Fast tracking Mental Health Social Work

First they came for the children and families social workers..

Last year, the government announced the shiny ‘Frontline’ scheme which was designed to fast-track ‘elite’ graduates into child protection jobs in ‘tough’ areas and push these sparkly bright graduates into ‘leadership’ roles. At the time, I moved this blog out of retirement specifically to challenge the processes, thinking and mostly the lack of consultation and involvement of children and families social workers – or indeed any social workers – when this scheme was developed. I’ve written about it here.

I spoke out and spoke up as best I could because I think these ‘fast track’ schemes are a folly and are attempts at solving the wrong problems. I lost that battle because it was the government doing what the government wanted to do. Yes, those in favour say, this is just about another route in to social work – perhaps I’m simple-minded, not being an Oxbridge graduate and all, but I thought we already  had the post-graduate route in to social work training (Masters qualification route). We even had a specialist child-focused route in to social work (Step Up to Social Work – which I’m also not a massive fan of, incidentally) but no, this would be different because this would fast-track even more and focus even more. So it would take all the worst parts and combine them.

This morning, the Independent reports that the IPPR (the same think tank of policy bods who haven’t got a clue about what social work actually looks like) are presenting a lovely report to Norman Lamb about encouraging graduates to move into mental health social work and this week ‘Think Ahead’ will be launched. Actually just typing that causes a deep nausea in my stomach and makes me shake with rage. ‘Think Ahead’ – that’s nice.

This is what the Independent says

Just 10 Oxbridge graduates studied for a social work master’s degree in 2011-12, compared with 10 per cent of the entire cohort applying for Teach First, the successful graduate teacher training programme. Despite the high skills required and difficulty of adult social work, very few top-flight students regard it as a prestigious job, the IPPR report says.

So that’s it, guys. Quality is judged by whether you are an Oxbridge graduate or not. Apart from the nausea, I have to say the tears are coming now. There are fantastic mental health social workers out there. There are fantastic mental health social workers coming through. This is a kick in the teeth of the highest degree. If we didn’t go to Oxbridge, clearly we aren’t good enough. Is there so little understanding that the issue is not about new entrants into mental health social work but the pulling apart of mental health social work so that there aren’t any jobs anymore. Surely we should be focussing on THAT. There is no shortage of newly qualified social workers who are very skilled who want to work in mental health. Maybe pushing some of the money and support into building strong post qualification frameworks to support them might be a better idea than pulling in people who don’t really have a clue what social work actually is.

 

Government endorsed ageism

I worked in an older adults mental health team. It is vital that I had a good understanding of adult social work as well as mental health social work. Lamb’s comment sticks in my stomach.

Mr Lamb said last night he was “very enthusiastic” about Think Ahead. “We are looking for people who can commit to do something to make a difference to young people with mental health problems, particularly people in their late teens and early twenties,” he said.

See, as far as Lamb is concerned, his focus is on making a different to YOUNG PEOPLE. Does he even know what mental health social work is or is he trying to develop a programme which is a mix between Frontline and Think First because, you know, Frontline blatantly isn’t focusing on anything other than child protection social work. This is evidence of the clear folly of building social work into specialist silos. This pot is where Mental Health goes. This pot is where Child Protection goes. We’ll train you as a ‘specialist’ social worker – whoops, what do we do if a child has mental health needs? Heaven forbid someone has dementia and that needs specialist social work input. Has there been ANY thought about it because it doesn’t look like it. I’d like to know from Lamb how many practising social workers they spoke to and where those people work – as well as their names – as they clearly don’t have a clue what happens in mental health social work nor what is happening now as local authorities pull their social workers out of mental health trusts. And that is happening all over the country.

What is social work?

According to the Independent article

The IPPR research shows that nearly 50 per cent of local authorities have problems recruiting high-quality adult social workers.

