Apprenticeships will not ‘dumb down’ social work, say backers

However some social workers fear the influence of employers on apprenticeships model could prove damaging

Photo: zinkevych/fotolia

The planned introduction of social worker apprenticeships next year won’t “dumb down” or “dilute” the standards underpinning the profession, according to the team behind the scheme.

Speaking at the national Principal Social Workers conference last week, representatives of Skills for Care and a ‘trailblazer group’ of more than 85 social work employers said apprenticeships offered a chance to widen the pool of trainees and provide new opportunities for career progression within social care.

The three-year apprenticeship, which the group hopes will start from Autumn 2018, will see trainees completing a social work degree alongside practice. They will also sit a test set by their employer. The HCPC has approved a national apprenticeships standard, which includes a definition of social work specific to the scheme, put forward by the group.

Responding to questions from delegates on the plans, Graham Woodham, head of programmes at Skills for Care, said: “We’ve always been very clear that anyone going through the apprenticeship route has to be able to meet the same standards as any other route. There is no dumbing down of the academic standard. It’s actually a different way of delivering the training.”

Jane Hanrahan, chair of the social work apprenticeships trailblazer group, agreed and said trainees would end up with a degree from a higher education institution, approved by the regulator. “It’s not in any way diluting the profession,” she said.

“We’ve lots of people in social care interested in moving into the social work workforce but at the moment there’s a barrier for them. This scheme is all about removing the barrier.”

But Tony Stanley, chief social worker in Birmingham, told Community Care he had four main concerns over the group’s proposals.

He said: “One is that they didn’t seem to present any kind of research base to draw on to make the argument for going down this route. Secondly, this is employer-driven and employer-led and I would argue many local authorities are already failing in leadership and management of social workers, so how are we gauging quality when it comes to employer-led apprenticeships?

“Thirdly, if we’re going to offer an undergraduate degree in a workplace then we’re going to need excellent workplaces that support learning and training, and we don’t have enough of them just now, we clearly don’t based on what Ofsted has found. Lastly, I think it’s a fundamental mistake that they are moving away from the international definition of social work to a localised version for their degree.”

Ruth Allen, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers, said there was merit in exploring new options for developing social workers but admitted her organisation had some concerns over the apprenticeships plans.

She said: “We need to ensure that the standards of learning and the breadth of social work expertise is maintained and that this [apprenticeships] doesn’t squeeze out attention on mainstream undergraduate and postgraduate training routes. Those routes are really important to the development of a research-rich, university-based profession.

“We also don’t think it’s acceptable to unilaterally redefine social work around one scheme. There is an international definition. We should have a definition that’s rooted in the fact we’re a global profession, even if it is tailored for our national requirements.”

Allen said there was a risk that the employer-driven nature of the apprenticeships could lead to a narrow view of social work being taught.

“It depends how much employers are going to work with the profession, which means working with educationalists, the professional body and their own professional leaders, to ensure that their conception of social work is not shrunken down to something that is overly functional,” she said.

“I think the point here is that they won’t get a high achieving, ambitious, sustainable workforce if they over constrain what they allow people to do or if they test people on the wrong things.”

The social worker programme is being developed in response to the government’s introduction of a national apprenticeships levy in April this year. The levy means any employer with a pay bill of more than £3m, will have 0.5 per cent of their outlay put towards an apprenticeship scheme.

Woodham told delegates that with all councils covered by the levy, running social work apprenticeships offered an opportunity to get funding to help reverse the declining number of ‘grow your own social worker’ schemes in recent years.

“It is a chance to bring staff through the system who are excellent care workers, or maybe people with lived experience who are working in the system and need the opportunity,” he said.

The social work standard has been approved by the government’s Institute for Apprenticeships. The trailblazer group must now submit its plans for the employer assessment later this year and gain HCPC approval for the courses themselves.

Woodham said 40 universities and colleges had expressed interest in delivering the scheme. Similar schemes are being developed for occupational therapists, physios and nurses, he added.

