‘Social work is a caring profession – let’s welcome fast-track students with open arms’

We should scrutinise government policy but support all social work trainees, regardless of the route they choose, writes Social Work Tutor

Recently the government announced the Frontline fast-track social work training scheme is to be rolled out across the country. By 2018, one in four new children’s social workers will be trained on Frontline or Step Up to Social Work – another government-backed graduate programme.

I am happy to see this government focus on social work and welcome the prospect of an energised and motivated new wave of professionals. Yet I’m concerned about the battle lines that are beginning to form between two seemingly opposing camps on this matter.

On one side you have the revolutionists who seek to innovate and shake up a profession that is in its final throes. On the other you have the evolutionists who wish for change to come from within the profession. A summary of some of the main arguments in this debate can be read here.

Validity and passion on both sides

I sit somewhere in between both camps, stranded in no man’s land. I can see the validity and passion in both sides of this looming war.

Josh MacAlister, Frontline’s chief executive, comes across as a man of great integrity and purpose; providing a clear vision for saving a profession that is haemorrhaging staff.

MacAlister has received criticism from some for not being a trained social worker (he’s a former teacher). I feel it’s somewhat unfair and insular to think that those from outside social work are incapable of the forward-thinking approach that is evidently needed to address the problems we face. Further to this MacAlister has managed to put our profession back in the national spotlight and attracted many influential figures to his cause.

On the other hand, the narrative around Frontline makes it appear inherently elitist: the high academic achievement required excluding those that are not as capable of – or haven’t had the same opportunities to undertake – traditional intellectual studying.

There are also concerns about the gap in incentives offered to fast-track trainees compared to other courses. For example, Frontline students are paid a bursary worth the equivalent to a £19,000 a year salary and their tuition fee costs are covered.

Some students entering fast-track routes have said they could not have afforded to train as social workers without such financial backing.

To those who endured the college access course route, followed by three years of juggling family commitments with the demands of a degree, comments of this sort will be met with little sympathy. Instead, they tend to be reflected back with the argument that those entering fast-track schemes are not as earnest as those who suffered financial hardship to enter the profession.

A point of agreement

Regardless of which camp you find yourself in, there is one thing we should all agree on: those entering social work via the fast-track route should not be castigated for this choice.

Isabelle Trowler, the chief social worker for children and families, Tweeted her view that “the vicious, empty headed diatribe against those wanting to join a great profession” must end.

I fear Isabelle’s choice of words risks further division, the counter-argument being that using ‘diatribe’ without specifying examples is an easy way to also dismiss legitimate scrutiny. However, there is a valid point here. We, as a profession, should be welcoming of all who seek to become social workers, regardless of their journey to this point.

Although I’ve personally never encountered any hateful diatribe or viciousness against those training via a fast-track route, I often hear of two main lines of criticism: the aforementioned monetary incentive and the notion candidates lack the life experience needed to be a social worker.

Hold government to account

While I can see a certain sense of skewed logic behind both themes, I feel they are unfair and unjustly blame the individual; taking away the validity of an argument against the system.

On the monetary issues, I doubt anybody would choose a traditional academic route over a fast-track training pathway when given the option of both. Also, if somebody is set on becoming a child protection social worker, then Frontline offers a specialism they may find more difficult to get at university. Remember, the lack of statutory placements with children’s teams has been a common criticism of the traditional university route.

We must also consider that, whether it is palatable for our noble profession to accept or not, personal financial gain remains a motivator for many within our career. It would seem hypocritical if those choosing to become locum workers, or accepting golden hellos and relocation packages from local authorities, were to criticise fast-track trainees for their own financial choices.

Considering the oft-stated opinion that social workers must have ‘life experience’ to be effective in their roles, I again worry that this is short-sighted in nature.

Social work is a broad church and we can end up working with any individual who requires support. This universal scope to our practice means our workforce should be equally populated with those from all areas of society.

