Will Fast-Track Training Improve Social Work?


Yesterday, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) published a paper called ‘Frontline’ subtitled ‘Improving the children’s social work profession’.

The programme they call ‘Frontline’ is based on the ‘Teach First’ programme.  It’s interesting that the paper was written by Josh McAlister who was one of the drivers behind the Teach First programme.

In the proposed ‘Frontline’ programme, there would be a ‘fast track’ qualification route into social work (or ‘children’s social work’ which the paper seems to consider as a separate profession in itself!).

As the paper says in the introduction

‘This new programme – Frontline – would help attract the best people into one of Britain’s toughest professions, and in the long term create a movement of leaders to challenge social disadvantage’.

The methodology of the study seems ‘unusual’ to say the least. The focus group for a start was of participants in the Teach First programme where I’d have thought it would have been more useful to speak more broadly to practising social workers rather than only to social work academics. I think, as well there are significant differences between Teaching and Social Work and while ‘representatives of BASW and the College of Social Work’ were involved and ‘case studies’ were submitted by five local authorities, there is absolutely nothing written about discussions with those in practice or those who use social work services. Looking at the ‘focus group’ it seems the few who might once have been social workers, would have left frontline practice behind many many decades ago.

How can eight teachers really provide an idea of what might work for social work? I’m truly baffled this is presented as an acceptable ‘study’ of the profession when no practising professional is actually mentioned as having been spoken to in the methodology stated?

The study works on the basis of high vacancy rates and a need for ‘quality recruits’ which personally I find quite insulting as a proposition. The report states

‘Of the 2,765 people starting social work masters-level courses last year, only five completed their undergraduate degree at Oxford or Cambridge , among only 150 from any Russell Group university’

Excuse me while I rage for a moment. So the criteria for a ‘quality entrant’ is THAT? Seriously?? There are many reasons including those of familial expectations, type of school attended and social background which affect choice of university.  I got a good degree from a Russell Group university myself so I feel able to comment but having a degree from one of those specific universities is absolutely NO indication of quality. Honestly. If we start differentiating between an Oxford degree and a London Met degree we start moving into very difficult ground. Are we really saying ‘middle class’? Because that’s a little of what it feels like.

The other aspect that the report criticises is ‘quality of training’ – to which their response is to propose a ‘fast track’ scheme? Again, it doesn’t make sense to me. Surely the answer would be to extend rather than reduce the qualifying course? (I’m not in favour of extending the course beyond what it is currently, by the way, I’m just not sure I see the logic in reducing it if that’s an issue!).

So ‘Teach First’ uses an initial six week residential programme and then places ‘teachers’ in a ‘challenging school’ for two years while they do their PGCE in the first year.

Hm. So the PGCE is one year course anyway. I don’t see how that corresponds to a ‘summer school’ for social workers and then putting them into a ‘challenging’ situation for a couple of years. There’s a lot more study that will be missed along the way with this ‘fast track’ scheme in social work.

Not least, the issue that is completely overlooked in this paper that a social work training course and qualification is generic not specific to ‘children’s social work’ and that ‘children’s social work’ is not a profession apart.

This proposal seems to have completely ignored the idea that social work training is generic. Teacher training would be specific both to age group (secondary) and to subject so narrow in focus.

Someone who qualifies as a social worker needs to have broader experience outside children and families field because people don’t exist in silos attributed to age, because sound Mental Health and Community Care knowledge actually makes all social workers more effective and more skilled in their jobs.  This ‘Frontline’ programme proposes similarly to ‘Teach First’ that it is a two year commitment but that the ‘social worker’ qualifies after one year. I find it mind-boggling that anyone thinks this is a workable model – with the Teach First at least you have a PGCE which is one year but with this ‘Frontline’ the MA programme is two years anyway so that’s much more to ‘pack in’. Too much, I’d say.

What is obvious to me is that the person writing this report has no idea about social work – what it is, how it works and how it should work. He seems preoccupied with his ‘Teach First’ baby and is convinced that Teach First raised the profile and status of Teaching.

Personally, I can’t imagine ‘Frontline’ would have an equivalent role within social work. I think it is dangerous to separate off the profession and focus on the ‘children’s social work profession’ separately because I think learning and experience (through placements) across the life course is something that marks social work training out. I also think that there is a very facile definition of ‘good social work entrants’ that doesn’t seem to have had regard to any complexity I’d expect from a report.

I hope this programme goes nowhere because the experiences of Teaching and Social Work are very different but it’s ridiculous and elitist enough for this government to want to run with it.

I hope they don’t. I hope someone talks to social workers before anything close to this is implemented. Do I think that will happen? On previous record, unlikely and mores the shame for the social work profession as a whole.

photo by Quick, like a Mule @ Flickr

11 thoughts on “Will Fast-Track Training Improve Social Work?

  1. My first response to this was someone in government has shares in a company who will provide the training! Second response, I’d hoped we had moved on from the view working with children is ‘real’ social work (not sure what I was doing all those years as an ASW then?), and third response, I went to a Russell Group university not because I’m high calibre, it was because it was the nearest university to where I lived, so fitted in with family life!

    Thanks Ermintrude2

  2. This is another step towards the government control of social work, its redefinition as child protection and subsequent deprofessionalisation. Remember what happened to probation and make your voice heard through BASW if you care about the profession.

    • BASW has just justified social worker’s behaviours in the child protection work/care proceedings on its website in the face of the concerns raised by the Slovak government and others as to how justice is proceeding in the ‘secret family courts’. Curious then the threat of taking the British government to the European Court of Human Rights has led to a change in a Judges decision, apparently, in a case following the involvement of a UK minister.

      Sometimes our government representatives are forced to listen and take action when powers of the state are of concern and not in any ones actual best interests. BASW might bleat all it likes on its website- but the media thankfully have a wider net they cast- at present.

  3. Russell Group Universities ( I attended 2) have more selective academic standards of entry, so in theory at least,better intellectually equipped students as they demand a lot (mine did). Having said that, it is not the universities that matter but the way the course is organised and the calibre and ‘practise of their subject’ of those involved in teaching it.

    For those who think social work is independent of government interventions- well if you expect the public to have intrusion, by social workers, in their lives ‘on SW gut feelings’ about their situations then expect to get control of social work as the reward: the government are your paymasters and you their servants as well recognised in the public arena.

  4. There’s an argument as to whether higher academic standards lead to better practitioners. But thanks for your comments 🙂

  5. Pingback: Teach First for social work meets more resistance - The Social Work Blog - Other blogs - Social Work Blog - Carespace from Community Care

  6. Cachinnates at this preposterous idea. Three years studying and most students feel unprepared for practise.

  7. Russell Group universities offer more rigorous training than other places (a quick survey of friends reveals one oxbridge graduate assigned two essays per week, and a Westminster Uni graduate on a similar course assigned two essays per term). Which is why this Frontline proposal is so flawed and reveals itself to be elitist in the extreme: on the one hand it claims to value rigor (in the search for high calibre applicants)and then it offers Social Work Lite – as if the most nominal credentials were sufficient to fast track an applicant into such a highly complex and sensitive profession (and in my experience of attending an ‘elite’ institution, the graduates might be well qualified, but are often not particularly conscious of or sensitive to the needs of those who have not been so privileged in life).

  8. Front line represents a concerted attempt to fundamentally alter Social Work education and practice. It is designed to fragment the profession, it is insidious, dangerous and should be resisted.

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