Fast-track programme to train 320 more social workers in £19m contract extension

DHSC extends Think Ahead's contract, as figures show shift in programme's make-up towards trainees aged over 30, those with experience in social care and health and participants from minority groups

A black social worker looking contemplative while working at laptop
Photo: Sanja/Adobe Stock

Fast-track programme Think Ahead will train 320 more mental health social workers after the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) extended its contract up to 2027.

The £18.9m extension covers two cohorts, starting in 2024 and 2025, each of 160 trainees, the same size as the 2023 cohort.

Following a five-week grounding in social work law and theory, mostly delivered online, the participants will be placed in units of four to six in NHS or local authority mental health services and expected to qualify as a social worker in one year. During this time, they will receive a bursary of £18,250 outside of London and £20,250 within the capital, a £250 increase on current levels.

They will then be expected to complete a master’s degree, alongside their assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE), in year two of the programme, during which they are employed by the council or NHS body.

Think Ahead’s record so far

Since its inception in 2016, the scheme has trained almost 1,000 social workers to work in adult mental health – including its current 2022 and 2023 cohorts – with 92% of trainees qualifying as social workers, up to and including the 2021 cohort (source: Skills for Care).

Of those who complete the second year of the programme, 84% remain in social work practice after 12 months, said Think Ahead, based on figures drawn from its 2016-20 cohorts.

The contract extension follows calls earlier this year from NHS leaders for the programme to continue, after a workforce census revealed a 15% vacancy rate for mental health social work roles, despite a 20% boost in the number employed by NHS trusts from 2019-22.

As of last year, Think Ahead participants, qualified and unqualified, represented 3% of the NHS mental health social work workforce and 1% of local authority practitioners. This reflects the fact that the programme places more trainees in trusts than councils, with partnering with 17 NHS bodies and 10 local authorities for its 2023 cohort.

‘Essential to invest in social work’ – Lyn Romeo

“We are delighted by this opportunity to continue bolstering the workforce: finding, training and supporting compassionate and dedicated trainees who can help change the lives of the people they support,” said Think Ahead chief executive Philippa Mariani.

Lyn Romeo, chief social worker for adults

Lyn Romeo (photo: DHSC)

The DHSC’s chief social worker for adults, Lyn Romeo, added: “We know that mental ill health affects people across the life course and that social workers working with people in many areas will be providing support in relation to their mental health often alongside other multiple needs. It is essential we invest in and develop social work capacity and capability to provide the right support at the right time for those we are here to serve.”

The news came as figures released by Think Ahead showed a shift in its make-up since its inception in 2016, with trainees older, more likely to have worked in health and social care and, increasingly, from black, Asian or minority ethnic groups.

Changing profile of Think Ahead trainees

Just under half of trainees (49%) in the 2023 cohort this year were aged 31 and over, compared with a quarter in 2020 and just 17% in 2016.

The proportion who joined the programme from a related role increased from 34% to 46%, from 2020-23, while the share from minority groups grew from 17% to 27% over this time.

The latter is above their proportion in the NHS mental health social worker workforce (24%) and the target set by DHSC for representation from black, Asian and minority ethnic groups (22%) on Think Ahead.

Philippa Mariani , chief executive, Think Ahead

Philippa Mariani , chief executive, Think Ahead

Mariani said: “I think the workforce is shifting and changing – people are going into other types of roles and testing what they want for their careers – which means we are getting more applications from people already in health and social care, like mental health support workers. And Think Ahead offers a career development pathway, which people find very attractive.”

She added that the programme had sought to increase representation from black, Asian and minority ethnic groups by “making our recruitment and marketing campaigns very diverse so they reach out to people in communities and speak to people in ways they recognise”.

Focus on recruiting men to scheme

The DHSC has set the programme a 30% target for the proportion of men recruited to the 2024 and 2025 cohorts, a proportion it achieved in 2021 and 2019, but not in 2022 (23%) or 2023 (20%). A quarter of NHS mental health social workers were men, as of 2022.

Mariani, who was previously chief executive of mental health charity Mind in Croydon, said: “There’s an underlying tendency for men not to talk about their mental health. And that applies equally to people working with social workers.

“To bring men into the profession is a really good thing – it provides more roles models for young men and boys – both in terms of future careers but also in relation to talking about their mental health.”

The extension of Think Ahead’s contract underlines the significant diversity of training routes into social work in England (see box, below).

