by Donald Forrester
Last week I was given a tour of our dental school at Cardiff University by an inspiring professor of dentistry. He was outlining a vision for professional excellence that brings together practitioners and academics, so that every student is observed repeatedly in practice, and those observations are informed by extensive and ongoing research.
He argued that this melding of practice and research provides the best model for improving professional excellence. I could not agree more. These are my beliefs for social work too. Yet at present we seem far from achieving this type of integrated professionalism – and the decision by Frontline to sever its links with universities in providing social work training takes us still further away from this type of coherent and unified profession.
Social work education is experiencing a period of unparalleled change. Radically new approaches to training social workers, such as Frontline and Think Ahead, are being tried out. Simultaneously, other reforms, including the fast track Step-Up programme for child and family social work and new teaching partnerships between local authorities and universities for delivering qualifying social work courses, are being rolled out.
Funding for university programme students meanwhile is uncertain, with a delay over the announcement on this year’s bursary funding causing considerable anxiety at the time of writing.
A heated debate
The debates around these issues have often been heated, but proponents on both sides have too rarely demonstrated an understanding of the views of the other. This is a problem, because in my experience all those involved in the debate genuinely want the best for social work, and a more constructive type of conversation might be possible if we recognised this and put our shared aspirations at the heart of the discussion.
In these ongoing debates I occupy an unusual position. I was the first academic director of Frontline. I championed the programme as a new approach to social work education that has the potential to provide a better way of training social workers. Despite this, most of my experience has been with universities not delivering Frontline; and from those experiences I can understand the concerns expressed by many in the sector about the impact of Frontline, indeed I share some of those worries.
I am particularly concerned that Frontline has decided it can deliver its course without a university partner. I found the reasons it gave for doing this indicate a lack of understanding of the needs of our profession or a coherent vision for how Frontline might contribute to improving social work.
The role of universities
What I would like to do here is explain some of the issues that are at stake and suggest some next steps that might help create a more positive direction for us to develop social work.
Let me start by explaining a bit about the nature of social work in universities. It is my belief that for social work to be a strong profession it needs a major contribution from academics in our universities.
Most of the theories, knowledge and research that we currently expect social workers to incorporate into their practice originate from or were influenced by academics. I believe that academics can and should provide challenge and support for practice, empirical evidence and theoretical insight. Indeed, without this independent arm we are not genuinely a profession.
Yet over recent decades social work in universities has been vulnerable. We have seen LSE, Oxford, Reading, Southampton, Exeter and Liverpool stop offering social work education. These are all top universities. Their decision to stop teaching social work is a symptom of the difficulties involved in delivering social work education in our research intensive universities.
Three challenges in particular stand out. First, social work education is more complicated to deliver than a purely academic discipline: more than anything there are placements to be organised and managed.
Second, in purely academic disciplines staff have a fairly clear progression – they graduate, do a PhD and then start in academic life. In social work we have more complex needs, with strong practice skills and experience being crucial. Often the development of research skills needs to be developed once in an academic post. As a result – as a group – social work academics can appear to be less research active than those from conventional academic disciplines.
Third – and crucially – the funding per student does not reflect this. Universities get paid far less to train social work students than they do to train most other professionals. They even get paid less than they do to provide undergraduate psychology teaching which is entirely delivered in classrooms.
All of this contributes to social work in universities often feeling marginalised; many social work teams are aware that their university could decide to close social work as Reading and Southampton have recently.
The response to Frontline
Given this context it is easy to see why there is huge resistance to Frontline: along comes a new, often very brash, and undoubtedly extremely well funded route into social work that is specifically focused on recruiting the very students that research intensive universities have generally targeted.
The image that always springs into my mind is of Joseph and his many coloured coat: it is no wonder that his father giving it to him angered his brothers, and he would have been wise to show more modesty and understanding, rather than flaunting its grandeur.
Yet the response of many academics – while wholly understandable – has not been helpful. There has been a sustained barrage of criticism that has contributed to the worsening relationship between Frontline and the university sector.
This has been a key contributor to the decision by Frontline to attempt to deliver the course in-house. Teach First, considered to be Frontline’s equivalent and forerunner in teaching, is delivered by a consortium of universities each providing training for their region. It is difficult to imagine Frontline working constructively with universities given the widespread dislike most academics have expressed for the programme, and that is no doubt part of their thinking about delivering the course in-house.
A terrible blow to our profession
The consequences of this for the profession, for Frontline and for social work in universities are dire. In common with many other academics I find it easy to imagine in 20 years time social work no longer being taught in research rich universities.
Instead, social work education would be provided through a variety of routes, all of which favour teaching and leave no time for staff to engage in scholarship or develop a research profile. And it is important to emphasise that the vast majority of research in social work is not externally funded – most books and articles are completed as part of academics’ day job, which combines scholarship and teaching in the belief that they enrich one another.
Having the largest social work course in the country, that aims to attract the best graduates, choose to remove itself from the university sector altogether is a terrible blow to our profession.
Furthermore, the defence of this, that suggests expertise could be brought in from universities as needed, is a failure to appreciate that Frontline has a contribution to make to the wider profession.
It is a bit like a top football club saying that its core business is keeping fans happy, and therefore it will not invest in developing or buying star players – instead it will hire top players from other teams as and when they are needed. If Frontline needs academic expertise it needs to invest in it. And if Frontline does not do so then it increases the risk of our whole profession failing to invest in producing excellent academics.
A more positive way forward
There are three steps that might help us move forward more positively. First, social work academics need to engage more positively with Frontline. It is not possible for Frontline to work with universities if they are not willing to partner with Frontline.
Second, Frontline needs to review this decision and commit to working with university partners – as recommended by the House of Commons select committee for education. Without such a commitment it is hard to see how Frontline can be serious about making a positive contribution to social work.
As part of this Frontline needs to articulate a more coherent plan for how it can support scholarship as well as professional learning. Having a narrow focus on the delivery of a course may work in the short term, but in the longer term it undermines the foundations the profession Frontline aspires to be a proud part of.
Third, more fundamentally, we need to agree a vision for academic social work that extends beyond social work education. This is a task for government in particular. We need to recognise that to be a thriving profession we need a thriving academic workforce.
It is only then that we stand any chance of realising the vision of my colleague in dentistry, a vision for social work in which practice and research, teaching and theory are brought together to support excellence and to develop our profession.
Donald Forrester is professor in child and family social work at Cardiff university and the director of CASCADE, the children’s social care research and development centre. He is a former academic director of the Frontline programme.