‘As a low-income student, I struggle to see a future for myself in social work’

A masters student reflects on the funding disparities they feel will create a less-diverse social work workforce

Image of student at work
Photo: Solis Images/Fotolia

by Carson Rainham*

It was in early October 2016 that students at Goldsmiths, University of London, including myself, made the decision to embark upon the first student fee strike known to the UK.

The decision, which saw almost our entire cohort withhold our fees from the university for a year, was made out of a frustration about the lack of financial support to Masters students.

While our demands for fees to be capped at the level which is covered by the bursary were not realised, we did manage to secure £1000 per head which was divided amongst our cohort based on need. This was a compromise from management who recognised that the decision to award £1000 to each new applicant of the 2017-18 academic year meant that we lost out, positioned between the cohort before us who paid no fees, amazingly due to a clerical error in their first year, and this new recruitment incentive.

In the past month, a new cohort came together with some of last year’s fee strikers to discuss pertinent issues they face as social work MAs. Together we focused on tackling a number of key issues including, but not limited to, the extrication of low-income and black and minority ethnic (BAME) students due to rising fees and funding cuts, low class numbers and poor-quality placements.

From these discussions came a decision to compare and understand the experience of social work students across London.

‘Funding decimated’

A forum on Facebook, shared by BASW’s own social media, has been created for students to discuss issues close to them and build a network aiming to overcome obstacles facing many social work students. Here students, practice educators and social work activists can pool their ideas and their struggle into something meaningful.

The ability to conduct social work in any meaningful way is being stripped from students because resource allocation and funding has been decimated. Placements are increasingly becoming sites for students to complete the leg-work of overstretched and underfunded departments. One student on our course has done nothing but tackle a backlog of Care Act Assessments since October. Discussions on the forum have shown that that one person is entering their fourth week without a practice educator.

Frontline is the double-edged sword of social work education. Seemingly positive, it draws in its recruits with its promise of a fast-track qualification, where you can learn on the job and get paid. Yet, unlike MAs who are required to have six to twelve months in a social care setting under their belt, Frontline requires no prior experience.

With its purpose of bringing in ‘high calibre’ students – who are often from Russell Group backgrounds– it re-establishes a class divide in social work education that collides with Masters programmes. While both Frontline and Masters programmes welcome people from diverse backgrounds, only MA courses are recruiting higher than average levels of BAME students. Still, despite this heightened diversity, it means nothing if there is not the adequate financial support for low-income students on MA courses.

While Frontline students can expect a wage during their training, we instead could expect a capped bursary with no regard to the rate of inflation, unpaid placements, and substantial tuition fees, which rise each year. Universities face a crisis in securing funding for Masters social work programmes as Frontline becomes more popular.

Demographic shift

While an evaluation has shown positives to the Frontline training and the graduates it produces, its preferential funding at the expense of other routes during a time of financial uncertainty in universities and for poorer students risks creating a major demographic shift in who becomes social workers as the government’s desire for the ‘best and brightest’ puts others off.

Last year the government made proposals to include within the Children and Social Work Act 2017 the choice for local authorities to opt out of its child protection duties. Government funded social housing has fallen by 97% since the Conservative Party took power in 2010. By 2022 5.2 million children are expected to live in poverty with a year on year increase occurring since 2010.

Social worker students are privy to a constant struggle between child protection services and housing while they take time out of their day to deliver food parcels to families on their caseload.

In this context, to passively allow a government that has instigated a catastrophe within social work to continually make decisions and implement programmes which could change the demographic of who becomes social workers would be to support its ideology.

MA courses for social work are known for their diversity of low-income and BAME students but the situation for students such as myself is becoming untenable. Last year, in a discussion with a course convenor speculating on the potential scrapping of the NHS Social Work Bursary, we were told that with no bursary there would be no more MA Social Work.

