‘If every university social work department shut when would busy practitioners notice?’

Social workers need protected study time so they can learn about the latest research and apply it in practice, argues Matt Bee

By Matt Bee

Frontline’s fast-track programme has stirred up quite a debate in social work. How long should a candidate actually spend in a classroom before entering the field? That’s a big question. But the bigger question is – how long should we, all of us, spend studying after we’ve qualified?

Staying current has always been a challenge, and for just as long has been a key standard for our proficiency to practise. But time and again the importance of staying up-to-date is overlooked in favour of re-evaluating how social workers are first trained.

Almost a decade ago now, if you remember, that was the response in the wake of the Baby P tragedy. Ed Balls was clear. The training of social workers had to be re-evaluated.

Rethink after rethink

This came as a big surprise to me, newly qualified at the time. With the arrival of the all-new undergraduate and master’s degrees, a transformation in the training of social workers had already taken place. I was one of the first to brandish one of these new qualifications. But apparently our training needed another rethink – having just benefited from a rethink. And now, a decade on, Fronline is rethinking it all over again.

Meanwhile, the thorny issue of how to stay current hasn’t gone away. Even the best part of a decade ago, it was drilled into me to read every scrap of every research and government paper I could lay my hands on.

Have I stuck to this? Not even slightly – despite my best efforts. And the reason why is something I’ve brushed upon in Community Care before. Government papers and academic works are, by their very nature, weighty things to wade through. You need to invest time to reap the rewards. The idea of kicking back with one on a lunch break – the idea of even getting a lunch break – is, for many practitioners, absurd.

How many social workers are in this position? Most, I would imagine. Our main contact with latest research is often through managers emailing links with a suggestion that we have a look, when we get chance. But rarely do we get chance.

Extra-curricular activity

And therein is the problem. Although developing knowledge is a key Health and Care Professions Council standard, many of the ways we might do this are seen as extra-curricular. When Harry Ferguson, a professor of social work, recently wrote that the profession couldn’t survive without university social work departments – should the drive towards fast-track schemes sweep them away – I thought he was probably right. But, also, what are we doing with all the good work of these departments, anyway?

If every social work department at every university closed its doors tomorrow, how long before frontline practitioners, swamped by heaps of assessments and referral forms, would actually notice?

In saying this, I’m not having a dig at such departments. What I mean is, do we actually acknowledge their work, make full use of it, and actually apply this to practice? With the need to evidence that we’re maintaining professional development, there is an incentive to read all this output. But when you consider there are over 90,000 registered social workers in England alone, and then compare this with the sales figures for academic books, often in the hundreds, you do wonder if we’re making the most of these efforts.

No time for study

Of course, it comes down to having the time – and in this respect whether you initially train by fast-track scheme or otherwise, the problem, when you hit the workplace, remains the same.

I’ve only ever come across one team that ring-fenced study-time. A quiet office was booked out for half a day each week, and each week you’d find a social worker in there, reading. These days you don’t even need to read. Lectures, talks and discussion groups can be found online. When I wrote in Community Care about using mainstream books to develop practice, Amanda Taylor at the University of Central Lancashire notified me of a book group she’s developed (and which has featured in Community Care before). Several of these are run around the country now, and these are even streamed online so taking part really couldn’t be easier. You can follow on Twitter at @SWBookGroup.

But, given the pressing and immediate demands of the job, it often feels like we need permission to spend time studying. What we really need is encouragement. What we need is time, ring-fenced.

Gulf between research and practice

Meanwhile, there seems to be this gulf between what academics uncover and what actually feeds into practice – and this doesn’t just apply to social workers. Years ago, I came across the work of Stirling University in dementia design. But the care homes I visit today? Many have cream walls, white light switches, doors uniformly the same colour, and residents wandering the corridors, lost. For the sake of a quick reference to the work at Stirling University, their lives could be made so much better.

Good research leads to good practice, but only if the right pathways are forged down which it can develop. More time needs to be spent on how social workers can be supported to stay up to-date, and less on how they enter the role in the first place.





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2 Responses to ‘If every university social work department shut when would busy practitioners notice?’

  1. Nicky May 15, 2016 at 8:10 pm #

    Research In Practice comes to mind. Giving bite size (or more thorough) access to up to date research. Easy search functions.

    Time is always an issue though. Sadly the last thing I want to do after work is read more about social work. Protected time away from the day job is a really key part of my resilience as a worker and not one I’m willing to compromise on.

  2. Peter Durrant May 18, 2016 at 11:29 am #

    As a long retired social worker it’s become apparent to me in recent years that the gap between social work theory and practice as taught on SW courses is hopelessly inept. So whilst, in my retirement, working in the third sector, – which has its own problems of failing to complement and work with statutory sectors, and itself – too is way off the mark if we really wanted to think about a useful trade working with, as opposed to for people. Whilst the statutory sector too, seem unable to relate to grass-roots (unpaid?) workers as they (addictively?) search for their roads to whatever professionalism is. What did Shaw say about professionalism being leading to the exclusion of the laity….). For my money we should recover community development/social work and there’s, hopefully, some beginnings with SCIE of a useful dialogue beginning here. Whilst grass-roots upwards commitments, transferring authority to people on the receiving ends of of often unhelpful systems through through, say, family conference groups, working with key figures in the community and searching for natural leaders, post credit union community bank ideas such as http://www.solidarityusa, Asset Based Community Development, land trusts, social enterprises, challenging labelling theory, searching and using workable good practice, reinventing social care – a real opportunity here etc, etc seems to me a real, and achievable way forward….