We cannot be looking to devalue younger people who have entered the profession via an unrelated degree because of their previous life choices. Were we to do this, then it would surely bring into question the empathy and compassion that form the foundation of our core professional values.

So by all means criticise the systems that underpin the training of our workforce. Hold the government to account on its policies and direction. But let’s not criticise any individual who has chosen one of these new paths into social work. They are not to blame for the issues we face and they are not accountable for the systematic problems that shackle our practice.

Instead, they are people who have chosen to join a profession that they are openly told is one of the hardest in the country; going through rigorous assessments and an intense training process to qualify. Regardless of the personal choices and incentives that have brought them here, fast-track students must be welcomed with open arms; after all, we are a caring profession.

The author is a child protection social worker (@socialworktutor)

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9 Responses to ‘Social work is a caring profession – let’s welcome fast-track students with open arms’

  1. Brid Featherstone February 8, 2016 at 5:24 pm #

    I have met a number of Frontline graduates now and really enjoyed talking to them about the issues involved in child protection policy and practice. I have never criticised or indeed heard anyone criticise individual graduates at all. The criticisms raised have all concerned systemic issues.

    One of the key concerns for me is that we are spending a lot of money on schemes that may not help with retention in a climate of financial challenge generally. Another concern has been the promotion of a narrative that explicitly constructs graduates from conventional routes as inferior and this is reinforced by the disparities in funding and resourcing. This does not seem helpful in terms of raising and maintaining morale across the sector and is at odds with a frequently expressed view from members of the government that the profession needs and deserves more respect.

    I also worry that we are rolling out a range of often expensive initiatives without any apparent attention to future workforce needs and in the absence of an impact assessment.

    Respectful dialogue on these and a range of associated issues is vital and thanks to the author for this particular contribution.

  2. Andrew Bolger February 9, 2016 at 11:46 am #

    Although it’s good to try and attract a range of talented recruits into social work, the ‘front-line’ project is founded on the inaccurate assumption that the problem in child protection is fundamentally due to social workers’ lack of academic ability. (Interestingly a previous Tory government thought the problem was that social workers were too academic and what was needed was ‘street-wise grannies’.) Obviously, many social workers feel insulted by this assumption, especially if they already hold strong academic qualifications.
    My own observations are firstly: that the current crop of graduate social workers who have been through ASYE are the most able cohort I saw in nearly 40 years of social work and practice education and secondly: that although most post-graduate entrants to social work are able, committed and bring valuable experience from other fields, a sizeable minority may have quite significant problems adjusting to the professional discipline of social work. After working with several apparently gifted and able candidates who struggled in their placements, it began to dawn on me that the reason why they had changed course for social work might have something to do with difficulties they had experienced working elsewhere. So if you want to fast-track apparently able candidates you must also be prepared to either fast-fail them or be in the position to provide remedial repeat placements.
    I believe that the problems with child protection are not to do with the quality of social workers but are systemic, due to work-load pressures, lack of time and the inherent problems of dealing with behaviour that happens behind closed doors. Personally, I’d advocate recognising that the strengths of social work lie in support and advocacy for children in their families. This is the type of work newly qualified social workers should be employed to do. Child protection work should be re-organised along the lines of MHA assessments. Experienced and qualified professionals from a number of disciplines, predominantly social workers but also nurses, teachers , police officers should take additional training to allow them to lead investigations into child abuse, possibly following the addiction court model. This would recognise that although multiple problems associated with poor health and poverty contribute to making children vulnerable to abuse, many of the most notorious cases of child death have been primarily the result of adult criminality.

  3. BENZdog February 9, 2016 at 9:36 pm #

    There is something unpalatable about this article. How will be welcoming new graduates into our “caring profession” when those employing us do not seem to have the same caring values at heart?

    Is it OK that a social worker receives their supervision on the corner of a desk in a busy open plan office because there are no rooms available in the new council buildings for this purpose? No.

