Social Work Education and the Munro Report

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I won’t apologise for not having read the entire Munro review on Child Protection which was published yesterday (and can be read here)   by this morning – partly because there is so much coverage of the contents in the press –  which I know isn’t the same as reading the document in its entirety myself, but also because I don’t work directly in child protection services so my knowledge of the systems as they are currently and how they are proposed is not based on experience and knowledge so I don’t think I can necessarily add anything to the discussion which isn’t already ‘out there’.

The Guardian has a good general summary of the proposals  and there is, unsurprisingly, extensive coverage in Community Care through a number of articles.

In some ways, it has been confusing for me, as a social worker who does not work in childrens’ services to understand how the Munro report links in with the Taskforce which was, I thought, carrying out a more general assessment of social work and how the specific proposals regarding social work in the Munro report will feed back to the Social Work Reform Board.

I want to focus on one of the recommendations particularly though because it is an area that I think may have significant implications for the profession as a whole.

Recommendation 12 reads that:-

Employers and higher education institutions (HEIs)
should work together so that social work students are prepared for the challenges of child protection work.   In particular, the review considers that HEIs and employing agencies should work together so that:
•     practice placements are of the highest quality and – in time – only in designated Approved Practice Settings;
•     employers are able to apply for special ‘teaching organisation’ status, awarded by the College of Social Work;
•     the merits of ‘student units’, which are headed up by a senior social worker are considered; and
•     placements are of sufficiently high quality, and both employers and HEIs consider if their relationship is working well.

It is incredible to m e that there are not already more guidelines about what constitutes a ‘practice setting’ in social work training. Ready-to-practice Social Workers rarely emerge perfectly formed, on graduation. Yes, there is a need for more stringent guidelines in the universities regarding placements and the quality of students that pass the course but, and this is a big but, local authorities, and in fact, all employing services , really need to take responsibility for training the social work graduate to become a professional. I know there are some steps being taken in this way but it is not fair to demand statutory placements prepare a student for statutory practice and that employers discriminate in favour of those who have been fortunate enough to get the ‘right’ placements. Why don’t local authorities invest a few months to ‘create’ their own internal placements across all areas of social work, adults, children and mental health to ensure that social work graduates get broader experience rather than expecting graduates to perform immediately.

I know there is discussion about having an assessed year in practice before being registered as a ‘social worker’ but this will only happen if it is forced on the local authorities as in a climate of cuts they can’t afford to take on and train anyone who isn’t immediately capable but this weakens the profession as a whole.

I have never understood, not really, why it is the jobs in child protection social work that are taken by the newly qualified social workers. Surely it makes sense to have some kind of post-qualifying training similar to the AMHP role before taking on what is one of the more complex and risky areas of social work. I couldn’t arrange a compulsory admission to hospital for someone until I had substantial experience as a social worker and a further extensive qualification and a great deal of observed practice and had to pass an additional legal exam before I could do so. Why is it not the same in child protection work?

Cost, I suspect – but since I qualified 10 years ago, and probably for a long time previously, it was a known fact among my cohort that there would always be jobs for newly qualifieds in child protection – and then, often, comes the burnout and the move into management – not by people who have any particular management skill but the people with the ‘right’ faces or those who just want to apply in order to escape from frontline practice themselves. Being bitter or having had poor models, they perpetuate the toxic and oppressive management styles that are embedded in systems which are dependent on targets and so others come into the system with poor supervision and poorly modelled management roles and the profession deskills as no critical appraisal is required – just form filling ad infinitum.

Student units existed before my time but I’ve heard only positive things about them at Practice Assessor’s forums when other Practice Assessor’s hark back to the ‘old days’. The utter frustration of working in this profession is the cyclical learning or non-learning processes which seem to lead us back to where we started from over and over again.

The report also says

Degree courses are not consistent in content, quality and outcomes – for child protection, there are crucial things missing in some courses such as detailed learning on child development, how to communicate with children and young people, and using evidence-based methods of working with children and families. Theory and research are not always well integrated with practice and there is a failure to align what is taught with the realities of contemporary social work practice.

I’m in a lucky position in that students have come into teams I have been working in from just about every London university – because of this, and in discussion with them, I do pick up an idea of the differences between universities and yes, differences in content and quality (I can’t really judge outcomes) is massive in my own experience.

I am concerned about the focus on detailed learning related to child protection as I am sure it would probably push out learning which is already significantly limited in adult and mental health work.  I hope that universities reading this don’t forget that the training is generic. One of the differences I’ve noticed between universities is that some ask their students to specialise after one year (in the Masters) or two years (undergraduate). I’m not sure how helpful this in a generic degree where there is little enough time to cover everything anyway. I would hope that the year post-qualification when the newly qualified social worker has a position would be the time to specialise and train in a more focused way in a particular area.

I don’t think it’s fair to expect universities to pump out ‘ready to practice’ social workers. There is not time enough to do that. There needs to be more training and development in practice.

This all costs though, and there’s the rub with almost all of the proposals. Changes cost. Although of course, the cost of not changing could potentially be much higher.

So many people with and without voices have a stake in creating a good, strong and cohesive social work profession – I just worry that between a College of Social Work, the British Association of Social Workers which has decided to also call itself a College of Social Work, a Social Work Reform Board and a possible Chief Social Worker – we don’t end up with too much confusion at the top of the profession and lots of talk in the absence of any change.

I’ll try to be hopeful though because if I weren’t I’d despair.

Things can only get better.

Failing Students

This week, Community Care prints an article about pressures on universities to pass students who might not ‘meet the grade’.

This has always been a concern of mine as there is an incentive on universities to ensure students graduate rather than ensure that high quality social workers are pumped out into the ‘system’. The needs are conflicting as a student can be very able academically (or not.. )  and that does not necessarily imply good practice but for as long as the degree in itself is the gateway to qualified status, the decisions are left in the hands of the universities.

Practice placements exist to ensure that it is not only on academic levels that students are assessed however there are well-documented difficulties with placement and there is not necessarily an equality of experiences between students at the same university and the way they have experiences and assessments on placement.

This is particularly heavy on my mind at the moment as I will imminently be taking a student from one of the local universities into my work place and have turned my thoughts to preparation for this.

I know from a colleague’s experience how difficult it has been to try and ‘fail’ students who have not met the standards expected to practice on a final placement and the practice assessors who have been in my team, have been leaned on heavily to keep giving more and more chances to students they felt were not achieving well enough.

I’m all for second chances  but some people are not cut out for the profession and trying to force too leeway into the framework of assessment does noone any favours.

The article presented in Community Care draws parallels with the Teacher Training programmes where

‘The Training and Development Agency for Schools, which funds teacher training, has chosen to remove any incentives universities might have for retaining students who were not likely to pass the course or become competent teachers … this should be the same for social work.’

Personally, I think the proposed year following qualification in which newly graduated social workers will have to practice will help in this area. I think that the universities have not been able to be trusted with the process of training social workers – especially as concerns about appropriate placements have grown. If social work students cannot spend substantial time with social workers ‘on the job’ during their courses, then they must be compelled to subsequently.

Noone wins with a dilution of the quality of entrance to the profession and as well as rigorous academic standards, a certain amount of confidence, assertiveness and thoughtfulness is required.

If there is anything that will raise the status of the profession – something which the Task Force seems to be particularly focussed on – it is a good quality, effective workforce who are able not only to advocate on behalf of service users but also able to advocate on behalf of themselves and their profession when they see poor systems in place.