Timpson and Social Work Training

Yesterday at the Annual National Children and Adult Services Conference in Eastbourne, the Children Minister, Edward Timpson – appointed one month ago –  decided to share his expertise (!) in the sector by proposing a change in Social Work Education.

As the Guardian reports

Social work training should be overhauled so that newly qualified staff are “match fit” when they join the workforce, says the new children’s minister.

Edward Timpson, who was appointed in last month’s cabinet reshuffle, said he wanted the profession to attract the “brightest and the best”.

Well, there’s a way to indicate how little you know about social work, Mr Timpson.

I feel very strongly that we need to be clear what social work degrees should be delivering and what we expect them to deliver. Personally, I feel strongly that a social work degree course, whether at undergraduate or postgraduate level does not have the role of pumping out ‘match fit’ social workers ready to slot straight into a team.

Employers have to take some responsibility for delivering and training post-qualification for the workforce that they want to meet their own needs. A social work degree is a generic academic course which provides the tools, knowledge and understanding of social work theory, social policy, law and ethics to be able to interpret and use in many varied practice situations both in the statutory sector and in third sector and private sector.

What I don’t want the social work degree to become is a ‘training course for LA social workers’ and to absolve employers of the responsibility for training.

The expertise of universities is to deliver the academic training and study and the role of the placement is to give some practice experience but two placements is not enough to deliver ‘match fit’ and I’d rather universities concentrated their time on delivering to their strengths which is the academic/research/knowledge base of social work.

Then we get on to Timpson’s comment about attracting the ‘brightest and best’ to the profession. I will refrain from swearing here although I’m tempted to say something rude to Timpson at this point.

To say that is to insult those of us who feel we actually ARE the brightest and best – practitioners and students from many different backgrounds – who are committed to deliver the best we can of our profession.

What exactly does he mean by ‘brightest and best’? Oxbridge degrees? Is that the mark? We need to ensure we have a broad range of entrants to the profession but I genuinely don’t see we aren’t getting that now.

I wish ministers would actually look at the profession and try to understand it, what the role of training is and what the intake actually is before trying to make grandstanding statements about unnecessary ‘overhauls’.

Maybe we need a bit more focus as a  nation on creating ‘match fit’ politicians – and if we did, it would be none of those career politicians who come from private schools and Oxbridge into Think Tanks and public life. Maybe they should just look into the mirror or try and understand the sectors they are responsible for before claiming they have all the answers.

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

On starting a Social Work Course

As the universities start on their teaching paths and the summer fades into autumn, I turn to reflect on my own years since I arrived at the university on my social work course what advice I’d give to me if I were starting today.

Here’s what I would tell the younger me who entered the social work training, unsure what to expect.

I’ve indulged myself a little and hopefully some will find this useful and add to the list in the comment section.

1) Seek opportunities, don’t wait for them to arrive.

This goes for learning/reading/finding articles as well as opportunities at placement and eventually in job seeking. Sometimes it can be a real change of focus moving from further education to higher education as the focus needs to move to self-direction. Self motivation is crucial. In the words used by Stephen Hawking

“Remember to look up at the stars, not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious,”

Personally I combine the courses I’ve studied, both my qualification degree and my post-qualifying training with the motivation to seek out information, read related texts and ignite discussions around policies and politics outside work as parts of my professional development.

2) Build strong relationships with your peers.

I am still close to some of the people I trained on my social work course with and have been since we were students. We’ve travelled down very different professional paths and had very different personal experiences along the way but the support we’ve been able to give to each other through treading a common path at that point in our lives has been a valuable strength through the good, bad and wobbly periods. Peer support is crucial and those on the outside will find it hard to understand the pressure you are under while you are training.

3) Be the social worker you would want to have

This is quite a simple motto. Never see the user – whatever area you are working in as the ‘other’. It could be you, your child, your parent, your friend. You might not see that now. But imagine it if that’s too difficult and think about the interactions you have and how you would change them if you were receiving them. Sometimes you will be hated and resented. It’s the role and (usually) isn’t personal. You won’t often be thanked but you will be paid. Knowing you did your best and treated people as you would want to be treated or would want a close family member to be treated can be reward enough.

4) Reflect

This is a chestnut but it took me a while to get it.

In the words of Alexander Pope

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of Mankind is Man.

Know yourself. Know what makes you react the way you do. Know how you respond and what experiences in your life have led you to those responses. Know what you might have to do to change those reactions. Learn from them. If you have not been used to it reflection can be hard initially to ‘get’. It is a self-examination that tempers responses and allows them to be learnt from. When you do ‘get’ it, things will become easier. Reflection also builds resilience when you know what your own strengths and weaknesses are.

5) Remember the feeling of presumed powerlessness for when you are in a positions of power.

This is one I didn’t really get for a while either. When I was a student – particularly on placement, I felt meek and lacked confidence in my actions. I wasn’t a ‘real’ social worker and had (quite rightly) excellent supervision and guidance by the team around me. I didn’t feel like I was in a ‘powerful’ position however even as a student with those doubts, I went into the homes of others and carried out reviews, fed the information back to my team and helped make decisions about packages of care. I did have power in respect to the people I was allocated to work with.

In relation to my practice educator, I felt she held all the cards. She was wonderful and positive but it could have been different and I’ve heard many stories about oppressive practitioners with students. I’d say remember those feelings of powerlessness and think how the users who come into contact with you both as a social work student and eventually as a practitioner will feel. Power is something that can take a while to appreciate – particularly if you have it – but not acknowledging it can be dangerous.

