10 reasons I disagree with Frontline and fast-tracking Social Work Training

Frontline is a scheme dreamt up by the IPPR who published a report – which has since been embraced by the government and opposition – which builds on the Step Up to Social Work model of social work training and Teach First which has proved to be a popular want to pull graduates into teaching, focussing on ‘difficult’ schools.

The idea behind it, based on research done with a focus group made up of people who had been teachers on the Teach First programme saw that there was ‘something wrong with social work’. A part of me says ‘tell us something we didn’t know’. Seriously. There have been proposals to change in the way that social work is taught which have stemmed from the Social Work Taskforce and then the Social Work Reform Board.

So what is it that will make ‘Frontline’ different? The initial paper linked to above, makes reference to Oxbridge and Russell Group graduates who aren’t choosing to go into social work and seeing that as a ‘problem’ for the profession.

According to the Frontline website

The Frontline training programme will last two years. Specifically

  • An intensive five-week residential summer institute;
  • The first 12 months as intensive on-the-job training and education;
  • At the end of the first year participants will be qualified to practice and then undertake a second year as a newly qualified social worker.

Participants will be paid over these two years and will be based with the same local authority. Participant will complete a Masters over the two years of the programme.

The 12 months will be when people go to local authorities to be trained by a ‘consultant social worker’ who is basically a glorified practice educators who have their salaries augmented by ‘Frontline’ – which, incidentally, is either a charity or a social enterprise – depending on what you are reading.  The social worker trainees will be working in ‘tough’ environments.

The idea is that these people will be ‘qualified’ social workers after one year and the second year will be the AYSE year. One year (or 13 months, I believe cos these whizzy geniuses sure can count).

So who is Frontline looking for?

Frontline will look for two key features in recruits. The first is high academic ability required to be an effective social worker. Social work practice requires analytical thinking, assessment skills, critical reflection and excellent written and spoken communication, which is why applicants must have a 2:1 degree or higher.

The second feature is the attributes, skills and values to be a successful practitioner. These range from emotional resilience, respect, good judgement, inter-personal skills, and humility

I love the intense irony that humility is written right at the bottom. I’m not one to rubbish academic rigour. I’m all for it but I think it’s interesting that it is the first thing they emphasise. People develop intelligence in different ways and having a 2:1 degree from a Russell Group university is only one indication but that’s their standard so fair enough. Just interesting emphasis.

So that’s the scheme and what’s not to love? I have a number of issues that have concerned me, none of which have been addressed by Frontline PR machine. I’m concerned that while they have said they want to engage and talk to social workers about this, there has been no evidence of them speaking to anyone except on their own terms, without actually answering questions of substance. Meanwhile, the PR machine flounces around the press with the ‘they just don’t understaaaaaaaaaaaaand’ us referring to social workers who don’t ‘get’ their new model without actually addressing the very real criticisms.

So what are the criticisms?

1) It is based on an elitist model where some universities are ‘better’ than others. The initial document refers to lack of entrants to social work training from Oxbridge and Russell Group universities being evidence of its lack of appeal. I’m not sure about ‘evidence’ for this. I don’t think the university you go to defines your quality of potential for social work or your intelligence and ability to critically analyse and reflect. Sometimes it’s based on income and family circumstances. Sometimes we go to the university that is nearest home. Sometimes we go to the university that offers the best course which may not be a Russell Group. It shows an enormous amount of assumptions (which, incidentally, are very bad in social work) to take otherwise

2) Lack of involvement of social workers in developing the model. Now Josh MacAlister, the so-called ‘brains’ behind the scheme has recruited some social worker managers and academics to ‘support’ him but that doesn’t refute the lack of involvement in the initial research of social workers. Yes, spokespeople from the College of Social Work and BASW have involved themselves but they have shown no effort to engage views other than those that agree with them or work on the base of the Social Work Reform Board which particularly looked at social work education and build the new professional capability framework. This falls outside that. It also hasn’t built on the Step Up scheme which makes no sense.

