Every now and then an unsuspecting piece of content shoots an arrow, with laser like precision, into the heart of a social work issue.
Last week it was a blog from an academic who resigned after their university allowed social work students to graduate, even when they had been found guilty of plagiarising (in one case on two occasions).
It has had more than 23,000 views, 75 comments and sparked major debates across Facebook and Twitter.
Plagiarism: academic issue or a sign of a poor social worker?
Some have described it as illustrative of the gaping divide between the ivory towers of academia and the black reality of the coalface.
One commentator, Alex Boorman, pointed out: “As a busy professional social worker working in a hospital, I can attest that a significant proportion of my and my colleague’s reports tend to be cut and pasted. Are we negligent in our duties? Let’s get real, university is university, and real life and practice are different in many ways.”
Interesting to consider whether plagiarism is an academic or professional matter. Of course it can be either and both.
— Aidan Worsley (@AidanWorsley) August 18, 2015
Others pointed out copying and pasting should not be acceptable in social work either.
In reply, Charles Huddleston wrote: “Searching through an existing report and cutting and pasting saves no time, encourages poor to terrible practice and is not about the real world so much as sloppy social work. The sort that The Sun loves and the rest of us loathe.”
Some pointed out that in fact copying and pasting reports can be a breach of professional standards. The HCPC sanctioned two social workers last year for exactly that.
Many felt plagiarism was a warning sign about a person’s suitability for social work as a profession, showing a tendency for dishonesty and poor ethics. Sabine Ebert-Forbes said: “In my view if anyone only copies and pastes assignments and plagiarises content then I have questions about their integrity and honesty”.
This belief is backed up in guidance for universities and employers from the Higher Education Academy, The Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee and The College of Social Work.
But others argue academic skills are no indicator of social work skills.
Brigid Featherstone, Professor of Social Work at the Open University and the College of Social Work faculty lead for children’s social work, says plagiarism has become an increasing issue with the expanded use of the internet by students and the fact so many now work as well as study.
Featherstone believes it needs an audit by social work university departments to determine how big the problem is and how deep the level of wrong-doing goes.
“Plagiarism is a very serious issue. However, I would say that not all plagiarism is the same. There are degrees of seriousness and some students do it simply by accident or because no matter how much you try to drill it into them they still do not reference properly.”
The author of the blog, who chose to remain anonymous for fear of not being able to get another job in social work education, told Community Care the concern about the plagiarism is because it often suggests a student is not managing their workload.
“They then take risks by cutting corners and looking for quick and easy solutions. As social work educators it is these related issues we would want to talk to the student about. In other words, the plagiarism reveals a much bigger professional problem.”
Is there a problem with university standards?
But perhaps the greatest response was to the behaviour of the university in not only allowing the student to pass, but also in allowing students onto the course with less than the three C grades (at A-level), which is usually demanded.
Social worker and former practice educator, Tracy, commented on the story: “I too have experienced the conflict between maintaining sound, ethical practice and the market forces that now exist in universities. Academic institutions are afraid of failing a student – even those who exhibit poor standards and questionable behaviour. Standards and expectations are lower than they used to be – and I’ve seen some of the results of this in the work-place and upon clients. It’s not being pedantic at all.”
Another comment, from Leigh, said: “I have just qualified and worked hard to do so. However, the number of students in my year who failed modules was astonishing and somehow they qualify just like me.”
Yet another commentator, Annie, said: “I sat on a university selection panel for the social work course and thought ‘never again’. There was no selecting. The uni gave everyone a place, bar one, and only because I really dug my heels in after hearing some questionable value judgements in the group discussion.”
Ray Jones, professor of social work at Kingston University, believes there is a serious need to improve the intellectual requirements of students being accepted on university degrees.
“Yes, the emotional capacity of social work students is important, but we cannot shy away from the issue that social work requires a high level of intellectual capacity to be able to make judgements, based on extremely complex information. We do ourselves no favours at all if we ignore that.”
This is well-trodden ground between academics and directors of children’s services with it reaching a head last year after Alan Wood, former president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), described universities as churning out “crap” social workers.
However, the ADCS appears to have moderated its views somewhat since then. Rachel Wardell, chair of the ADCS workforce committee, says there is no sound evidence the problem has increased in latter years.
