‘We are creating a social work education system where those in greatest need receive the least’

A lecturer questions whether the impact of fast-track training routes on access to social work education is in line with the profession's values of diversity and social justice

Photo: Kasto/Adobe Stock

By Joe Hanley, lecturer, Brunel University London

Widening participation is a policy agenda that aims to broaden access and success in higher education to population groups that have historically been less likely to engage or succeed, including students from low-income households, care leavers, students with disabilities, mature students and students from certain ethnic groups.

Social work education has historically been a success story in relation to widening participation. This is perhaps unsurprising. Social work and widening participation both have their historical roots in social justice. Social work expertise in relation to social inclusion, managing complex group dynamics and facilitating change also means that social work educators are in a prime position to be leaders in this area.


Skills for Care’s latest report on social work education found 34% of students who enrolled on undergraduate or postgraduate social work courses in 2016-17 were from black Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds (BME). This was up from 25% for social work courses in 2011-12 and higher than the average for all higher education courses in 2016-17 (27%). Also, 33% of undergraduate social work students and 45% of postgraduates enrolling in 2016-17 were aged over 30, compared with 15% and 33%, respectively, across undergraduate and postgraduate courses as a whole.

While there is still more work to be done, in particular around the black student attainment gap, these achievements should be celebrated and built upon, in particular as higher education institutions spend hundreds of millions on widening participation activities every year, rarely seeing much, if any, clear success.

Prior to 2011, these achievements in social work education were generally acknowledged as a positive. The now defunct General Social Care Council made reference to the success in widening access in their 2009 and 2010 Raising Standards reports. In 2009 the Social Work Task Force recognised that social work courses were admitting a diverse student cohort and that postgraduate courses continued to be “popular and show good progression and achievement rates”.

However, more recently these successes have been described in more negative terms. In particular, the Narey and Croisdale-Appleby reports into social work education in 2014 both raised concerns about social work student recruitment focusing too much on widening participation, potentially at the expense of academic rigour.

New routes

Buying into the perspective that there are deficiencies in the students being recruited into social work, we have witnessed the rapid introduction of fast-track training routes into the profession, specifically Step Up to Social Work, Frontline and Think Ahead. These new routes have been presented as the answer to the presumed deficits in social work student recruitment, by attracting “talented”, “quality” and “high quality” students.

Think Ahead’s 2017 impact review highlighted that 14% of its intake was from Oxford or Cambridge compared with 0.5% of entrants to social work master’s in 2011-12; the introduction to Frontline’s 2016-17 annual report referred to having recruited “bright, committed graduates”, “many of whom will have foregone more lucrative jobs”; and Step Up’s latest frequently answered questions states that its entry criteria mean that it recruits people who “have proven academic resilience to perform at a high standard for a sustained period of time”.

In order to attract these students, fast-track programmes promise a faster, better funded and leadership-focused route into the profession. Of particular note, financial incentives are provided (to the tune of £16,756 to £19,833 per year for those starting this academic year), making these routes by far the most expensive way (for the taxpayer) to qualify a social worker.

However, available data point to fast-track programmes recruiting fewer individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds than other social work educational routes:

  • The 2016 evaluation of Frontline found that students were “more likely to be younger, white, and from higher socioeconomic backgrounds” than a comparator group from other courses;
  • The 2013 evaluation of Step Up found that, while one in eight white applicants were offered a place, none of the 132 black British-African applicants got beyond the assessment centre stage;
  • Self-reported figures from Think Ahead in 2017 showed that 16% of students were from BAME backgrounds, well below the average for postgraduate social work courses.

How is this happening?

Though latest figures from Frontline show improvements on diversity measures between its 2017 and 2019 cohorts, its BAME intake rate of 18% remains well below the social work average. There are a number of possible explanations for why fast-track programmes have developed in this way. Most notably, the financial incentives available to them have supported the recruitment of students with particularly strong academic credentials, in a way that traditional university programmes are unable to. Considering the English education system has been shown to consistently reward prior advantage, it should not be surprising that this approach leads to more advantaged students on these programmes.

