Postgraduate social work enrolments have continued to rise, while student numbers on undergraduate courses fall and fast-track schemes continue growing their market share, a new report has shown.
The Social Work Education 2018 analysis by Skills for Care revealed that enrolments on traditional two-year postgraduate courses rose 13% to hit 1,800 in 2016-17 – their highest number for five years. The report said a likely cause was the higher relative level of funding available to postgraduates.
Numbers commencing undergraduate courses fell 12% to 2,640, steepening a gradual decline from 3,330 in 2011-12.
Meanwhile 4,220 students qualified from social work courses in 2016-17 – 1,730 from postgraduate and 2,490 from undergraduate courses – while a further 340 left without a qualification.
Of those who qualified, just under three quarters (74%) were in a social work job six months later.
A changing market
Headcounts of students starting traditional courses have remained fairly steady since 2012-13 – when they stood at 4,690 – with 4,440 enrolling in 2016-17.
But over the same period, fast-track graduate schemes Step Up to Social Work and Frontline, and more recently, the mental health-focused Think Ahead, have been staking out a larger share of the total numbers entering social work education. Enrolees on the programmes were not included in Skills for Care’s headline figures.
The schemes have attracted controversy among some academics for their quick-fire grounding in social work theory and legislation, and for the favourable funding they have attracted from the government compared with traditional courses.
In 2017 Durham university threatened to close two of its traditional social work courses citing concerns over their financial viability in the current context. However the university decided to keep running the programmes.
During 2015-16 the fast-track schemes accounted for 29% of all students starting a postgraduate social work course. For 2016-17 – an off-year for the biannual Step Up to Social Work scheme – the proportion was 13%, the Skills for Care report said.
Less competition for jobs
As numbers of people on fast-track schemes has risen, the total graduating from traditional social work courses has also been falling – though, according to the Skills for Care report, this now appears to be levelling off.
The 4,220 2016-17 graduate total was up slightly from 4,040 in 2015-16, the report said, but significantly down from the 4,760 who qualified in 2013-14 – a knock-on from a drop in enrolments between 2010-11 and 2012-13.
“Although there is no specific evidence available to this report, additional factors likely to be impacting on the trend… could include the closure of some university programmes, and the limiting of enrolment numbers as a result of the capping of the social work bursary scheme,” it added.
The report added that the longer-term dip may be a factor in the record 74% of graduates landing qualified social work jobs, far more than the 55% who did so in 2011-12.
Regional supply and demand
But the picture varies considerably for graduates across different English regions, the report found.
Regions with the highest numbers of 2016-17 graduates, the North West (910) and London (520) had the lowest percentage of job success (68% and 66% respectively). Several other regions produced only several hundred graduates but had around eight in every 10 graduates landing a job.
“This may be due to a supply and demand mismatch at regional or local level, whereby the proportion of all newly qualified social workers may be greater in one area than the relative demand,” the report said.
Looking forward to the numbers of students enrolling in 2016-17, it also noted that the North West and East of England appeared to have an oversupply of trainees relative to regional job share, while the reverse was true for the South West and West Midlands. This suggested some students would need to move around to find jobs, the report said.
Commenting on the findings, Ray Jones, emeritus professor of social work at Kingston University, said the broad good news was that “social work education is a success story”.
But he said that he found the apparent regional mismatches highlighted by the data concerning, and that councils needed to move from “workforce analysis to workforce planning”.
“The government, with professional associations and local government, really needs to look across the country and take a view around over- and under-supply,” Jones said.
He added that because the fast-track schemes, which had been “reshaping social work education under the radar”, were not evenly spread, some areas could find themselves with a severe shortage of newly-qualified social workers down the line.
“There’s a danger from government funding decisions, which favour students doing foreshortened routes, and from [universities thinking of] closing undergraduate programmes because they’re expensive to run and the hardest route for students financially,” Jones said. “It could be that local authorities have little say over the availability of social workers changing in their area, without them seeing it in advance.”
‘Our job to ensure social workers stay’
Rachael Wardell, chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services workforce development policy committee, said: “The report shows the percentage of social work graduates entering the profession within six months after qualifying has increased in recent years – and while this is positive news as leaders of children’s services, it is our job to ensure we create the conditions where they want to stay.
“As the number of children and families in need of help increases so too does our need to train more social workers but it is for individuals to decide which route into the profession suits them best,” Wardell added. “The report clearly highlights that not all routes are funded equally which might affect their decision. For employers, once an individual is qualified it doesn’t matter which route they came through it’s more about whether they able to do the job well.”