Well, I, for one, can’t wait to see the figures behind that research and there seems to be some confusion between adult social work and mental health social work which are not actually the same thing but I doubt the IPPR Oxbridge PPE graduates realise that. We are increasingly seeing a fragmentation of social work into discrete areas – you are a child protection social work or a mental health social worker etc. This is not helpful as the thing that makes the profession cohesive is our broad generic base. If we look at what social work is, it’s about a value base, an emphasis on reflection and social justice, a key understanding of how pieces fit together which are beyond labelling definitions and a focus on strengths-based models of working with people using specific approaches. This is beyond child protection processes or care management processes and it is what makes the profession one. I was disappointed to see one of the Chief Social Workers (for children and families) ask why genericism was important on twitter this morning when nurses had specialist training. What an utter heart-sink moment that was. If we have to explain why genericism is important to the fundamental definitions of social work to someone who defines themselves as a government appointment social work ‘leader’, I’m afraid we, as social workers are losing the battle. It is important that as social workers – social work practitioners, students, academics and social workers internationally, pull these definitions back from our government which is trying to define us by the processes that they ask us to do. We are far, far more than our tasks and that is why generic qualification is necessary and important. We need the space to understand beyond our specialisms and to grow and explore our values – because it is social work values that make social workers, not knowledge of specific child protection processes.

 

Choosing your team

Then the Independent goes on to say

The Think Ahead scheme will run as a social enterprise and operate rigorous two-year courses, starting in September 2015, for the “best and brightest” who could bring leadership to the profession. The board of the social enterprise will include Paul Farmer, the chief executive of Mind, and Dame Carol Black, the chairman of the Nuffield Trust and an adviser to the Government on health and social work. Mr Lamb also consulted Alastair Campbell, who has written extensively about his personal struggle with depression, on creating the programme.

And we get to the point. These are going to be the leaders and not the practitioners. They are not remotely interested in promoting good practice in mental health social work but producing a fast track leadership programme for privileged people who wouldn’t want to dirty their hands with actual social work. None of those people mentioned, the so-called ‘great and the good’ who are going to be on the board of this social enterprise are social workers. NONE OF THEM. Can we stop and think about that. Can we think about another profession that the government would treat with so little respect? We saw Ed Balls consult an agony aunt from the Sun to decide where social work should go after Peter Connolly’s tragic death. Now Lamb is no better in asking Campbell. This is a mess and it’s a government promoted mess. But he doesn’t need to bring social workers along with him because he is going to grow his own social work leaders who look like him, went to Oxbridge and don’t need to have any understanding of mental health social work. It makes me sick to my stomach and it’s difficult for me to even read but I’ll go on.

 

Kicking the profession while you’re at it

Now this bit made me laugh.

The new IPPR report says that “more than 90 per cent of directors of adult social services believe more needs to be done to attract the highest possible quality candidates into the social work profession”. Directors believe many job applicants lack analytical ability and intellectual capacity, awareness of evidence, practical experience of social work, and leadership skills.

The Director of Adult Services in the local authority I worked in didn’t actually realise that we, the mental health social workers which he had seconded into our mental health trust, were employed by him. He certainly wouldn’t have a clue what we did on a day to day basis or how skilled we were. And if he had said we lacked analytical ability and intellectual capacity, well, I’d have asked him (but he wasn’t remotely interested in what we did) to come out on a Mental Health Act Assessment with me. Does the government realise how insulting all this is? I think it does. They want to divide and rule and tell us how rubbish we are so we need to fling some Oxbridge graduates into the mix. Does Lamb or the IPPR even KNOW the difference between adult social work and mental health social work? Do they know that most Directors of Adult Social Services don’t know who their mental health social workers are because they are mostly seconded out? It sounds like pure ignorance of the sector to me. It seems like the government have built a solution without actually knowing or analysing the problem and certainly without an understanding of mental health social work.

And then the article says

Demand for adult social workers is high: a third of all families includes someone who is mentally ill, while one in four people will experience a mental health problem during their lifetime. In 2010, more than 1.25 million people used specialist NHS mental health services.

