The future of social work education in universities is under threat

Government policy poses great risks to the future role of higher education institutions, argue Brid Featherstone, Kate Morris and June Thoburn

Students studying
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by June Thoburn, Brid Featherstone and Kate Morris

Much attention has been paid to the climbdowns the government was forced into on key clauses in the Children and Social Work Bill last week, with critics labelling the handling of the bill a shambles.

Far less profile has been given to another area the bill contains measures on – social work education. We would contend that the government’s current policy direction poses grave dangers in terms of whether social work education can survive in universities and what it might consist of even if it does.


In the last decade qualifying social work education has attracted considerable attention in England as a result of high profile child deaths. Policies have emerged to favour fast-track graduate trainee schemes, with generous government funding awarded to a small but growing band of recruits complemented by large sums from the private sector.

Meanwhile, government funding for the majority of entrants to social work via well-established university honours and masters’ degree routes has been declining. The future of social work bursaries is also uncertain. This is putting well-established research-led university courses at risk.

These financial inequalities reflect a narrative promoted by successive government ministers and civil servants, starting with New Labour but latched onto by the coalition and now the Conservative government.

Conflicting reviews

The calibre of those entering social work education, the story goes, is not good enough and the education offered in universities is deficient if not downright inappropriate.

This was the view promoted in Sir Martin Narey’s Department for Education-commissioned review of social work education. He called for stronger regulation of courses and a revised specialist curriculum that equipped social work students to carry out predefined tasks from a narrowly focused knowledge-base.

Narey’s particular focus was on developing practitioners to do ‘child protection’ as distinct from social work with individuals and families across the life course.

Another review by David Croisdale-Appleby, this time commissioned by the Department of Health, disagreed. Croisdale-Appleby promoted an expanded understanding of the social worker as practitioner, professional and social scientist working with individuals and families across the life course.

He also highlighted the importance of research in expanding the knowledge base of the profession and the role of university schools of social work in developing high quality research.

These two reviews, commissioned by differing government departments, have never been reconciled. The result has been muddle and confusion.

The funding inequalities do, however, suggest that Professor Croisdale -Appleby’s view of the importance of social work being located in universities and in an organic relationship with research is not the one being implemented.

The role of universities

Since the reviews, one of the fast-track programmes has essentially cut its ties in any meaningful sense with the HEI sector and is now virtually a stand alone training provider. Under the current law it does still require a HEI to award its degrees. This could change however in the very near future.

The highly controversial Higher Education Bill currently going through Parliament could, if its key proposals are implemented, allow programmes to have degree awarding powers and become stand-alone providers. It opens the door to increasing the number of private providers as lowering the barriers to entry for such providers is a stated aim of the bill.

In the post-qualifying sector, the award of very large contracts to consortia led by large for-profit providers (with limited input from universities) to develop an accreditation framework and permanence curriculum points to a continuation of this direction of travel and the increasing marginalisation of university educators, despite their extensive record of research based scholarship in both these areas.

A volatile landscape

It is in this very uncertain and volatile landscape that some current and little discussed developments need to be understood and interrogated. They concern how social work education will be regulated and the shape of post-qualifying education in the future.

The Children and Social Work Bill contains some important clauses authorising the setting up of a bespoke regulator for social work and others relating to continuing education and development for qualified social workers (notably NC17 and 48).

In terms of the regulator, the government has rowed back on its original intent to have such a body directly run by the Secretary of State, as a result of trenchant criticisms from a wide range of stakeholders. The new body ‘Social Work England’ will be a non-departmental public body. However, it is unclear exactly what the relationship with government will be.

When compared with the legislation it replaces, the wording in the bill appears to increase the control of the Secretary of State over social work education vis-a-vis that of the regulator. Certainly, the new body will be less independent from government than is the current regulator, the HCPC.

The last minute introduction of new clauses on, and the wording of, ministerial powers and duties relevant to social work education (replacing section 67 in the 2000 Act) also raise concerns.