    Is it OK that social workers have a performance-related graph installed on their computer that is updated constantly throughout the day according to how many phonecalls they make or assessments they complete? No.

    Is it OK that Social Workers are asked to use their personal mobile phones when working from home as there is no budget available to buy them a workplace mobile phone? No.

    Is it OK that caseloads continue to go up whilst the thresholds at which we are able to intervene in vulnerable people’s lives also rise? No.

    Unfortunately all these scenarios will be familiar to many local authority social workers because that is the reality of the crisis in which we are in Which other profession would accept these conditions of work and continue to struggle on with a desperate lack or resources and constant attacks from government and the media? It is no wonder people are leaving, and years of knowledge and expertise leave with them. The two comments above me have hit the nail on the head already – whilst there is a crisis in retention of social workers the problems will remain. It does seem incredible that such large resources are being poured into Frontline, given there is no evidence base to suggest that it will make any difference to the profession. Perhaps greater attention to those already working on the “Frontline” and some meaningful representation from those who call themselves “chiefs” would make more of an impact.

  4. julian spurr February 9, 2016 at 10:57 pm #

    I originally thought that the whole fast track scheme was flawed. I work in adult social work and have always been interested in child protection social work which I always imagine must be very stressful.
    The reason that I have changed my mind is because I see very little political engagement in social work with people (social workers) either not voting or maybe even not having heard of Jeremy Corbyn – not suggesting that they should vote for him by the way although I personally would. No interest in politics at all ! There are notable exceptions.

    Politics really is important and affects how are clients live their lives.
    I suppose I want to hear more anger and frustration about the way things are and I want to hear more intellectual debate in the profession about how the government treats the most vulnerable.

    I am not sure that having high flying graduates will change this but it might help to improve and stimulate a profession which no longer seems to know why it exists.

    The Care Act hasn’t been questioned sufficiently for example – lots of beautiful sentiments but without the resources to implement them.

    I do miss the old forums on here at times where people really got energised and emotional about subjects dear to their hearts. It was a good intellectual exercise and made you think.

    • Jim Greer February 12, 2016 at 10:56 am #

      Hi Julian. If you want to meet politically engaged social workers you should look for the Social Work Action Network.
      Existing social work courses do give students lots of opportunities to question how society is structured and organised and how structural inequality contributes to social problems. At the end of the day, however, its up to individual students how they use these insights and the conclusions they draw about what it means for them personally. Many people care about social issues but are very jaded about party politics and Parliamentary democracy.
      As for fast track courses, I would think that there would be much less time to reflect and debate on society than there is on a normal course. I would imagine the teaching has to have a very technical focus to get through all the law and other essential knowledge.
      I doubt very much that David Cameron would be taking such a personal interest in Frontline if the outcome was likely to be an army of Corbyn supporters.

  5. Jim Greer February 10, 2016 at 9:16 am #

    Where did this idea come around that the profession was in its ‘final throes’? Just a few years ago social work was in a very optimistic place. The Social Work Reform Board recommendations were being put in place, the College of Social Work was being set up, the PCF had been brought into place as a framework for social work education and CPD which would last through the whole span of someone’s career. All of these developments were based on consensus throughout the profession. I took up post as a Principal Lecturer with intense excitement and optimism. At Teesside we were one of the first programmes in the country to gain approval from the new regulators. – One week later exactly, the Government announced a review of social work education. This was months before even a single student in the country would start on their three year programme. No opportunity whatsoever to assess the impact of the Reform Board recommendations.
    I have no idea at all whether Frontline is a good or bad programme or whether it will turn out good social workers. I hope they do make good social workers and stay in the profession. However, it needs to be clarified that there was no evidence that the standard process for educating social workers was broken or inadequate. On the contrary- it had just been revitalised.

  6. Pancho February 10, 2016 at 10:24 am #

    Let’s treat each individual on their merits, apart from McCallister.