However, there are other factors that can explain the demographic disparities. The fast-track nature of these programmes means that by necessity they are intensive in nature, and Think Ahead and Frontline both include a summer institute, over five or six weeks, in a specific location that all candidates must attend. In the evaluations of both Frontline and Step Up, students have noted the challenge of balancing their study with other responsibilities, such as caring. Considering mature and working-class students are more likely to have these types of obligations, again it should not be surprising that this impacts on equality of access.

Another potential factor relates to the marketing culture that surrounds social work fast-track programmes. The marketing materials for these programmes make regular reference to students as future leaders, while also highlighting that many of their students are Russell Group educated. Research has shown that this type of advertising can send implicit messages to potential candidates about whether they would be welcome or comfortable in joining a course of this nature.

Most likely the demographic disparities can be explained by a combination of these various factors, as well as many others that are both seen and unseen.

Social justice

Considering fast-track students are more likely to come from financially advantaged backgrounds, and these programmes receive disproportionately large financial support, it is time to recognise that what is being created in England is a social work education system where those most in need of financial support are least able to access it. This is a status quo that all social workers who are committed to social justice should be actively challenging.

It is important to stress that neither critics nor promoters of fast-track social work education are suggesting that students cannot be great social workers from any route. However, if social work educators are going to support the development of practitioners who are committed to social justice and value diversity, then they are doing their students a disservice if they are not educating them in a way that also epitomises these values. This should include prioritising diversity and equality over segregating students based on prior academic achievement, and inevitably, social advantage.

These issues are examined in more depth in my recent article: The best and the brightest’: widening participation and social justice in contemporary English social work education, European Journal of Social Work 

Joe Hanley is a social work lecturer at Brunel University London specialising in social work education. He is also undertaking a Doctorate of Education with Brunel University London.  

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15 Responses to ‘We are creating a social work education system where those in greatest need receive the least’

  1. Esther Hack October 17, 2019 at 4:15 pm #

    thank you Joe. I’ve had similar questions in my mind since these courses started. Good to see it set out clearly in public

  2. D October 17, 2019 at 4:33 pm #

    This rings true for me. To add to the point about the summer institute and the potential obligations that can act as a barrier for a disproportionate number of mature and working class students – I imagine there are many other possible barriers to inclusion. The sheer social intensity of a 6 week residential programme was too daunting for me, and I would describe myself as having mild social anxiety. Those with more prominent mental health issues may have found the idea of this even tougher. As for the marketing of the programmes as for ‘elite’ students, if a student doesn’t already feel excluded by this, they may do when they realise they have to spend 6 weeks away from home with their ‘elite’ peers!

  3. A Man Called Horse October 17, 2019 at 5:36 pm #

    It is clear that White Middle Class recruits are the preferred choice. One can speculate on why the Government would want this? My guess is that they want students who are more likely to share the values of the Government. While Social Work needs good intelligent people it does not need people who can tolerate the obnoxious inequalities and poverty they will encounter in the job. We need people who will at least despise the Government for destroying the welfare state and cutting peoples benefits. Social Work is hard and having to deal with problems created through Austerity and cuts to services is a sickening fact of life. Social engineering of the worst kind, might as well just recruit only Tory Social Workers and before anyone says there are no Tory Social workers I would say for certain that they most definately exist.

    • Dodgeroo October 18, 2019 at 7:57 am #

      Very well said

  4. IJ October 17, 2019 at 6:28 pm #

    Very thought provoking article. One of the things I really like about social work is the diversity of my colleagues.

  5. Nnenna Vivian oguzie October 18, 2019 at 9:28 am #

    Am a student, studying social work in my school.
    I want to know how useful is this course?