6) Distractions

Sometimes distractions, hobbies, external interests can be vital. One of the things that kept me going through the very intense course and my career post qualification is having interests that are nothing at all related to the work that allow me to mix with and meet people from different backgrounds and attitudes that have allowed me to grow in different ways and ‘get away from it’ from time to time. Don’t neglect other interests/people/friends. You’ll likely need them later.

I wonder what advice other people would share with their younger selves?

AMHP training – What it is and How it is – A Review by the GSCC

Law books 1

The GSCC published a report yesterday (pdf)  which is a a review of their inspections of AMHP (Approved Mental Health Professional) courses. My experience of my training as an Approved Social Worker (as it was when I trained) is that, without doubt, it was the highest quality training course I have ever undertaken. It was tough. Very tough. But it needs to be. The role of making such important decisions which affect the liberty of those who are in moments of need, illness and distress is not something which can be glossed over.

In some ways, I’m surprised there isn’t an equivalent, high quality, intellectually rigorous post-qualification course in children’s services before social workers are able to remove children – maybe it would be too costly – but it’s an interesting reflection on the ways in which the different ‘streams’ in social work have progressed.

The report reflects on the GSCC role in approving AMHP training, despite the fact that the training is no longer restricted solely to Social Workers (Psychiatric Nurses, Occupational Therapists and Clinical Psychologists are also able to train up to this role).

There are some interesting tidbits in the summary that caught my attention. There are 22 AMHP courses running in England. Of those who have undertaken them (936 since 2008 when the switch from ASW to AMHP occurred) there have been 936 people who have completed the course. 84% of those completing the course have been social workers and 15% nurses (I’m presuming the overlap is down to some people who are dual trained – I’ve come across a few people who are both nurses and social workers). There have been no psychologists training (surprise) but there are some OTs ( I have personally met one OT AMHP) but it is given as <1%.

The gender breakdown is a 70% female to 30% male of those who have completed training. It would be interesting to compare this with the Social Work training as a whole.

So what are the courses like?

Recruitment is generally by employer sponsorship and some areas have been better at promoting cross professional access to the training than others. There have been issues regarding payments and increments which more often than not have affected whether a nurse or a social worker might be put forward by employers to train but the universities have been willing to accept applications across the eligible professions.

There are very low ‘fail’ rates, possibly due to the selection which would take place in-house before a candidate is interviewed by the university.

Content I’ve had a few people ask ‘how long’ the training to be an AMHP is and explain how it was in the course I did but different courses manage the learning in different ways. For example, I did a full time course. The actual requirements are 600 hours of study with at least 150 of those hours as taught. It is delivered at ‘Masters’ level – but usually needs a ‘top up’ of other modules (which may or may not be offered’ to make a ‘full’ Masters degree.

The emphasis on knowledge of mental health law was considered in the report as it is fundamental to being an AMHP. Universities assess this knowledge in different ways, between exams – either open or closed book – case studies or classroom work.  As an AMHP it is necessary to continue to attend legal updates regularly.

Training in safeguarding legislation as it pertains to children and adults also has to form a part of the course.  This may be a precondition to attending the course – ensuring that this training has been undertaken ‘in house’. It’s also important that Mental Capacity, Equality and Human Rights legislation is covered.

It is also a requirement that social perspectives on mental distress is covered sufficiently.  Indeed, the report comments that while

Traditionally social workers have been viewed within mental health services as the champions of the social perspective model of mental distress

This has needed to be covered extensively in the AMHP training as other professions are being drawn in. Interesting perspective though when you consider the move in some areas to shifting social workers OUT of mental health teams and what that might mean.

But back onto the topic at hand.

User/Carer Involvement in Courses This was an area I felt was strong and particularly useful in the course I undertook. I think it is also worth noting that social workers can be users and carers of mental health services too and certainly the course I was on some people attending the training self-identified as such which was really very useful for us to gain these perspectives.  Formally though, 20 out of 22 courses met the requirement for involving users and carers in the training of AMHPs.

Universities used different models from commissioning teaching directly to drawing on a pool of identified users and carers to participate or commissioning a local user network to be involved in course planning and assessment.  Only half the courses involved users on the selection panels. I was surprised this wasn’t higher.

Being Approved The ‘approved’ part of the name comes back with the Local Authority when the course is completed and we would go our separate ways. Different local authorities have different ways of approving but it is always for a maximum of five years before re-approval is necessary.  Most graduates were approved within three months of finishing the course – that was the case within  my LA where I was expected to conduct a specific number of assessments with an experienced AMHP and then come to a panel with my reflections and face another legal test before being approved. However some LAs will approve more quickly than others.

Practice Assessors – AMHP candidates are ‘on placement’ and have a supervisor who themselves, are an AMHP. Few courses require any qualification from their Practice Assessors (other than. of course, being an AMHP themselves). I’ve never taken this role on specifically for AMHP training but it’s something I’m vaguely interested in doing at some point. Interestingly the GSCC acknowledge that these roles of ‘practice assessors’ may be underappreciated by the universities and the GSCC is recommending that some of the ‘Practice Educator’ standards for Social Workers extend into AMHP training.

The report makes interesting reading for anyone who is curious about the AMHP role and what the training actually involves. Reading it made me reflect both on my role as an AMHP and the training I undertook and continue to undertake to carry out the role to the best of my ability.

Actually, it made me quite proud. I know I’m biased but it is a rigorous system but it was the best training I ever did. It’s not a role I’d say I like or enjoy but it is something I feel I can do with sensitivity, thought and care.

There is a strange kind of ‘camaraderie’ among AMHPs that I’ve not experienced in any other situation. Possibly because it’s so hard to explain to other people what we do and how and why we do it.

photo Eric E Johnson Flickr