Ha ha. Ha ha. Seriously. Does the writer of this article actually know that these services have been slashed to pieces. Yes, more people need mental health social work  but there is less money and far, far fewer social workers delivering social work in Mental Health Trusts than there was in 2010. This makes a mockery of those of us who know how hard the cuts have hit.

 

Then we have the final kick in the teeth

Jonathan Clifton, senior research fellow at IPPR, said: “As the number of people diagnosed with mental ill-health increases, there is a moral imperative to develop effective services that can support each of them.

“Too many people can be let down when things go wrong, causing distress and putting vulnerable people at risk. A fast-track programme like Think Ahead could be one step on the journey towards changing this.”

Oh, dear, Jonathan Clifton, you really are a bit thick and haven’t done your research very well if you are the best they can do with a ‘senior research fellow’. The issue isn’t the quality of support and the fast track programmes. The issue is mental health services have been utterly decimated by this government and there isn’t money left to pay those who did the job well. I know because I left when we went through cuts which actively harmed people who used the service. Yes, vulnerable people are at risk but they are at risk because of people like Lamb cutting mental health services and support  – not because there aren’t people coming into the profession.

 

Rage, rage against the dying of the light

This scheme is ill-thought out, ignorant and insulting. It shows no understanding or insight into mental health services or social work services. The quotations are muddled, the thinking is illogical. As social workers who are committed to driving the profession and most importantly supporting and advocating for people who use social work services, we need to shout out and long about these destructive programmes and the lack of input that social workers have had into them.

If we want to look at what will ‘save’ mental health social work – I’ll  happily tell Lamb but then, as a social worker, I’m not the kind of person he’d want to consult with – especially as I guess he’d say I lack intellectual and critical rigour and analysis (although I’d like to see him say that to my face). You see, Lamb needs cleverer people than social workers to decide where social work needs to go – clearly. We are too thick and too many of us are plebs for us to be properly informed and consulted. No, it needs a think tank and other professionals to tell us. But if he were to ask me, this is what I’d tell him.

1. Fast track isn’t the answer. Longer, slower track is.

Keep the generic qualifying routes we have. We have postgraduate qualifying routes. What’s wrong with them? THEN, then, we have a robust, compulsory one year additional course supported by employers to get the specialist skills embedded but where this ‘let’s focus on young people’ thing comes from I don’t know. If we are going to build specialisms, please lets have an older adults one too which combines specialist mental health (particularly around dementia and late onset functional mental health needs) and physical disability which often affects older people.

We need more time not less time.

 

2. Consult social workers who are actually doing social work

I know, this is blue sky thinking. Who would think they could change the profession and actually ask the professionals working in the field. What would we know? But it would be nice, wouldn’t it.

3. Listen to people who rely on social work services.

Quick, let’s find ‘one of us’ who has had a mental health difficulty and shove them in the consultation. Ergo Alistair Campbell. No, Mr Lamb. Find someone who is currently using a mental health social workers’ services. Someone who has been detained by one of us. Find someone who is living in poverty and is being supported by a social worker because they don’t have any other support. Of course, have Mr Campbell as well but he may not be representative of all people who use social work services. Show a bit of respect to those who are reliant on these social workers coming through.

4. Drop the leadership strand.

You can’t train new graduates to be leaders without actually doing the job. We would be creating the wrong leaders. Look what the NHS graduate leadership programme does when leaders grow who haven’t had any clinical experience. The focus is on providing good quality social workers so why push them into leadership roles immediately. Leadership has to be earnt.

5. Genericism is important.

I won’t repeat myself but it is what makes social work, social work. We can’t allow others to define it for us. Let’s focus on post qualification training and make that more robust. Let’s push the focus into retaining and supporting good social workers. Let’s emphasis time to reflect and grow rather than jump on fast track scheme. That will improve mental health social work.