The portrayal of the social work profession within the media, especially the tabloid press, has been overwhelmingly negative, rarely kind and quick to ‘name and shame’. Whilst poor practice is indefensible, the power of the wagging finger of the media should not be under-estimated. In the wake of the death of Baby Peter, the Sun newspaper, after publishing the 17-month old’s photograph, ran an on-line petition claiming that thousands of readers had signed to oust Haringey Council staff from their post. (Willets and Soodin, 2008)
This level of public outcry, sustained and nurtured by the media, has served to further undermine and ridicule the social work profession and fuel the need to have individuals to blame and punish. This media drive, together with the fact that Baby Peter, like Victoria Climbié before him, was an ‘open case’ to the social work team in Haringey Council, were both arguably significant factors in the decision by the Government to set up a Social Work Taskforce in January 2009.
One year on, both the Interim (July 2009) and Final Report (December 2009) of the Taskforce have been published. The initial training of social workers is a dominant feature within both documents, with the Interim Report mentioning ‘training’ 112 times and the Final Report referring to training in 114 instances.
The training of social workers has experienced an unprecedented change within the last decade which, amongst other things, has included the qualification becoming a degree, the protected title of the profession, and a new post qualifying framework for practitioners. The initial training of social work is undertaken by Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) and regulated by the General Social Care Council. The Final Report (December 2009) outlines 15 recommendations, of which almost half (7) will directly affect HEIs and the training of social work students including:
- Calibre of entrants to social work programmes (recommendation 1)
- