The government wants more than 2,000 children’s social workers to be trained on fast-track schemes by 2021.
The plans for a rapid expansion of fast-track children’s social work training were revealed in a contract put out to tender by the Department for Education on Monday. The winning bidder will be required to train at least 300 recruits in 2017, 350 in 2018, and 450 per year between 2018 and 2021. By 2021, the programme should run across seven English regions.
The tender stipulates that the successful bidder will need to provide practice-based learning leading to a postgraduate social work qualification after 14 months and then a newly qualified social worker post for a year, leading to an MA. This is the same as the Frontline fast-track programme, leading many to believe that it will be the successful bidder for the contract and that government is using its open tendering process to secure its funding and expand the programme.
Frontline is currently funded through a combination of government grant money, local authorities, who pay for participants’ salary in the second year, and support from private companies such as Credit Suisse.
It has 121 graduates in its 2015 cohort and is recruiting 180 to start in summer 2016. It operates in the South East, North West and North East. The programme has high profile political support, including from David Cameron.
However, an evaluation of the scheme is not expected till March, leading academics to question the apparent push towards more fast-track entry routes.
Brigid Featherstone from the University of Huddersfield, said that while social work educators were concerned that all training routes should be high quality, there seemed to be “mission creep” of fast-track programmes. Funding for social work education was tilting towards something that “at this stage, is still an experiment” she said.
“It could have significant implications for the funding of other programmes, not least Step-up [the local authority-based route to a postgraduate diploma in 14 months]. It’s difficult for academic departments to plan how their programmes will develop as there’s no clarity over future funding. We seem to be bringing in specialist education without a proper acknowledgment that this is what is happening.”
Speaking as chair of the Joint University Council’s Social Work Education Committee (JUCSWEC), head of social work at Manchester Metropolitan University, Sam Baron said the committee had not received a response to its calls for government to do an impact assessment of the different training routes. The representative group was also concerned that the issuing of the tender represented a move towards more early specialisation:
“We query how such a model, with its substantive focus on social work with children, can enable students to experience social work with adults, which is a requirement from our regulator [the HCPC].”
It is not yet clear how much the successful bidder will receive to deliver the programme as no price has been put on the contract – the document states that funding is subject to the outcome of the government’s Spending Review, due to be published on 25 November. The application deadline for potential providers of the fast-track programme is 18th November.
Changes to the tender
Confusion has surrounded the bidding process after DfE withdrew an initial tender that was posted on 30th September. The DfE refused to answer questions about why the first version was taken down and the fact that it was tendering before funding was confirmed.
Some of the academics’ concerns that the original tender could only be met by Frontline related to the “need” for bidders to demonstrate their previous work in areas such as delivering an intensive work-based approach to learning and attracting those who otherwise would not come into social work. The updated document says they are “free” to do this, “should they wish to do so”.
In response to questions about the removed notice, a spokesperson stated: “We will shortly be inviting tenders for a fast-track social worker programme to follow the Frontline pilot, and will announce the successful bidder in due course.”
Ray Jones, professor of social work at Kingston University, said: “It seems strange [the Department for Education] committed energy to advertise the opportunity and then withdrew it. What I suspect is happening is that behind the scenes conversations are going on with potential preferred providers.”
Other changes to the new document cover how commercially sensitive information will be dealt with. Bidders are now asked to identify it in a separate schedule; a statement that such information may need to be disclosed on the contracts finder website has been removed.
A new clause also allows for the contract to deliver the programme to be extended following future “as yet unknown developments”. The initial document had set out a three year programme, with extension to 2021 possibility; it now sets out the programme should run for five years.
Ray Jones said the expansion of fast-track schemes would mean “disproportionate amounts of funding to this programme and to the students on it, with the larger body of trainees receiving much less advantage and support.”
Instead, he said, the government should be translating some of the positively regarded elements of the Frontline programme such as the close partnerships between employers and teaching agencies and the extended practice placements, into all social work training.