General Social Care Council (GSCC) examined the issue in 2008, and concluded that children’s issues were being adequately covered in the generic degree. But they admitted that: “the sample in the research is small and it is interesting that there is other evidence coming forward that suggests that the depth of understanding of new social workers is variable”.
A year later, in his 2009 report, Lord Laming challenged the GSCC view and argued: “At the heart of the difficulty in preparing social workers through a degree course is that, without an opportunity to specialise in child protection work or even in children’s social work, students are covering too much ground without learning the skills and knowledge to support any particular client group well”.
He concluded that no graduate should enter frontline social work without having completed a specialised degree. And when the Education Select Committee looked at this in 2009, the chief executive of the Children’s Workforce Development Council and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services both argued there was a strong justification for specialisation in initial training.
Evidence from other professions
Evidence from other professions is that there is nothing to fear from separate routes to qualification. Nurses qualify through one of four specialist routes—adults, children, learning disability or mental health—but all courses include a common foundation. Nobody thinks of nursing as other than a single profession and there’s no reason why specialised preparation should challenge the notion of social work as a single profession. It might be however a profession in which better-prepared practitioners enjoy greater status.
Sir Martin Narey is a government advisor and former adoption tsar who wrote a review of the education of children’s social workers.