3) Compressing social work education into a year, even if the practice days are similar to the amount they are now, ignores the process of learning that needs time.  There is a great post which I highly recommend which covers this far better than I can. Social Work is not analogous to teaching and somehow I think the model of Teach First doesn’t ‘fit’ as nicely as the government ministers would like to think it is. It displays a lack of understanding of social work. Teach First replaces a PGCE which is a one year course in a specialist subject (which is taught).

Social Work is a generic qualification. One does not ‘train’ as a child protection social worker or even a children and families social worker – but as a social worker who then specialises in working in a particular sector. This model doesn’t allow space and time to gain an understanding of what social work is. The fear is, it will breed process-driven staff who are able to fulfil functions within a child protection team but without a deeper understanding of social work as a profession which touches the lives of adults and children in different ways and at different stages.

Moving initial social work training – not least in an organisation which doesn’t understand social work, clearly, is, I fear a mistake. One of the figures behind Frontline told me that this was a poor argument as ‘there had always been arguments about genericism’. In my view that doesn’t mean we can’t still have the discussion. We need to have an understanding of personhood and social work as a whole profession because if we don’t it becomes two, or three professions. Does that matter? I think it does because we can’t work in isolation. Mental Health, for example, covers all areas of social work. Families don’t exist in isolation. Is one year (13 months) enough time to do this alongside placements? Personally, i don’t think so. I’m consistent in this as I also don’t  have a lot of time for the Step Up programme.

4) Evidence base – why wasn’t there a hold on developing a new scheme until there had been a few years running of the Step Up Scheme? I was a sceptic of Step Up and I’ll accept that the first evaluation of the first two cohorts was more positive than I was assuming but there were some issues raised and what we really need to understand is retention rates which will need a few more years of evaluation. I’m willing to change my mind in the face of evidence but developing a programme before we had some data seems foolhardy but entirely consistent with government policy making. The one issue which did arise from the Step Up scheme was access and success rates of people from minority ethic groups who were disadvantaged. The Frontline team looks very white and very male. I wonder how this will be addressed explicitly.

5) There is no mention at all of user voice in the development of the programme of education. This is a massive gap but I will wait for details of the programme. It’s all about developing leaders. Frontline’s website says

Since the start of 2012 we’ve undertaken extensive consultation with the profession to inform the Frontline proposal. Employers, universities and professional bodies were included in the process and much of their feedback is directly reflected in our plans.

No mention of people who use or have used social work services, children who have been or are involved with social work or their parents and carers. Nothing. That evidences a lack of understanding of social work education and ethos as, quite rightly, user involvement is crucial to all social work education programmes.

6) Leadership. There is a focus on this being about ‘leaders’ and developing leadership. I have a bit of a difficult relationship with the term and with some of the ‘leadership’ training. We all want and need to be ‘leaders’, don’t we? But who are we leading. Here are some of the statements made on the Frontline site.

Frontline is focused on transforming the life chances of vulnerable children by recruiting and developing outstanding individuals to be leaders in social work and broader society

So is this about fast-tracking people through the actual ‘frontline’ work as a stepping stone to management and management consultancy? I rather suspect it is. I want to know more about what they see as leadership? Ah, they heard me, look at their FAQs

18. WHY DO YOU CALL SOCIAL WORK A LEADERSHIP PROFESSION?

We describe social work as leadership because it needs people who are able to bring together a wide range of agencies, set out a vision for a family and convince them to act. The ability to adapt and deal with change, set clear priorities and deliver action for children under extreme pressure demands leadership qualities which we would like to see recognised more widely in society.

Note: There is no understanding or explanation of social work that happens which doesn’t involve working with children. It’s about ‘convincing’ a family to act? Really? Is that leadership or is that using statutory power to impose. There is nothing in this bumpf about power that a social worker has and the understanding of the use of power. No, they emphasis ‘leadership’ and ‘leading’ but as a statutory social worker in child protection, you have all the cards in your powerful little statutory hand and I’m not sure it takes much ‘leadership’ to ‘convince’ families. Again, it’s a complete misunderstanding of the social work role and selling an untruth to those who take on the role.  So if Frontline ‘breeding’ leaders or are we all leaders? Bit fuzzy but then this is to sell social work to people who would otherwise consider Teach First.