In the previous academic year, one third of MA students failed the dissertation at the first attempt. Although the majority passed on a second attempt, the programme convenor speculated a reason students may have struggled is due to wider pressures on students to get paid work to support their studies.

Future for myself

As a low-income student, I struggle to see a future for myself in social work. My graduation is not guaranteed, as I’m still yet to pay my fees for this year. I even skip meals frequently and work two jobs outside of my placement to do so. Yet, my passion for social work and for child protection drives me to try to make the most of my education.

That includes challenging its architects. If social work and social work education allows itself to become increasingly apolitical, as many social workers I’ve met report it to be, then it will become impossible to stop social work from becoming just another tool of the state to enact its political goals. These are often contradictory to the needs of service users.

Social work students should be critical of their education and the institutions which provide it, seeking to change it based on the very values that led them to social work in the first place. Without students fighting now, there will unlikely be social workers to fight for the rights of service users in the future.

If you are a social work student in the London Area, search ‘London Social Work Student Forum (London SStuf)’ on Facebook to get involved.

Carson Rainham is a pseudonym. They are a masters social work student.

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8 Responses to ‘As a low-income student, I struggle to see a future for myself in social work’

  1. Ray Jones February 8, 2018 at 2:19 pm #

    There are really important issues and concerns so well presented in this article, especially for a profession based on the values of confronting and challenging discrimination and inequality and which works with those who are often stigmatised and marginalised. Well done! Thank you.

  2. sam February 8, 2018 at 3:10 pm #

    thank you for putting into words what i have felt to be the case for some time. i completed a degree last year and wanted to go on to do Social Work. my passion is for disabled children, my child being disabled and having had to fight all the way to address his needs. i could not see how as a single parent i could manage to fund myself through a masters… as it is i am on carers allowance and cannot fit work in with studying… i would love to find a way. a lot of people i know with disabled children have had to massively reduce their hours or give up work entirely…and want to go on to study and change careers as a result, not just as a need. there should be systems in place to support those in need, whereever they live, to be able to study. please dont give up with your campaign. good luck.

  3. 3rd year student February 8, 2018 at 3:18 pm #

    Agreed, however for me as a student the biggest issue is the gap between what is taught at university and what I can see is left of social work values in the constraints of statutory social work. I believe in pretty much everything I’ve been taught at university but cannot say the same for the constrained way in which people have to work in stat settings. I live in social housing so can afford to earn less and completely swerve statutory work entirely if I want to and at the moment I do. I don’t need the money or security of LA contract so I’ll find somewhere I can see plenty of SW values in evidence and work there thanks very much! That’s what my SW education and window through placements have given me! As a brilliant student colleague said in a lecture.. ‘if you want to do social work don’t be a social worker!’ (friend, 2017) 🙂
    The government need challenging so vigorously about the state and working conditions of social work and I’ll be voting with my feet 😉 which I accept I can afford to, not everyone can as this article says so well.