Of particular concern is that reference to the minister discharging her duties via the regulator is omitted from the new wording as is any reference to courses being approved by her via the regulator. This could open the door to the minister holding untrammelled powers over qualifying education.

Finally, NC48 empowers the minister to take full responsibility for the assessment and accreditation of qualified social workers working in statutory child and family social work. This offers an unprecedented level of control to a government minister over a key aspect of post-qualifying development and opens the door very explicitly to political control.

It is important that an area such as social work education is not subject to the whims of any government whatever its political hue. It is vital that it is rooted in research and intellectual and practice based inquiry. The direction of travel is such that legitimate fears need to be raised about whether this will remain the case for social work education in England.

June Thoburn is emeritus professor of social work at the University of East Anglia. Brid Featherstone is professor of social work at the University of Huddersfield. Kate Morris is professor of social work at the University of Sheffield.

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8 Responses to The future of social work education in universities is under threat

  1. Jim Greer March 7, 2017 at 6:11 pm #

    Interesting article that points out the dangers to University social work education. My only reservation was the use of the term ‘research led University courses’ which could be interpreted as meaning Universities where the focus is on research outputs. Our teaching Universities also provide important research informed and evidence based provision together with strong engagement with local communities as well as widening participation by bringing under-represented groups into the profession.
    I am certain the authors intended to be inclusive but I thought it was important to stress the importance of a diversity of provision for serving our diverse communities.

    • June Thoburn March 7, 2017 at 9:26 pm #

      Fair point. I entirely agree that we need diversity of quality HEI provision. Research-informed would have been a better term

  2. Martin Narey March 8, 2017 at 8:33 am #

    In the foreword to my report I said this: “There are many universities doing a good job: they recruit students of high ability and ensure that academic standards are high. I reject entirely the suggestion that we do not currently produce some very good social workers. But there are universities and colleges where entry and academic standards appear to be too low and where the preparation of students for children’s social work is too often inadequate.”
    As I prepared the report I spoke, perhaps, to twenty senior academics, including two of the authors of this article. Not one academic denied the reality that standards of education were variable. A number pointed me toward courses of particular concern, Quite a number expressed anger about the way some Universities damaged the reputation of the majority.
    The assured future of social work education in Universities requires, in my view, an honest debate about quality. Hence the need for a credible regulator which I believe and hope will ensure the continuation of undergraduate and post graduate social work training within Universities

  3. Hels March 8, 2017 at 9:31 pm #

    Universities do not have teaching staff with current practice experience! If any do I’d be interested to know, some tutors lecturers are not even hcpc registered.

    • Dave Mason March 12, 2017 at 3:55 pm #

      Hels, I am a Senior Lecturer, registered Social Worker, and still spend a few hours a month in practice. All of my colleagues are HCPC registered.
      What we need in this debate are facts, not gossip.

  4. Borstal Boy March 9, 2017 at 11:02 am #

    Maybe it’s because I went to a breeze lock University but isn’t relaying on the content of discussions even with 20 academics just anecdote?

    Where’s the research, who carried it out?, where was it published? What were the findings?

    Imagine going to the Family Court saying “I’ve spoken to 20 people and they all broadly agree with me that this family is a bit rubbish”

    I’d be sent packing to carry out a proper assessment and quite rightly.

    Still, why go to the trouble of carrying out pesky research when anecdote will do?

    I might suggest to Judge Mumby that Social Workers be allowed to do the same!

