A fast-track future? What condensed social work training may mean for traditional courses

The government is investing big in fast-track social worker training but what does this mean for BA and MA programmes?

Photo: Image Credit/ Rex

The past few days have seen the government’s push for accelerated post-graduate social work training gather steam yet again.

On Thursday an evaluation of Frontline, the children’s social work training programme, reported that students outperformed those on traditional courses in a test of interviewing and written reflection skills.

On Sunday the Department of Health announced it was extending Think Ahead, the fast-track route into mental health social work, for at least another two years even though the programme has yet to begin teaching anyone.

Meanwhile health minister Alistair Burt confirmed in Parliament that the government is considering whether to axe student bursaries from social work courses as revealed by Community Care back in January.

Frontline most expensive

Yet a cost analysis published by the Department for Education last week revealed that, for taxpayers at least, the new breed of accelerated social work training programmes are the more expensive option.

The analysis compared how much the government had to spend to train a newly qualified social worker (NQSW) through Frontline and the 14-month-long training programme Step Up to Social Work with the cost of training via a MA or BA course.

It found Frontline was the most expensive route, costing the government £45,323 per NQSW compared to £40,413 for Step Up, £23,225 for masters degrees and just £14,675 for undergraduate courses.

Even when the savings to the public purse from students doing work on placements were factored in, Frontline remained the most expensive way to train a NQSW at £38,117 followed by undergraduate degrees (£34,523), Step Up (£34,394) and MA courses (£28,690).

Pivotal programmes

Not that the Department for Education is put off by the cost. “Excellent social workers help transform lives, which is why we are committed to recruiting and retaining the very best into the profession,” said a spokeswoman for the department.

“Last week’s evaluation report shows fast-track routes are doing just that, attracting those who may not have otherwise considered social work as a career, and complementing more traditional routes. These programmes are a pivotal part of our long-term plan to overhaul the profession and ensure all social workers have the knowledge and skills they need to deliver the best possible support to children and families.”

The spokeswoman noted that when the analysis added the costs to individuals of each training route, such as loss of earnings, into its calculations Step Up and Frontline emerged as cheaper than undergraduate and postgraduate courses.

Whether the extra cost of Frontline is worth it is still an unanswered question despite last week’s evaluation says Bob Banks, academic group leader for Staffordshire University’s social work courses.

“Frontline hasn’t really been properly evaluated yet,” he says. “It hasn’t been going long enough to know if it’s really effective or not yet. It’s a relatively short-lived programme.”

A big gamble

One key question that won’t be answered for years, he says, is whether the students stay in the profession. “Those on traditional courses tend to stick around and are not tempted to go into other things because they came in as undergraduates and spent three years at university and had time to reflect on what they are doing,” he says. “Frontline is probably really rushed and they are not given time to reflect because they are moving onto things really quickly.”

But what concerns Banks more is how much focus the government is putting on these accelerated social work courses.

“The numbers don’t stack up,” he says. “The government is talking about 3,000 Frontline and Step Up students by 2020. Via traditional routes we’re looking at 20,000 students in that time. So it’s only a small number.”

“The government is pouring an awful lot of money into this but if you look at the numbers, it’s a big gamble putting all those eggs into one basket.”

Applications down

While Banks says the number of applications to Staffordshire University’s BA course hasn’t changed due to the new condensed courses, other universities are reporting fewer applicants seeking to go through the traditional route to become a social worker.

A leader of the social work programme at one university who did not want to be named said: “The national picture looks to be for a downturn in applications to post-graduate social work courses, looking at UCAS and our own data. We have been fortunate in increasing market share a little this year and also that the applicants we get, although fewer in number, are generally of a fairly strong quality – especially those we are able to short list.

“However cause and effect is hard – how much is due to Frontline and how much due to on-going uncertainty about bursaries, etc., is difficult to know for sure.”

No-brainer

But others are more sure. Gary Hickman, director of the social work programme at the University of Birmingham, which offers both the MA and Step Up courses, believes the new courses with their generous deals for students are drawing students away from traditional postgraduate training.

“We got approximately six to eight students on our MA year one cohort who applied for Step Up but were unsuccessful,” he says. “We lost possibly two students who would have come on our MA but were successful for Step Up. Potentially we could have lost about 10 people.”

Applications to join the university’s MA course are also down after several years of holding at around 55 students. “This year in September 2015 we had 56 people start our MA programme,” he says. “This year, our applications to the MA are definitely down on the previous year and I think that’s due to the widening of Think Ahead, Step Up and Frontline. I hope we will recruit to our bursary allocation of 44 but I’d be surprised if we reach 56 again.”

That students are drawn to the likes of Frontline is a “no brainer” he says: “If you’re going to receive around £19,000 during your study or have to take out student loans you’re clearly going to wait and give it a go. As demonstrated on our MA and Step Up programmes this year, you apply for both and you have your MA programme almost as an insurance.”

Bursary threatened

The potential loss of the social work bursary will only add to the pressure, says Banks. “I expect the bursary to end,” he says. “The government is saving money by taking it off the traditional routes and giving it to the other routes. The thing with that is that it would be grossly unfair because they are not going to take on more Frontline or Step Up people on, so they are just actually reducing budgets and discouraging people from doing social work completely.”

Losing the bursary would also alter the look of the profession too, adds a social work lecturer from the south of England who didn’t want to be named: “It will affect the demography of those who train I suspect – and also will increase drop out rates.”

But, says Hickman, its likely that universities will respond to the challenge presented by the new accelerated courses by re-examining what they provide.

“What might happen is higher education institutions may look to see if they can deliver their own 12- to 14-month programmes. Ok, you don’t get your £19,000 but you can do it in a shorter time,” he says.