  4. Anon SW February 8, 2018 at 6:53 pm #

    I am a Qualified Social Worker in a Statutory Chidren’s team at a London Council. I did a BA degree in Social Work. My final placement was Statutory Adults but on graduation I managed to make the switch to Children’s Services as that was where I wanted my career to head towards. The problem as I see it that BA and MA students are typically not greatly valued by Local Authorities. This is because managers in Children’s Services teams don’t have confidence that a high percentage of those students will be able to carry out the statutory tasks required in Children’s Services. I found my BA course excellent in terms of learning to think like a Social Worker, communicating well with service users and having an anti-discriminatory outlook at all times. However, the difficult parts of my role relate to: juggling complex 16 cases; keeping up in a culture where everybody works 7 days a week (and often nights) and having everything you do being scrutinised by barristers in a court hearing. My social work training simply didn’t prepare me for any of that and I’ve needed to learn those skills independently. Frontline by all accounts works much more closely with Local Authorities than the Universities do and my own experience of Frontline colleagues is that they’re all very good. They typically have all the empathy needed and also the technical skills required too. None of the above takes away the validity of the points in the article. If I was starting out my social work education now, my biggest fear would be that Frontline candidates would mop up all the high quality Statutory Children’s Placements. Without one of those, I think it will be increasingly difficult to break into a Local Authority Children’s Services team. One of the only reasons I managed it was because my Statutory Adult’s placement was with very high risk adults and so I was therefore able to evidence working with individuals of similarly complex needs to the children in my current team. My frustration is that the Universities and Local Authorities didn’t work much more closely on the BA/MA courses. I appreciate that students go on placements but it would have been helpful for Social Work Managers to give lectures to students 2-3 times a week and also setting assignments. For whatever reasons, that active involvement didn’t seem to happen and so I don’t find it that surprising that Frontline emerged when it did. It seems to be a rational response to a shortage of Social Workers in Children’s Services. My advice to anyone not getting into Frontline and pondering a BA or MA course would be to think seriously about how you are going to demonstrate the equivalent skills of that programme. The best way of doing so is to maximise the opportunities from the placements you get, whether Statutory or not. Jobs all come down to an application form and interview and if you can show employers that you have the skills they are looking for, you’ll always have a chance.

    • Ian Kemp February 14, 2018 at 4:46 pm #

      After graduating in Biochemistry I worked in the Pharmaceutical industry for 8 years than took a degree in Psychology part time at Birkbeck London university Finishing in 1970 I than got a job with L/A ,in Birmingham
      as a unqualified Social worker and than 2 years later was seconded on full pay to what was called CQSW. at a university in London for 2 years. Than went back to L/A worked there for a few years in generic teams.Than back down to London . It was a great time to be a social worker. Fantastic team support . There many grads from all areas who wanted to do social work. They were dedicated and committed. The Unions were Strong. There were social work departments with social work directors who were social workers. With the advent of the 80s and the Thatcher Gov it all began to change .
      .Social work over the years was downgraded . Social work departments were got rid of and incorporated into Local Gov Education departments, Unions lost a lot of their power to support staff. The pressures of work increased with decreasing status . Departments were split into the old specialities. There was a lose of a lot of what could be described as team spirit. Local Gov bureaucracy increased with a range Child deaths after expensive inquiries Run by a lawyer not a social worker ..The media was encouraged by politicians to scape goat social workers . Skills such as approved social worker were taken away so social work become a cog in the L.A bureaucratic machine. Conditions of work deteriorated as one became more of a local Gov officer rather than a social worker or at least what one might call a real professional, Over recent years social work courses have become more specialised. Whether they are able to make better social workers in the context of the L.A ethos is debatable. I left social work eventually and qualified as a Mental Health Psychologist. I have kept in contact with old colleague’s over the years. They all tell me things are getting worse as the L.A system squeezes the life out of social work.
      What is the way forward for social work ?
      I would suggest, bring back proper social work departments, outside of L.A funded separately.Bring back all homes children and old people , care workers, fostering back in house to the newly created social work department. Professionalise it with proper support and recreate the professional ethos that there used to be. .That the beginning of a proper profession with its own research incorporating universities.
      Is it a dream ? yes possibly. It would cost a lot at first but would gradually become cheaper. A cost effect analyses would be useful .Would any politician touch it ?. The prevailing Gov certainly would not .
      So I remain pessimistic re the Future of what’s called social work today.
      Anybody else got any other ideas ?

  5. John Fellows February 8, 2018 at 7:17 pm #

    Social work paid by a local authority is always politically led generally mirroring central goverments agenda

  6. Nick February 8, 2018 at 8:38 pm #

    Generally agree with the sentiment for sure. As a point of clarification Frontline does require you complete the pg dip before you start on the MA programme

  7. Tom Hughes February 14, 2018 at 3:01 pm #

    To be blunt I could never afford to be a Social Worker in London, let alone a student one.