7) The rhetoric of those involved with the PR has been very much ‘we need excellent/better social workers’ ‘social work education is failing’ and it’s interesting how many academics have jumped on this bandwagon. Er, guys, you’re the ones doing the training?!

Seriously though, it’s not exactly going to endear you to a profession by saying that current social workers and social work students aren’t adequate. I see that they’ve backed down a bit from that but that was definitely the initial thrust behind their PR campaign – we need ‘better’ social workers. What they are creating, I fear, are people able to work through processes in particular local authorities effectively. Is that social work at all? Does doing social work tasks make one a social worker? Unfortunately I suspect the answer is yes because that’s what employers want.

8) Local authorities should take a greater responsibility for the ‘failure’ of social work training. They want ‘cookie cutter’ ready-to-practice social workers immediately from university without investing in the process of training on-the-job. In my view, and I say this as an ex-practice educator, placements are training to be a social worker but should not be used to train for a particular position. Students need space around the placements to understand processes, power and to analyse their own changing roles as they move between being students to being practitioners with power. What local authorities want, and through this scheme they get, is more akin to apprenticeships where social workers will be trained in their own systems. There’s an advantage to that. There’s also a potential disadvantage as one of the things I found most valuable in moving from being a student to a practitioners was being exposed to different systems, different organisations and different people who had different views about the same statutory function.

9) This has shifted the focus away from post-qualification training and towards pre-qualification training without any evidence about retention. It seems to me that a better focus would be to invest in training and retaining social workers who are qualified already. I say this with a little bitterness as a social worker remained in local authority/NHS practice for 12 years before moving away. I think there needs to be more thought specifically for post-qualification training in child protection with perhaps, a course akin to the AMHP training in mental  health with better pay and status  – and a need for greater experience before going into these roles.

In my opinion, one of the failings of the social work system we have is that often newly qualified social workers go into child protection work. Surely it makes more sense for there to be career progression and more experienced workers to be in this field but no one wants to stay so there is a rapid turnover. Maybe that’s something that should be addressed with the money Frontline generated instead of making the problem worse.

10) Frontline seem obsessed with social work’s ‘professional status’. They want social workers to be one of the most respected professions blah blah. By focusing on ‘leadership’ and recruiting ‘top graduates’ this will happen. Right. I’m more sceptical. I think it will only happen when social workers don’t obsess about their/own status and when we speak up for people who use social work services – without our job role and outside and show how useful we are. We don’t need validation and we don’t need to be ‘loved’. We don’t need documentaries so people ‘understand’ us. We need to do our job well and not wait for others to find the respect for us. If we tell people what we do well, if we concentrate on developing a profession where we can respect ourselves, then we will be respected and some people will always hate us because we use state powers to control behaviours. That’s life.

I hope someone from Frontline will respond to these ten points in turn. I wait with interest.

 

Too easy?

The Guardian reports that the House of Commons Select Committee for Children, Schools and Families earlier this week  deemed the Social Work training in the UK to be unfit for purpose.

Although I haven’t had  much direct contact with training establishments, I am hardly surprised by this news. Apparently the degrees have became hard to fail.

Word of mouth tells me that universities are reluctant to fail students. Personally, I know of one practice teacher who wanted to fail her student whom she felt was not able to meet the standards required and she was put under enormous pressure by the university to keep giving him more chances and extending the placement in order to pass him until she did – with reservations. It is hardly indicative of a system that needs to establish and promote the best applications and an element of intellectual rigour to the profession.

Of course selection processes should be open and look at more than academic requirements but that does not mean that academic requirements should be forgotten and pitched towards the lowest common denominator.

One of the points of concern were the entry requirements for the degree course

In 2006-07, almost half the students admitted to courses had fewer than 240 Ucas points (three grade Cs or equivalent at A-level), compared to fewer than a quarter of entrants to comparable teaching or nursing degrees. The Joint Universities Council has reported complaints from some employers about standards of literacy among social work graduates.

A teacher writing on a blackboard.
Image via Wikipedia

Complaints about literary levels of graduates? That just should not be happening BUT it is the responsibility, surely, of the universities, not to actually pass people who are not able to write effectively.

Social Work is not an easy job. It is tough. It requires a method of thinking. It requires more than ‘gut feeling’. It does require a level of reasoning, processing and on a blunter level literacy that could be demonstrated on a degree course.

