Government funding for students on generic social work courses is falling, figures show.
Investment in bursaries and placement fees for trainees on university-run social work degrees dropped from £115m in 2012-13 to £81m in 2014-15 – a cut of 30%.
Most of the cut was in bursary funding, which dropped from £84.4m to £59.2m. Hundreds of students have been denied the support since the government limited bursary numbers to 4,100 new students per year from April 2013 to cut the bill. It is now considering abolishing the grants.
The rest of the reduction was in the education support grant (ESG), which provides funding for student placements. This funding is mostly dictated by student numbers, but the government cut fees for voluntary sector placements and skills development days in 2014. The decision was made despite a Department of Health-commissioned review of social work education having recommended increasing ESG investment.
Community Care obtained the figures from the NHS Business Services Authority, which issues the funding on behalf of the government.
This funding supports students on undergraduate and postgraduate social work degrees. It has been reduced at a time when government investment in fast-track training schemes specialising in children’s social work has risen.
Ministers are impressed by the fast-track programmes and have concerns social work degrees are producing too many poor quality trainees.
Social work leaders and academics claim the government is creating a two-tier education system that favours fast-track schemes.
The two fast-track schemes specialising in children’s social work, Frontline and Step up to Social Work, received £35m from the government between 2010 and 2015. The Department for Education will invest £100m on the courses over the next four years. They will produce a quarter of new children’s social workers by 2018.
The Department of Health has so-far committed £1.6m to Think Ahead, a fast-track programme specialising in mental health social work training. The course will start this July and this week revealed it has received more than 2,000 applications for its 100 places.
Frontline and Think Ahead target graduates from top universities. Both are inspired by the Teach First programme and funded through a combination of government funding and investment from private and voluntary sector backers.
More than 100 social workers have graduated from Frontline and hundreds more will train this year. Ministers have described the programme as “exemplary” and it has been supported by Labour.
An independent evaluation on Frontline will be published later this year.
An evaluation of Step up to Social Work said the course produced a “significant group of highly capable and committed” trainees. However, it also warned the course “lacked the diversity evident across other social work qualifying programmes, particularly with regard to ethnicity”.
Different support arrangements
The support for students on different training routes differs. Frontline and Think Ahead students pay no tuition fees. They get training grants of between £16,000 and £22,000 for their first year and a newly qualified social worker salary in their second year. Step Up to Social Work trainees receive £19,833 towards their living costs.
Students on university-run social work courses can access bursaries worth up to £5,262.50 for undergraduates or £3,762 for postgraduates. They pay tuition fees, usually £9,000 a year for undergraduates and around £6,500 for postgraduates.
‘An inbuilt inequality’
Bridget Robb, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers, told Community Care there was an “inbuilt inequality” in the system.
“All the rhetoric is about the importance of students being prepared properly for the workplace, yet the funding to make that possible for university students is being cut.
“It’s very different for Frontline and Think Ahead. Those students get a wage. They get preferential access to workplace experience. Their courses have access to other funds beyond what the government can afford to provide.
“There are aspects of Frontline that are really innovative. But it’s very early days to know the outcomes from these programmes. Frontline does have a place, and Think Ahead will have a place, in the spectrum of training available but we need universities too. It’s not right that one is being set up at the expense of the other.”
Di Bailey and Brigid Featherstone, co-presidents of the Association of Professors of Social Work, questioned how cuts to bursaries and placement fees fitted with the government’s desire to build a high-calibre social work workforce.
In a joint statement they said: “Indeed, given the substantial resources being allocated to fast-track programmes, there may be considerable risks in terms of recruitment and retention attached to what is rapidly becoming a very unequal two-tier system of social work education.
“An impact assessment of key policy changes in the delivery of social work education is urgently needed and we would welcome the opportunity to work with the government and key stakeholders on this.”
Samantha Baron, chair of the Joint University Committee Social Work Education Committee (JUCSWEC), echoed that call, adding: “The continued reduction of bursaries and the daily placement fee, has put unfair and unequal pressure upon undergraduate & postgraduate social work programmes
“Through the development and expansion of fast-track programmes we are by implication, developing a two tier system for qualifying training, one which does not exist outside of England.”
The Department of Health, the lead government department for social work education, has been approached for a response.