Routes into social work in England

  • University undergraduate courses (2,270 starts in 2021-22, excluding degree apprenticeships): three-year generic programmes, with fees of £9,250 a year, annual bursaries of £4,862.50 (£5,262.50 in London) for some second and third-year students and placements in years two and three.
  • University postgraduate courses (1,148 starters in 2021): two-year generic programmes, with fees of about £9,000 a year, annual bursaries of £3,362.50 (£3,762.50 in London), tuition fee contributions of £4.052, additional means-tested support for some and placements in each year.
  • Step Up to Social Work (868 starters in 2022): 14-month, biennial, Department for Education-funded (DfE) programme to train children’s social workers, with no tuition fees and bursaries of £19,833, delivered by regional partnerships of universities and councils, with trainees hosted by one of the councils.
  • Frontline (an estimated 450 starters in 2023): employment-based, DfE-funded programme to train child protection social workers, with no fees, bursaries of £18,000 (£20,000 in London) and trainees placed in council or children’s trusts units, managed by a consultant social worker. They qualify as social workers after a year, before being employed by the council or trust and taking a master’s and their ASYE in year two. The master’s will move to a third year from 2024, with the units renamed as learning and practice hubs.
  • Think Ahead (an estimated 160 starters in 2023): employment-based, DHSC-funded programme to train adult mental health social workers, with no fees, bursaries of £18,000 (£20,000 in London) and trainees placed in councils or NHS trust units managed by a consultant. They qualify as social workers after a year, before being employed by the council or trust and taking a master’s and their ASYE in year two. The bursary will rise to £18,250 (£20,250 in London) from 2024.
  • Degree apprenticeships (740 starters in 2021-22): three-year programmes for people employed by an organisation (mostly, a local authority), funded, in most cases, by the employing body’s apprenticeship levy, with around one day a week’s learning delivered by a university.
  • DfE-funded degree apprenticeships funded by DfE (461 to be delivered): these will be delivered in the same way as other apprenticeships but will be funded directly by the DfE, with apprentices based only in local authority children’s services departments.

Sources: Skills for Care, Frontline, Think Ahead, DfE

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14 Responses to Fast-track programme to train 320 more social workers in £19m contract extension

  1. CeeDee November 1, 2023 at 1:07 pm #

    I wonder how many will remain in practice once they experience the reality of frontline .

    • Althea November 5, 2023 at 1:03 am #

      This the very question I wish as social worker we are committed to the profession however, this issue about social work is not being addressed.

      Environmental factors in the work place that affects social worker

      Accountability and blame

      Leadership and transparency

      You can train social workers but if rooted issues remains and are merely address, then unfortunately the same difficulties will present it self years down the line

  2. Arthur Tera November 1, 2023 at 4:10 pm #

    How do I apply for the Social Work Masters Degree with Think Ahead as I am already an experienced Mental Health Nurse

  3. Alec Fraher November 1, 2023 at 6:58 pm #

    and the return to social work for already qualified sw’s is….?

  4. Who cares.. just a number November 1, 2023 at 10:58 pm #

    Won’t work. It’s already happening in Liverpool and the international social workers are not prepared, equipped or trained to even begin child in need planning. This is why there is a 3 year course for beginners without a degree followed by a 2 year masters with a degree already.

    Highly experienced social workers are leaving the profession due to the added pressures of mentoring NQSW and or international Sw.. there simply is not enough time or capacity to do this.

    • Alt November 5, 2023 at 10:45 am #

      There is wider issues affecting social work and this needs to be address.

      Until those matter are taken serious and address we will continue to face the difficulties.

      These will continue to affect the profession and the hard committed social worker in their

      Using this air of silence on those critical issue, will not address what is affecting social work, and a such needed service.

  5. Dorcas November 2, 2023 at 9:21 am #

    Would this programme covers overseas recruitment? There are many international social workers who will like to migrate to the UK and they could be trained as well.

    • Mithran Samuel November 2, 2023 at 10:27 am #

      Thanks for that and thank you to everyone else who has asked a similar question.
      Here’s the eligibility criteria for applying:

      All applicants need to either have British citizenship, be an EU/European Economic Area/Swiss citizen with settled/pre-settled status or be a non-EU/EEA/Swiss national with leave to enter/remain for an indefinite period.
      I hope that is useful.

      • Symply Emy November 2, 2023 at 10:54 am #

        Thank you for this information, Samuel.

    • Alt November 5, 2023 at 1:24 am #

      It is good to have our international social worker in the UK but the issues that is affecting the profession needs to be seriously address. Discrimination, oppression, blame, accountability and disproportionate treatment bad leadership and cover up the true reality of what is happen in our profession needs to come out in the open

      • Symply Emy November 12, 2023 at 1:09 pm #

        Very well put!

  6. Maine Blackstock Donaldson November 2, 2023 at 1:18 pm #

    I am currently a foster carer, but starting my degree for 3 years in University 6th Nov 2023, how can I be fast tracked please . Student finance already approved, I am a home Student.

  7. Sara Soozie November 3, 2023 at 12:05 pm #

    All very interesting but what are the routes into social work in Scotland?