  5. Ando March 13, 2017 at 1:31 pm #

    I have nearly completed a research paper for my MA on the Knowledge and Skills Statements (KSS). The Narey and Croisdale-Appleby reports, as well as a number of other government documents, were key sources of information for my research. Narey provides a debate over the merits of a specialism. There is plausible arguments either way but the overarching concern I feel is for a quick fix solution for workforce planning issues. This is because there is a high number of vacancies in children and families social work despite there being no shortage of qualified staff. One of aims of the Favoured fast track schemes is to alleviate this issue. Narey is critical of newly qualified social workers claiming some are of poor calibre. Even if that is the case, once qualified students need to obtain employment and pass through a recruitment process. Croisdale-Appleby found that the criticism of NQSW is not a widely experienced issue and research highlights that supported time in practice lead to NQSW’s evolving into competent practitioners. I did not notice the argument put forward that perhaps a lot of NQSW’s do not want to enter Child Protection after they begin to release how high the caseloads are and how much pressure there will be on them from resource and bureaucracy issues, not to mention the additional pressures from media and government scrutiny.

    Croisdale-Appleby states that the retention of social workers is a much bigger concern than any issues faced from NQSW’s. In Narey’s report Dominelli is cited as stating that social work is ‘one of the most difficult professional tasks in the world’ yet the government continue to want more for less. Research highlights that investment in staff will reap greater rewards and continually creating new initiatives and changing things not only wastes money but is a false economy, when tackling the issues creating retention issues, will create a better prepared workforce and ultimately better outcomes. Government ideology of reduced state intervention works against what is needed, in terms of investing in public services, to create an environment for social work to thrive.

    I don’t think anyone could argue that there is a gap between study and practice but all the teachings at university are necessary to help create a rounded professional. There is some topics which are very aspirational or not completely relevant and therefore only need to be brushed over and perhaps more consideration needs to be paid to procedures, building resilience and to what specific issues (practical and theoretical) are dealt with on the front line. The proposed ‘teaching partnerships’ could of helped bridged the gaps in teaching. A concern is that cutting out universities and focusing on fast track schemes to attract high flyers, which Croisdale-Appleby states omit teaching on the theoretical underpinnings of social work, is an attempt by the government to change the type of social worker in practice and gradually remove what they see as opposition to their ideology from a traditionally socialist profession.

    Social work is a mystery to the majority of the public as it is a profession which touches few lives. The ‘common sense’ discourse created by the government and media (that Croisdale-Appleby speaks about) undermines the profession as people think there is obvious solutions to complex social problems. The public and government are essentially informed of social work through scandals and serious case reviews and rarely hear of good practice and positive outcomes. The stresses and difficulties of the job are overlooked and when blame is apportioned (often solely) to social work professionals the impact of emotions, values and organisational pressures on individual practice is not considered. Croisdale-Appleby talks of a ‘voice for the profession’ which I feel could help to some degree turn around public opinion if people start to become informed by facts and positive stories. This may also lead to social work becoming a profession whereby people don’t view it as a mystery and want to apply for university courses, rather than universities (as Narey states) having to lower entry points.

    Narey gives little credibility to poverty explaining social problems and issues such as poor parenting. The way in which society has been structured throughout history to keep people poor, or at least where they are born is overlooked. Although we have an education system in this country it has only been available for all since the mid 1900’s. We are still adapting for centuries of oppression, poverty and lack of opportunities for disadvantages people and the current delivery of education is elitist. Government thinking may have moved forward to consider disadvantaged people but the reality is the policies and opportunities are tokenistic and a masquerade. If the proposed changes occur Social Work education will move back to the late 1800’s when the Charity Organization Society (COS) were responsible for social work education and personal pathology was an ethos of it’s teaching. There is a grave danger that social work education will be phased out, and as a result the opportunity for people to think critically and potentially present a challenge to the government will be lost, and its ideology will remain unquestioned.

    • Tom J March 14, 2017 at 3:00 pm #

      Ando- thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      I really value community care as a source for enabling debate and critiques of things taking place in the profession.

      Social workers need to be concerned about merely becoming an agent of the state who blindly accept government doctrine e.g. its all good and money well spent giving KPMG two million pounds to sort the accreditation scheme* . I hope that the critical independent thinking promoted at university is not lost through these government programmes.

      * Reference