  6. dk October 18, 2019 at 10:01 am #

    Not necessarily a popular point to make here based on this article’s comments and comments on those like it, but I can’t help but notice that the author here at least does not engage at all with the Narey or Croisdale-Appleby reports other than to frame them as being pessimistic. Too many in traditional academia still cannot acknowledge, let alone accept, that the fast-track routes are in many ways of their own making. Countless reviews, inquiries and reports have evidenced well that traditional academic routes are too often not producing graduates capable of undertaking good quality safeguarding work. What I find increasingly baffling about this is that universities and academics have tacitly (and in my view very rightly) made this very argument themselves in the past, albeit framed very differently. You only need to look into ‘failure to fail’ research and the pressure, sometimes even litigious, university’s describe coming under to pass students who have come to expect that payment of their tuition fees alone warrants a degree. My view would be that many of the challenges universities have faced that have resulted in less rigorous selection and assessment have not been of their own making (and that we can thank the pathologcal application of free market ideals to education for them), but they are responsible for their own complete lack of response.

    Perhaps the absence of any real critique of Narey’s work sums up the single biggest dilemma facing social work in the 21st century … What do we do if the profession’s values and ethics aren’t enough to make a difference?

    Also missing from the author’s argument, at least in this piece, is any recognition of the right of the vulnerable children and adults social workers serve to receive the best service. I’m not sure I’d quite go for a ‘there’s-no-place-for-political-correctness-in-safeguarding’ Laming stance, but some attention to the dilemma of squaring equality in social work education/recruitment with the rights of service users is surely due.

    That Frontline, Step Up and Think Ahead are problematic in a range of ways arguably antithetical to social work’s core ethics is, I think, very obvious and very worthy of interrogation. What baffles me is the seeming ignorance of the plain fact that the same applies to more traditional routes.

    The comment about recruitment of “Tory social workers” is very, very silly.

    • Joe Hanley October 18, 2019 at 2:21 pm #

      Thanks for the interest in the article. Obviously it is short and can’t cover everything. I engage with the issues you have raised in more depth in my article “The ‘quality’ of social work students in England: a genealogy of discourse 2002–18” (Open Access). May be worth having a look.


      • dk October 21, 2019 at 2:25 pm #

        Thanks! Do appreciate that not everything can be addressed in a single article. I definitely will read this article; my LA does not subscribe to any journal service, so open access is always appreciated.

  7. Ria Neptune October 18, 2019 at 12:41 pm #

    Great article really clearly highlighting how important it is to think about the future of social work. As discussed above, Social justice and diversity are core principles that should be looked into at every level.

  8. HT October 18, 2019 at 2:06 pm #

    I am a student currently doing an MA. The NHS bursary pays around £4500 ish a year towards tuition fees, and the rest the student has to find, in my case it was an additional £3000 pounds last year that came out of my living expenses, this year it’s £1500. For the cohort who have just started, their fees have increased by £1600 over the 2 years, meanwhile the bursary remains the same.

    You cannot claim Universal credit or recieve housing benefit if you are a student, and because the course is a full time taught MA with placement, people are struggling to be able to afford to live, some are having to work around placements and lectures to the extent that they are working 7 days a week just to keep their head above water.

    If you want diversity, and people to enter the profession from lower income backgrounds, then increase the bursary and financial support. Lower tuition fees, as over the 2 years I need to contribute an additional £4500, while the cohort who have started weeks ago will pay £6100, this has to come from somewhere, usually the maintenance that you are given to live on. And if you do work, you have to declare it to the NHS and this is taken off your bursary, so you can’t win.

    Most of the students on my cohort either live at home with parents and have come straight out of doing their BA, or they have a partner who works and is able to support them (but this means reduced bursary and no financial help with childcare, still with the £4.5k to find over the next 2 years).

    I could not afford to start the course this year due to the increase in tuition fees.

  9. DB October 19, 2019 at 7:00 pm #

    I commend a lot of what this article says about diversity on fast track schemes. That said I am not sure the university sector has ever proposed a legitimate alternative. A return to the previous status quo would do nothing to promote access. Is a self-funding masters’ route for example really likely to bring in much greater numbers of people from diverse backgrounds?

