Social Work — One profession or two?

This week there have been some debates about one of the ‘old chestnuts’ that has haunted the social work profession for many years. Do we need different initial education programmes for adults and children and families social work? Narey spoke to ADCS (Association of Directors of Childrens’ Services) seeming quite keen on the idea.

For me, the generic nitial teaching and learning that social workers embark on is a strength of the profession. Children live with adults. Adults live with children. Sometimes, children even live with older adults. Sometimes, grandparents are the primary carers for children. It isn’t rocket science really. Yet that seems to be a difficult concept for some who propose separate and fast track training (rather than education) schemes in social work to handle. Maybe because it doesn’t follow the narrative that schemes like ‘Frontline’ want to establish that specific areas of children and families social work is somehow fundamentally different (and by implication more complex) than other areas in which social work happens.

On considering the government preferences to establish ‘fast track elite’ routes into social work via ‘Frontline’ and ‘Think Ahead’ (an odd type of programme which seems to take the problems identified in child protection social work and map them into a mental health setting — a great example of looking for a solution before identifying a problem), time to consider what being a ‘social worker’ and learning to become a social worker actually means.

Does it mean leaving university being able to drop into a statutory adult safeguarding or child protection team and be ‘ready to practice’ (or ready to do a computer-based test for ‘accreditation’ to be a child protection social worker)? For me, that’s getting the whole process of learning the wrong way round. Social work is more than working in a local authority or in a statutory role but this is where all the conversations about initial social work education are happening. What do employing local authorities want? As the health and social care landscape changes though, it’s worth considering that social work is far more than ‘local authority’ social work and training/learning to be a social worker needs to develop far more skills than what a local authority needs and wants. The profession needs to be more ambitious and forward thinking.

Innovation isn’t solely getting new people into the profession. We need to think far more about how people stay in the profession and grow into specific roles. I am all for role-specific training but think that’s far better placed through post-qualification support with the employer taking some responsibility jointly with universities, rather than solely remaining the responsibility of initial qualification programmes.

Being at university, learning to be a social worker isn’t about learning about tasks and functions or it shouldn’t be. It’s about learning theoretical bases for social work. It’s about learning how the law impacts social work practice through the life course. It’s about learning the history of social work and and sociology. It’s about understanding systems and how they impact on oppressive structures. It’s about learning about power and the importance of it in the role which we have. These theories and issues are common to all social work and it’s what places and defines the profession. Yes, it’s useful to have input about child protection work, some lectures on working with people with mental illnesses, physical and learning disabilities, maybe even the odd lecture on older people (it was only one in the two year course I did!). But really, the knowledge can be picked up on the job. The profession is about learning how to implement theories, evaluate evidence, understand research and ensuring that social models are considered when looking at life courses.

Anyone who suggests that placements or learning about adult or mental health services won’t be useful to a social worker entering children’s services demonstrates an ignorance in what social work and social work education is and vice versa. Suggesting that people going into children’s services don’t need to understand the impact of dementia on family dynamics loses one of the key fundamentals about social work as work within societies and families.

The actual skill is learning to transfer knowledge and experiences across different sectors and settings. There are skills in learning to reflect and grow as a professional.

So we need to consider if we want a profession whose initial qualification route pumps out ‘practice ready’ social workers? ‘Practice ready’ cannot come after a three year degree course or a two year postgraduate course. ‘Practice ready’ makes assumptions that learning has a finite end. The end of the social work course is the beginning of professional learning. The employer has a role to develop a graduate with the knowledge for the role they are employed to do. The role of the university and the initial degree course, whether undergraduate or postgraduate, is to equip new social workers with an understanding of the theoretical basis of the profession, an understanding of social history and the skills of reflection and interpretation of evidence as well as the ability to conduct research projects and evaluate knowledge.

The push towards specialisation in social work and the potential for two separate education and training routes into the profession has many risks and interestingly there is an agenda which is being pushed by employers and government to go down this route. This is because focusing on tasks and specifics loses the unifying force of the profession and the focus on the drive for social justice. If we move to train ‘child protection workers’ rather than teach ‘social workers who specialise in child protection roles’ we have lost the soul of the profession.

There’s scope for challenge to the Narey masterplan. It’s interesting that all seems to have gone silent on Croisdale-Appleby who produced a far more intelligent and thoughtful response to the task given to them both to consider the future of social work education. Maybe it’s a case of ‘he who shouts loudest’ but we deserve, as social workers, to be heard in the debates around our own profession. With the College of Social Work due to be wound up soon, one more voice has been lost so the cohensive and most importantly, united voice of all areas of social work — all sectors and all areas of work- needs, more than ever to be heard as one profession.

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