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8 Responses to Apprenticeships will not ‘dumb down’ social work, say backers

  1. MRM July 26, 2017 at 12:13 am #

    The idea of an apprenticeship in theory sounds promising. However, in practice, I do not believe this will provide an enriched educational experience for future Social workers I think the statement made about too much poor leadership and management already indicates that we are not in a position as a profession to deliver on the job training in the way of a apprenticeship and this is supported by outcomes from Ofsted Inspections of local authorities I also agree that we should not move away. from an international Definition of Social Work.

    I think it is important to explore new ways of attracting and training. Social workers. But we have to be very careful how we create search opportunity’s without. Diluting our existing standards and continuing to work towards improving the quality of training standards required for the profession. We must not also not forget that we continue to raise our credibility within our profession and therefore should be mindful not to do anything to jeopardise what we have been working towards from many years. It is important that we do not take steps backwards that can be harmful to our profession. I think the question is would you support doctors training through an apprenticeship scheme?

  2. Elvie McMurtagh July 26, 2017 at 11:25 am #

    I take issue with the term ‘trailblazers’ – what have the rest of us been doing over the years?

    The primary problem isn’t with existing staff or even existing social work training (though, in my opinion, it needs to better reflect the realities of practice) it’s our increasingly dysfunctional society and the government policies which allow the dysfunction to thrive.

  3. Liz Timms July 26, 2017 at 12:33 pm #

    ” anyone going through the apprenticeship route has to be able to meet the same standards as any other route”. If this is the case why do they need to redefine social work to suit the particular needs of the apprenticeship scheme?
    Also, have they considered the long term career options of the apprentices who may later want to continue their careers in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland or further afield where the internationally accepted definition of social work prevails? The high risk is that those qualifying in social work through the apprenticeship scheme will not find their social work qualification accepted beyond the borders of England.

  4. Right to Reply1 July 26, 2017 at 12:36 pm #

    In theory this is a good idea, but I have worked in a ‘grow your own’ organisation and one big downfall is that the recruited, once qualified have had no other experience of working in another organisation, especially if statutory, an LA. The newly qualified, once done their year’s AYSE then go straight onto do Masters level courses. Where is the experience, etc. and these are going to be leaders; this worries me. This can also be a way of not introducing ‘new blood’ and could end up with a very inward looking organisation.
    There could also be a query about having only people in your organisation doing social work who have only that organisations views and not others. Not all going on the ‘grow your own’ have previous substantive experience in care, etc. as used to be required and always made for a more rounded, resilient and experienced worker.
    Too much focus on the academic side can also be an issue; you need to have a balance.

  5. Blair McPherson July 26, 2017 at 1:03 pm #

    I like the idea that acquiring skills, knowledge and experience on the job that an ” apprentership” implies. However social work training has always been a mixture of theory and practice, of university based learning and practice placements. I myself spent two years as a trainee in a range of placements prior to undertaking the post graduate course at the University of Birmingham .This was funded by my employer Birmingham City Council on the understanding I worked for them for a further two years on qualifying. In effect a six year apprenticeship. This seemed to me at the time and still today an excellent model.

  6. Andrew July 26, 2017 at 2:08 pm #

    I think that as a profession we should be open to this as an idea. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question what it looks like and try and improve it but I think we should welcome all ideas as to how to increase the workforce.

    Only last week we had an article about “where are the next generation of social workers going to come from?”.

    In over 30 years as a social worker I have met and worked with many people in different roles: Family Centre Workers, Family Resource Workers, residential Workers who would have made great social workers but who told me they were held back by not having the ability to take two (as it used to be) or more years out of work to qualify. Many of these had their own families. Perhaps this would offer them a route to qualification.

    Attracting people them them to become social workers would be great – we know that the average age of social workers has fallen substantially over the last 20 years. Diversifying the age range would be a good thing.