    Frontline/Step-Up and Think Ahead might attract more privilege. The pure stats do not reveal that they also provide a more sustainable route to students who are unable to self fund. Lots of critics forget that there are students from diverse backgrounds on fast track schemes too, even if their numbers are lower. 

    Bursaries are only ever likely to be for the few. That gives us as a sector a dilemma. I wouldn’t be a social worker now without my fast track training. I had two children and couldn’t afford any other way. I’d still be doing a boring job and absolutely hating it. I love the work I’m doing now, 3 years in – even if it is very tough. I am full of admiration for people who came through tougher self-funded routes – but lots of those I know also relied on the bank of mum and dad. The university sector can’t claim to be holier than thou on this. And even if the stats are better – shock horror – there are rich white middle class people training in universities too. 

    If bursaries had been available to study at a university, I might have gone for that. They weren’t. But even if they had been wouldn’t they by their very nature be privileged and excluded many? 
    Ideally, as much high quality social work funding as possible would be offered on a bursary. I would say that more weight should be given to diversity and previous sector experience in determining who should get this funding. But it is also not that easy to attract people into a tough role. Some of what effects diversity in social work is also about pay in the sector and conditions. Poorer students with good qualifications may be under higher pressure to earn more, and might expect higher pay from a good university degree.

    How we make peace with this is unclear. My view is that bursaries should also be linked to sector retention rates. Everyone should be offered a loan to study as a social worker, with an accompanying living allowance. You should not have to pay this back if you stayed for more than five years – surely this would begin to pay dividends in terms of the big costs of agency staff? 
    Where Twitter is flooded with commentary about the private sector in social work and looks at Frontline/Think Ahead religiously (both of which are not for profit) more should be looked at it terms of the massive private interests in recruitment agencies, and children’s homes – where profit making organisations really are sucking up vast amounts of Local Authority resources. Universities and the Twitterati could be more vocal in these areas rather than the relatively limited area of training alone.

  10. Annastasia Maksymluk October 20, 2019 at 6:53 pm #

    Joe Hanley provides excellent evidence in his article:
    about the lack of actual evidence to support the apparent accepted need for fast- track programmes and about how we somehow ‘know’ that the abilities of an academic elite will somehow ensure that they will work in a more successful manner with children and families than previous generations of social workers….

  11. Jane October 21, 2019 at 8:12 am #

    A largely forgotten source of future social workers are the senior community care officers and children’s workers who are stuck at that level because life got in the way of A levels and even GCSEs, long before they came into this work. Employers should provide opportunities for staff to get their basic education up to the required standard and then work with local universities and colleges to provide either secondment or in service training. This will ensure a committed workforce who are already grounded in their area of expertise. I was only able to train, many years ago, through secondment. As a manager my final achievement was to enable a team member to access one of a tiny number of places. 20 years!!

  12. Di Galpin October 21, 2019 at 12:23 pm #

    Please read the whole paper, its a good read. Also, the constant discourse linking poor social work practice to poor education obscures the structural context of practice and the effect this has on lives.

    Regardless of where, and how, a social worker is educated there is an unrealistic expectation within govt and statutory organisations (in particular) that we deliver ‘oven ready’ social workers on qualification, ready and able to carry a complex caseload more suited to a practitioner with 5 years experience.

    And the reason this happens is because the Dept of Education tells us 2/3rd of social workers leave after 2-5yrs. When asked why they leave they do not mention their qualifying programme, but they do mention too high case loads, no support at an organisational level, no resources, inadequate funding, bureaucracy, and not being able to adhere to their professional values, being in a job with no intrinsic satisfaction………

    Social Work is no friend of any government as its holds up to society the failure of successive government policy to address the basic support needs for an increasing number of citizens of this country to thrive, i.e. housing, poverty (economic, fuel,food), equal access to higher education.

    The inequity of funding for social work students is a diversionary tactic, as is the introduction of another new regulator …. all of which is a rearrangement of the social work chairs on a sinking ship, doing a Nero as Rome burned ……..