Critical reflection

The development of teaching partnership models, which are currently being piloted and see universities and local authorities collaborate on new approaches to social work education, could also lead to new ways of training social workers, he adds.

“The Greater Manchester teaching partnership model has created a two-year BA programme,” he says. “As I understand it, that’s pitched at people who haven’t got a first degree but are working for local authorities, the voluntary sector in the region and they then get a BA in two years as opposed to three years.”

But, ultimately, having a variety of ways to create the next generation of social workers is crucial he says.

“It would be a mistake if the government thought Frontline is the answer to everything, which is the way it seems to keep being presented,” he says. “But actually you do need a mixed market of provision because for some people a traditional two-year route suits them because it gives them that opportunity to critically reflect, etc. Whereas for others, a more condensed route with money alongside it enables them to maintain paying a mortgage and doing what they were doing in their ’30s and ’40s.”

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6 Responses to A fast-track future? What condensed social work training may mean for traditional courses

  1. Tom Hughes March 30, 2016 at 1:26 pm #

    Sadly this move towards fast track schemes turns Social Work away from being an academically focused profession, towards a vocation that just requires a basic understanding to get started.

    Frontline claim that by selecting higher end graduates they can be trained faster and don’t need the 2 year development of an MA.

    This isn’t a proven claim as a Russel Group graduate myself who entered via the MA a few years ago can attest.

    Also there is little benefit to being a Russel Group graduate in Social Work anyway as most local
    authorities couldn’t care less if you went to a world class university.

    Most local authorities promote those who graduated with ties to whichever university they are associated with.

    In most other professions somebody from an ex poly would never get a look in over a Russel Group graduate. However in Social Work experience carries greater weight.

    Sadly that means the fast track slows down rather quickly once qualified.

  2. Hazel Lamb March 30, 2016 at 2:20 pm #

    When Isabelle Trowley first presented her “Reclaiming Social Work” model, she rightly identified the low calibre of social work professionals as a barrier to successful implementation of her systemic method. The Frontline Review queries whether the slightly improved results are attributable to the initial selection process – prioritising academic success. Given the time and management pressures of CP work, such selection has something to commend it. However, it may exclude potentially effective students for whom reasonable adjustments have to be made, and, in focusing on Children’s work, is likely to deprive cohorts of input on Adult Mental Health, which is essential to holistic CP assessment. Partnerships with statutory services tend to exclude practice in therapeutic, prevention and community type work – all of which link theory and research to developments internationally. One might therefore compare Frontline trained staff with paramedics or barefoot doctors, able to respond to crises, but lacking a grounding in the wider field, or access to adequate resources and reflective time for creative problem-solving.

  3. Ruksana Chowdhory March 30, 2016 at 9:42 pm #

    The results of the evaluation needs to be looked at more closely. There were concerns around the level of confidence in practice of trainees on accelerated schemes, which begs the question if 12-14 months is sufficient time for qualifying into one of the most complex professions on the planet? We’re talking about a profession which deals in and with messy unpredictable human relationships.

    Practitioners need reflective skills, critical thinking skills, emotional intelligence, emotional resilience, some experience in social care and most importantly the social work value base to engage in effective and meaningful social work practice. Are these accelerated schemes providing the space for trainees to acquire/develop these?

    If retention of high calibre practitioners (not trainees) is the goal with these schemes, the answer lies elsewhere.

  4. Gemma March 31, 2016 at 8:08 am #

    What is not discussed is the impact Frontline workers are having on children and families. Is there increased effectiveness of gaining the voice of the child? Are they able to positively engage families to garner positive change? Are they able to identify external wider societal factors impacting on families ability to function or are “problems” blamed solely on the individual without consideration of societal structural oppression?

    Furthermore, we can see from the figures in this article the number of NQSW will see a reduction, yet a significant increase in costs to the public. The question that needs to be asked of this severe shift from academic training is who benefits? Is it children and families, NQSW, the wider public or those with shares in these companies?! There is increased evidence and research on the lifespan of a CP social worker, with qualifieds leaving the profession in their droves. These numbers of NQSW coming through from Frontline are going to have a small impact on increasing resources (social workers) to teams, leaving services under resourced with further pressure and little experience, but it is OK as these NQSW demonstrate the write and interview well, I jest.

    My biggest fear, is the shift from academic reflective learning to on the job training reduces the credibility of the social work role to be affiliated as a profession. This deprofessionalisation of the social work role leaves social workers being deregulated as individuals, potentially causing a shift away from professional values and ethics and a reduction in quality workers and pay. Whilst social work has been guised with the term “the iron fist in the velvet glove” will this phrase again come to the foreground as neoliberal governments push for neoliberal moulded social workers.

  5. Sara Rosson March 31, 2016 at 10:54 am #

    It’s a disgrace that some of this government money is not going to highly experienced independent practice educators who have had no pay increase in 10 years and a 33% cut in their fees for the past two years.

  6. Peter March 31, 2016 at 4:17 pm #

    The evaluation of Frontline is hardly conclusive, interview skills and reflective writing a social worker does not make. Step Up was just an MA without the holidays, no difference just a knee jerk reaction to a crisis which compressed 2yrs into 18 months to try and reach an arbitrary target for political point scoring. Just as in education one of the real measurements of success should be how many graduates are still in post after 3-5 yrs. A social work qualification opens more doors than teaching but the system these graduates are entering is being squeezed to death through cuts. Harping on about the academic vigour of these courses misses the point that most decisions and targets are resource driven or politically motivated just like in education, evidenced based practice is a pipe dream.