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).
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”