There are more ways than A level results to measure the quality of an applicant, of course. There has to be an equality of opportunity but the universities have to take more responsibility for who they admit and who they send out into the world as ‘qualified social workers’ for as long as the university degree remains the sole requirement for registration.

I don’t understand why those conducting child protection investigations don’t have to undertake postgraduate training equivalent to the ASW/AMHP training on the mental health side of things. It is a course which is postgraduate standard of a substantial length and almost invariably attracts a higher salary on completion.

Perhaps I’m a bit grouchy as my brain is still in ‘recovery’ mode but I am a little tired of being hammered by generalised whining about social workers just not being good enough.

I don’t have a lot of time for the ‘too nice’ approach of the universities criticised by the Commons Select Committee because I think they hold a lot of responsibility for accepting way too many students onto their courses.  It is not fair on those accepted on the course at the very least.

With shoddy and often ‘self-directed’ teaching (which, by the way, while understanding that students should not be spoon-fed, I don’t believe they should not be taught) and placements which are mashed together and often not fit for purpose how they can say they are delivering, I can’t quite understand.

That’s one of the reasons I think a year of substantially supervised and continued learning in practice is necessary after graduation.

Conference

I’ll preface this post by mentioning I have a stinking headache at the moment – but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a lot to say!

Anyone in and around London, the Social Work Action Network which describes itself as ‘a radical campaigning network within social work’ has a conference this coming Saturday at the London Metropolitan University on 4th July between 9.30an – 4.30pm.

They describe themselves as

a loose network of social work practitioners, academics, students and social welfare service users united in their concern that social work activity is being undermined by managerialism and marketisation, by the stigmatisation of service users and by welfare cuts and restrictions.

It sounds very tempting and registration is still open, indeed, it seems that it will be taken on the day.

I had thought to go and still may although I hope it doesn’t sound too negative when I say that from where I am at the moment, in the middle of one of the busiest weeks I can remember for a long time, to then attend a conference all day Saturday might be a bit too much for me all in one week.

I’m generally very interested in the aims and goals though. I have been following (from afar) the scope of SWAN and it seems to me, to be somewhat focussed on academic social work which is not always as closely tied to the front line work or those practising as they might want to appear to be. It’s much easier to be radical in a library.

To be fair, they do have a practitioner speaking on Saturday and it does sound interesting so I’d like to be more wholehearted but feel I might just have to see how I feel on the day..

I do want our profession to garner greater respect and to be more proactive in taking those reins back from the naysayers. I believe strongly in the values of social justice and feel it is important for us to stand united together. I just need a bit of brain-recharge time at the weekend too sometimes.

In any case, I’ll be interested in any feedback.

Training, Universities and the CWDC

Community Care have an article on their website today about CWDC (Children’s Workforce Development Council) and their submission to the Social Work Taskforce which is considering the future of the Social Work profession following an interview published in the magazine, with the Chair of the CWDC, Mike Leadbetter. In the article, Leadbetter called for more rigour in the selection process for degree courses, claiming it was currently “patchy”

Apart from the fact that I’d be marginally offended if I were a current student, I think there is something in what he says. It is clear that the universities are ploughing their own merry furrows. Self-directed learning has the potential to be useful in conjunction with other types of learning and teaching but packing more students than can realistically be offered quality placements is bad.  As is offering students places who are not expected to last the course or, a few years down the line, make quality practitioners.

There is, of course, some crystal-ball gazing and of course, past experience is not always an indication of future potential but the fact that some courses do not even interview applicants is a minor worry.

My own experiences are a little mixed on this. I know I was lucky to get my place on the MA course I attended. I know because after having been accepted and settling down to study, I had this exact conversation with the tutor who had interviewed me – who told me I had secured one of the last available places on the basis of a reasonably good interview when they had been very reluctant to offer me an interview.

It was easy to for us to know the ‘borderline’ candidates on that course – we were the ones who had been interviewed – the ‘definites’ had been offered places without interviews!

image

Back to Leadbetter who

.. suggested that candidates should be tested for their “emotional intelligence and resilience” by doing compulsory role-plays

One this is for sure and that is it would probably attract a different type of student for the course. It’s an interesting point though.

