Over the last decade, many local authorities have reshaped their social work training provision by establishing social work academies.
At the heart of many of those transitions has been social work consultant Dame Lorna Boreland-Kelly, who was first asked to set up an academy almost a decade ago by Dave Hill, when he was director of children’s services at the London Borough of Croydon.
Social work academies have, says Dame Lorna, changed the nature of learning and development in almost all local authorities, even those that don’t have one.
“Beforehand there was often just a blanket approach to training in local authorities. A list of training courses chosen by the employer that everyone had to have been on by the end of the year. The academy approach changed that by showing how training and CPD needed to be far more tailored to the needs of individual workers and how they wanted their career to progress.”
Social work academies provide a structured career path and continuing professional development for social workers that is also mapped to the needs of the local area. Training, skills and support on offer are divided into ‘faculties’ with links to the local higher education institution (HEI). Dame Lorna says ideally they should also involve ‘social learning’, where social workers can learn together at roadshows, faculty events and conferences.
Origins of academies
The idea originally germinated in Hertfordshire in 2009 as an approach that pre-dated the assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE) for newly qualified practitioners. The academy offered six months of intensive support, training and guidance as well as peer support and mentoring to prepare them for the realities of social work practice.
Hill had decided the idea should be replicated in Croydon and Dame Lorna asked to visit Hertfordshire to prepare for her job interview for the role. She stills pays tribute to Hertfordshire’s generosity in showing her around and talking through their approach.
“But I felt the idea could go much further. During my interview I told the panel that I felt the academy should be for all social work staff, not just newly-qualifieds, because I could see the opportunities for the employer of helping all social workers develop and increasing their skills within an organisation.”
Dame Lorna says she believed it would also be a sure way to improve the recruitment and retention of high-quality staff who would be able to progress their career while staying with the same employer.
Croydon launched its academy in 2010. Since then, Dame Lorna has either set up or advised on the creation of nine academies.
Targeting the wider children’s workforce
Her latest project, the reinvention of Surrey Children’s Services Academy, shows how far the idea has developed since those early days, she says.
“This one is quite different because it covers all of the children’s workforce including those who work in police, education, early years, voluntary groups and health. Because it should be about helping people right at the start. If you’re a support worker you should be able to see very clearly what you need to do to progress to become a social worker, for example, or to work in different roles in different agencies. If you’re a team manager, you should get all the support you need to become an effective leader.”
Social work academies have sprung up across the country and the idea is no longer considered novel or innovative but approaches often differ widely. Some are still focused just on ASYE/NQSWs, some are integrated into teaching partnerships or apprenticeship schemes. Some are focused on the knowledge and skills statements and accreditation requirements while others are focused on the specialist needs and skills required for the area.
Dame Lorna says she feels her ‘gold standard’ academy would follow the Surrey model, which covers all the staff who are serving children and families in the area.
“And although it doesn’t require a teaching partnership there must be very close relationships with the local HEIs. It’s about the employer having influence over the intake and education of students and the post-graduate opportunities on offer to their workforce.”
Need to learn lessons
Dame Lorna says she would like to see all of this learning collated and shared and even perhaps some common success criteria to be used to evaluate them.
“I’d like to see an association of academies so all that learning can be pooled somewhere and shared between different councils. It could be formal or informal but it should include local authorities and voluntary groups such as Barnardo’s, who are doing some really interesting things in this area as well.”
She says it might also help clarify the relationship between teaching partnerships and academies.
“In some areas there were already strong relationships so it’s been very straightforward to build on that but in others I think it’s trickier, particularly where the teaching partnership may not include all the HEIs that have links to an area”.”
In the face of budget cuts Dame Lorna says academies have had to work smarter.
“We’ve had to find little pockets of funding whenever we can such as innovation funding for example. But I think it’s also important for social work leaders to look at the costs of an academy in the round.
“Training is often the first thing to be cut in a budget but instead of spending lots of money on recruitment and retention bonuses, if employers just improved their CPD offer then it would have the same impact and the organisation would be getting the benefit of those new skills and abilities.”
Three keys to success
She says her experience has taught her that before contemplating setting up an academy three core foundations must be in place– the first is a clear understanding and support for the concept from senior leadership; the second is an appreciation of the work that will need to be done to ensure staff understand the vision and are committed to it being the way forward.
Staff need to feel ‘this is my academy and it’s here for me’ rather than some new policy initiative that they’re not quite sure what it is and what it’s supposed to do which they will just ignore,” she explains.
The last is celebration.
“I’m very keen on making sure each academy has a proper launch event and roadshows that really showcase and reward successes because you need to feel this is positive project that makes you feel good to be a part of it.
“I’d celebrate a teacup me! But that’s because this is a hard job and it’s important to celebrate when people get things right, when they’ve done enough to be able to progress and when they’ve made a difference to children and families.”
This year’s Community Care Live 2019 boasts over 30 free learning sessions to equip you to face the key challenges in social work practice today. You can also sign up to any of our eight legal learning sessions to help ensure you have the legal literacy your role requires. Register now to ensure you don’t miss out.