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)