I went to have a look at the Submission that the CWDC made to the Taskforce. It makes some more substantial points – and it actually an interesting read because it not only sets up the problems currently within the system but relays some answers.

Just looking at the part relating to ‘Training and Qualifications’ there are a number of excellently made points which I hope will be addressed.

· differential levels of quality in respect of the three year degree;

· the quality and variability of the teaching on the degree course and the low level of current practice knowledge of many teachers of social work;

·· lack of clarity about what should be taught, how it is taught, the balance between self-directed learning and other more formal methods of learning;

· graduates are leaving social work training courses with an insufficient knowledge of basic principles and experience of e.g. attachment, human growth and development, psychoanalytic and psychological theories of behaviour, self-awareness and emotional intelligence, scenario and role-play enactments which give a greater understanding of real life situations;

· insufficient quality and quantity of statutory placements.

I expect one of the matters which will be addressed will be the variety of experiences on the Social Work degree course. It’s one of the reasons I think that someone being registered to practice immediately after finishing university is proving to be a disservice both to the incoming students and the profession as a whole.

The universities are eager to suck up any funding they can muster and have no incentives to reduce their intake if they do not receive high quality applicants but rather they are encouraged to fill places for funding purposes.

This is dangerous when the degree course in itself is seen as enough to prepare for practice. It also puts an extraordinary amount of pressure onto Practice Teachers in the workplace who are responsible for deciding then if a particular student is fit to practice or not and is, perhaps, doing some of the teaching which should be taking place in the university.

I also wonder how more current practice can be built into university courses – I am a little detached now except through some of the post qualification training I have experienced. I know on the ASW course, for example,  that the course leader taught while continuing to practice (part-time, occasional EDT work) and that was enormously helpful but also reassuring as she was aware and interested in current practice as well as having a firm personal pride in training a group of practitioners who were competent.

‘Self-directed’ learning is all very good but sometimes it seems like a cop-out for the university and a ‘cheaper’ option. Has this system of training produced a generation of social workers who are over-assessed but under-trained? Judging by the first year students I have come across, the fervour and desire is still there.

Lastly, another point I picked up from the CDWC submission saddened me enormously.

..  in the 1970s and early 1980s there was hope, vision and an intellectual enthusiasm about the task that is largely missing today. Highly publicised tragedies seem to have drawn the profession into a cycle of despair, defensiveness, fear and lack of confidence.

I’ll have to claim that being born in the 70s, I don’t retain much knowledge of what was happening in the 70s and 80s beyond cheesy pop music and different varieties of penny sweets but we were taught through the history of social policy and the radicalism of the 70s at least, that it may be possible to work in a climate where there is ‘hope, vision and intellectual enthusiasm’.

How much more exciting the work is when there is a passion to work towards empowerment and a vision of social justice – rather than the tedium of another set of performance indicators to input before 1st April. Of course a working life has to mix between the two but the balance seems to have shifted too far away from the broader aims and visions of social work practice.

Are we taught too much about procedures in a system that has to pump us out of university ‘ready to practice’? I think so, personally. We are trained to practice as statutory social workers in a very closely defined model. Statutory placements are seen as being superior to all others as they provide ‘experience’ when really it should make no difference and work experience post-qualification should be able to provide that same ‘experience’.

If Universities are expected to create ‘ready to work’ social workers immediately on graduation, the needs to be a lot more partnership working as there are few incentives for practitioners to take students on.

The sadness is that it is often the newly qualified social workers that go straight into the child protection teams – that has been the case consistently – certainly since I qualified.  What those teams need perhaps more than any others are the more confident and experienced workers.

Universities can provide a great inspirational role and are key to providing the quality practitioners of the future as they are the ones with the ability to select the finest students.

I wonder if the universities need to take more responsibility for training and if they ever will without the funding.

I wonder if the agencies that employ social workers need to stop hiding behind the universities and demand a better trained workforce and what role the GSCC is taking in this process. I expect we will see when the Taskforce reports back.

And I’m still more than a little tetchy that Balls had the temerity to place a newspaper agony aunt on the committee that decides the future of the profession.