    Finally, from social workers I have worked with who qualified int he last 5-10 years I can’t say that I feel the current courses are serving them as exactly great preparation, so why not engage with this idea and improve it before it starts.

  7. Mark July 26, 2017 at 8:06 pm #

    Just imagine the opportunity this gives to all those potentially brilliant people out there who will make great social workers but couldn’t train due to life examples. At the very same conference we heard from a care leaver now work By I. Social care who clearly outlined the barriers to training if you don’t follow then normal paths.

    All those individuals who were failed by school systems that never had the option but are now brilliant social care staff, finally have an opportunity to possible join our fantastic profession.

    People who may have made life choices at 18-21 they now wish they had t or parent of young families who forewent training to prioritise their children now have a path.

    People who financially cannot afford to train or risk the uncertainty of no job at the end. Again now have an option

    The apprenticeship is one option among what are now many options. It will be validated by HCPC the same as every other SW training path so any fear over employer drive will be balanced by regulation as with any other programme. . I don’t see there is anymore concern to this than every other route.

    It will be more inclusive of the very social care staff that we need to become SWs to ensure a strong diverse professional base.

  8. Nora McClelland July 26, 2017 at 9:00 pm #

    Are the same arguments about to rehearsed again..I imagine most SWs remember the recent arguments and debates about the introduction of new social work entry routes of Frontline and Think ahead – the claims were of a necessary elitist barrier to improve on the standards of existing qualifying programmes an of SW generally – and there was government backing for this in the privileged/advantageous financial support for the future high fliers destined to solve all the professions multiple problems and employers recruitment/retention concerns….(ummm…just as teach-first was supposed to do for schools performances/recruitment/retention of teachers!). StepUp also provided financial advantages comparative to bursary for students on traditional MA and BA routes (and employer benefits in terms of labour) …
    Apprenticeships may be a good idea and I remain open to the idea that this route can keep the opportunities open more broadly for people from different walks of life (not just for the academic high fliers of FL and TA) to join the profession from which because of because of the financial difficulties many people might face in taking on a commitment to a very limited bursary dependent period of study they might not otherwise do

    A criticism that apprenticeship programmes would be employer-led indicates this might be a concern for SW – if this is so (and I think it may be- but remain open to the idea there might be shared ground to find in this) then we do need to examine this and then the reasons why this might be problematic can be aired/discussed openly and other models for social work education (eg teaching partnerships) might benefit from this discussion too
    But do we need ask why apprenticeships are being suggested now – despite all the “solutions” the new programmes were purported to offer – is there still a recruitment issue or is this a retention issue – Can we think about this in a more open and more critically focused way rather than splitting and blaming programme provider or employer or (quality of ) applicant/newly qualified workers can’t we do this more thoughtfully together?

    I have a number of questions I think need some agreement on…not least is the old longstanding definitional difficulty – of what a social worker is/is expected to be (and expected to be by who?) – What are the realities of practice – why is this referred to as if it were something that might be a surprise to a NQSW?
    What should a SW know and when….is a SW expected to have acquired all knowledge at the point of qualification (which I sometimes think might be the unreasoned and unrealistic expectation of some) or is there an expectation of ongoing professional development (and in the reality of practice are work expectations/responsibilities held related in anyway to this) ?
    What do social work employers/government want SW’s to know and do… is this any different to what the programmes offer – or any different from the expectations that people applying to become a social worker (whatever route they apply to) might have or is this any different from the ideas people who might encounter and be served by SWs) might have about what a SW is/will do?
    Why do people leave SW practice…and where do they go to..what do they do.. ?
    My observation is that many do stay and strive to make a positive contribution to the lives of people they work with – in all areas of SW practice – leaving for some is not about leaving the profession but more about leaving an area of SW service, related to some disillusionment in not being able to feel helpful through being over-burdened with (too many) case responsibilities so the ability to be helpful is constrained and a move to another SW service may enable SWs to feel more like the SW they hoped to be when they started out…but that’s just my impression…what do I know!
    Can anyone help me with the answers?