Fast-track mental health social work provider Think Ahead will expand its intake by 60% from next year following a government funding boost of at least £18m.
The Department of Health and Social Care has agreed a contract with Think Ahead to increase the number of trainees for its 2021 and 2022 cohorts from 100 to 160, with an option to extend the contract for a further year, which would take total funding to £27m. To date, just over 500 graduates have been recruited to train on Think Ahead since it started in 2016.
With applications for the 2021 intake now open, the training provider is calling for more male and Black Asian and minority ethnic applicants, following the recent release of figures showing Think Ahead is lagging behind other training routes and the social work profession in regard to representation of Black and ethnic minorities.
Rise in fast-track numbers
The announcement marks a further shift in the balance of social work training towards fast-track schemes.
About Think Ahead
The Think Ahead programme starts with a ‘summer institute’ course in social work theory – which will be four weeks next year but has been six weeks previously – followed by a year’s qualifying placement in a mental health trust or council, in a ‘unit’ of four supervised by a consultant social worker.
During this period, the trainee will receive a tax-free bursary of £17,200 outside London and £19,100 in the capital. After qualification, recruits will then spend a further year working in the trust or local authority, during which they will complete a master’s degree, alongside their assessed and supported year in employment.
In year two, recruits will be employed as a newly qualified social worker and receive a taxable salary, typically ranging from about £21,000 to £33,000 depending on where they are located.
Fellow fast-track provider Frontline – which operates a similar programme to Think Ahead with equivalent levels of financial support – has over 460 students in its 2020 cohort, its highest number yet, up from 155 in 2016.
Step Up to Social Work – the 14-month qualifying programme that, unlike Frontline or Think Ahead, is run across multiple universities – has also grown, with about 700 recruits expected to join its 2022 cohort, up from 185 in 2010 and 563 in 2018.
Across traditional university courses, enrolments numbered 4,650 in 2017-18, a total that has remained relatively stable since 2012-13, though with a shift from undergraduate to postgraduate places during that time.
Drive for more male and Black and ethnic minority recruits
Think Ahead’s drive to increase its intake of Black, Asian and minority ethnic recruits follows the release of figures showing that their representation in this year’s cohort is 17%, up from a 16% average from 2016-19, but significantly below other qualifying routes.
Meanwhile, separate figures released by Health Education England (HEE) this month showed that Black and ethnic minority representation among social workers employed by mental health trusts is lower than in local authority adults’ and children’s services.
This is despite Black people being significantly over-represented in the mental health system, particularly in inpatient services and in relation to restrictive interventions. In 2018-19, Black or Black British people were four times more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act than white people and eight times as likely to be subject to a community treatment order.
Black Asian and minority ethnic representation in social work
- Postgraduate courses: 36% (2017-18, source: Skills for Care)
- Undergraduate courses: 36% (2019, source: UCAS)
- Frontline: 22% (2020, source: Frontline)
- Think Ahead: 17% (2020, source: Think Ahead)
- Local authority adults’ social workers: 25% (2019, source: NHS Digital)
- Local authority children’s social workers: 22% (2019, source: DfE)
- NHS mental health trusts-employed social workers: 18% (2019, source: Health Education England)
In the light of the HEE figures, Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) mental health social work lead Mark Trewin, who is overseeing work to develop the profession in mental health services, said the sector needed to do better on diversity. However, he said work was being done on the issue, citing a race equality action plan being developed by chief social workers for adults Mark Harvey and Fran Leddra.
A Think Ahead spokesperson said: “Our intake is more diverse in terms of ethnicity than the population as a whole, but we know this is not good enough – we want our social workers to represent the communities they will serve. To achieve this, and to be true to our anti-racist values, we are looking to make changes in every area of our work, from recruitment, to our curriculum, to our wider work in the sector.
“To focus this, we recently began a comprehensive review of our work, including by listening to and learning from the communities we work with, and we’ve already started making changes based on the feedback we got.”
The drive to recruit male applicants is designed to tackle the low proportion of men in mental health social work, as is the case across frontline – though not management – roles across the profession.
However, the figures released this month by Health Education England showed that the proportion of men in NHS mental health services was higher, at 24%, than in council adults’ (18%) and children’s services (14%).
Mixture of online and in-person teaching
Think Ahead also said it had adapted its teaching approach for the 2021 cohort, in response to Covid-19. The current plan is for the teaching to be delivered through a mixture of online and Covid-secure in-person (covid secure) methods. This will be kept under review as the coronavirus situation and official guidance evolves.
Think Ahead is running a series of live virtual events in the coming weeks – from 30 September to mid-November – to share information about the programme and the recruitment process. All assessment centres for applicants will run online until at least December 2020.
Think Ahead chief executive Ella Joseph said the pandemic had highlighted the profund impact of social factors like isolation, relationships, finances and living arrangements on mental health.
“Social workers are uniquely placed to help people with severe mental health problems to address issues like these.
“We are delighted to be able to train hundreds more social workers, who will play a key part in the nation’s mental health recovery from coronavirus,” Joseph added.
Responding to the funding announcement, Andy Bell, deputy chief executive of charity the Centre for Mental Health, said: “Mental health social work is a crucial part of the system that enables people to live independently and on their own terms. Its distinctive role alongside health care is important for effective mental health support. Investing in the workforce is crucial to secure that long-term, and it must be accompanied by a funding settlement for social care that recognises the important role of mental health social work for people of all ages.”