Indeed, she is keen to widen the debate out. “We always focus on the quality of graduates and newly qualified social workers, yet the profession is just as damaged by good and experienced social workers leaving. That is just as much about us as employers being able to retain social workers and being able to work in partnership with Higher Education Institutions to improve standards across that continuum.”
Is there a hidden agenda?
When the blog was published, chief social worker for children’s social work, Isabelle Trowler, responded swiftly on Twitter.
Sir Martin Narey, the author of a Department for Education commissioned report on social work education, was also quick to point out the blog backed up many of his own conclusions about some of the issues with universities.
He told Community Care: “I have no doubt it happened when universities expanded very fast. That pressure means in some areas social work degrees are too easy to get onto and then too difficult to fail.”
But many academics have expressed private fears that his and Trowler’s instant taking-up of the story is a sign they are looking for “sticks to beat universities with”.
There is particular sensitivity to this in light of strong government support for fast-track, work-based routes into social work, such as Frontline and Step Up to Social Work – now joined by Firstline, for managers, and Think Ahead for mental health social workers.
Narey is adamant there is no hidden agenda.
“The only agenda here is to make sure we get the right people on degrees and they are being taught the things they will need in order to not just survive, but thrive in this profession and do a difficult job very well.
“I know there is anxiety about Frontline, but in actual fact it is being delivered by a university and, I would argue, being delivered brilliantly by the University of Bedfordshire.”
Narey warns that universities cannot afford to bury their heads in the sand and must respond to concerns.
“At the moment we have no way of really sorting the good universities from the rest and then the reputation of those very good universities becomes damaged.”
He dismisses the Health and Care Professions Council, the social work regulator in charge of approving social work courses, as part of the problem.
— Sir Martin Narey (@martinnarey) August 18, 2015
He recounts observing a joint visit to a university by the HCPC and the College of Social Work as part of their quality endorsement scheme.
“The HCPC gave immediate approval to the course on the day. The College was more cautious and in fact ended up failing to endorse that particular course.”
Quality assurance of social work education
A HCPC spokesperson says they listen to all concerns anyone expresses about approved programmes.
“They can report it to the HCPC’s Education Department. This may result in an education programme being reviewed. On average, less than 1% of approved programmes are subject to a concern investigation each year.”
However, another academic, who also preferred not to be named, points out the HCPC’s standards are designed to be “threshold” standards (ie good enough). The College endorsement scheme, now in danger of being lost, was about boosting standards.
“For example, there is nothing in the HCPC standards about how long practice placements should be, entry tariffs or the readiness to practice of graduates,” the academic states.
It is perhaps interesting to note that Frontline is a HCPC approved programme but did not apply to be endorsed by the College of Social Work.
What will happen to the College’s endorsement scheme, and the attempt to improve standards on academic courses, remains in doubt.
The endorsement of university courses does not form part of the packages the Department for Health is putting out to tender; nor was it part of the package of functions the British Association of Social Workers was allowed to bid on.
Instead, the endorsement framework will be temporarily hosted by the Greater Lancashire Social Work Education and Training Network, a regional partnership of employers and Higher Education Institutions. However, the network will not carry out endorsements.
Government decisions needed
College chief executive Annie Hudson says this is because the future of the endorsement framework largely depends on government decisions on the two reports on social work education, one by Sir Martin Narey and the other by Professor David Croisedale-Appleby, both published early last year.
“The two reports have made different recommendations in terms of the approval process for qualifying training. I suspect that issue has become more, not less, complicated,” Hudson says.
“Until we have clarity from central government about their intentions in this area it was felt to be premature to say it could be part of a bundle to seek expressions of interest on.”
A Department of Health spokesperson, responding to a question about their progress on the Croisedale-Appleby report, says they have made progress on improving the quality of social work education. They cite the Knowledge and Skills Statement, a system of moderation and validation of decisions made on the Assessed and Supported Year in Employment and the approval, with the Department for Education, of the first four early adopter sites for teaching partnerships. An external validation system for ASYE decisions also remains a priority.
Wardell says what is clear is that it has been a busy year for social work education so far and the signs are this is likely to continue in the short-term at least.