    His appointment shows the disdain the government has for social work. We are suppossed to be a profession, we pay fees to the Care Council to prove it. Can you imaging any other profession standing for this?

    Would teachers take kindly to their training guru being a social worker? Would doctors be overjoyed at news that their training was to be overseen by a housing officer?

    Possibly, but I doubt it

  7. Julie A February 10, 2016 at 11:02 am #

    Perhaps my experience has been different from most, but in the two local authorities I worked in (both recent), I do not remember fast trackers or post-grads being met with anything other than open arms. What I do remember though, was the sense of being at a complete loss in terms of attempting to join the profession WITHOUT a degree. Nigh on impossible unless you are fresh out of school and move along to higher education the “traditional” way, with full time study et al.

    There is NOTHING out there for those of us who would like to train in social work without a pre-existing degree, apart from quitting your day job entirely and becoming a full time student again; something fairly unrealistic for a person like me who is pushing 30, has bills to pay and cannot afford the new university costs.

    I would also throw another word of caution out there; there were a handful of practitioners I met along the way who gave me the distinct impression that they “fell into” social work… their histories were questionably scattered with no lead-up into the social care sector until they started their social work training. Once fully fledged, these few individuals were mediocre at best, and seemed to be using social work as a “safe” stop gap.

    I am not suggesting in any way that post grad fast trackers will all fall into the above category, nor am I suggesting that those who train the traditional way end up being guaranteed stellar practitioners. But, like teaching, this is a profession that we can’t afford to have people “fall into” – we need people who are genuinely passionate, whether they are undergrads, post grad fast trackers or anything in between, and we need to beware of completely ignoring those who do not already possess degrees.

  8. Ruksana Chowdhory February 13, 2016 at 5:43 pm #

    While I appreciate the good intentions of the author to further this debate, I find the points raised in this article are cursory and quite divisive, not least because it suggests the othering of fast-track students but also the idea that those on traditional academic routes are somehow intellectually inferior or receive substandard social work training.

    As a Russel Group graduate myself, I consciously made the decision to take the traditional route to social work, a term I use loosely considering the two year Master of Social Work programme has not long been in existence. My reasoning behind this decision was that I felt the fast-track scheme would not provide me with a holistic set of social work knowledge and skills and is a choice I have not come to regret. My route has provided me with opportunities to be sought by several postgraduate programmes as well as statutory placements in good local authorities with invitations to apply for posts upon qualifying. It has also encouraged me to pursue social work research in the future, a necessary skills for social workers in aid of the progression of the profession.

    Therefore, while I agree with some of the criticisms of social work education, I think it is quite short-sighted and insulting to suggest that the fast-track scheme provides the only means to recruit knowledgeable and capable students. My interactions and discussions with my fellow aspiring social work colleagues on fast-track schemes does not indicate in the least that that I am at a disadvantage when in comes to embarking on a challenging career in child and family social work. What it did reveal, however, was that the recruitment standards for the academic route was more holistic encompassing previous experience and skills in with working in social care and with vulnerable people. While I agree with the author’s perspective on not marginalising individuals without such backgrounds, I believe in order to withstand the emotional rigours of social work this element is necessary. Emotional intelligence, good interpersonal skills, reflective skills, resilience and a comprehensive and critical understating of social welfare issues are prerequisites for social work placements and qualified roles. These were not picked up from my undergraduate degree in a world class university but were cultivated through my life and work experiences.

    In short, fast-track students should be welcomed with open arms but the fast-track scheme in itself is a short-sighted response to a much more complex and entrenched problem. Throughout the decades, social work has been subjected to funding constraints, government and media smear campaigns and continuous change and instability which has provided the perfect climate to attract opportunists. It begs the question then, whether these government funded schemes are aimed at recruiting managers to further the aims of political motives rather than providing a sound solution to the recruitment and retention of high calibre front line practitioners.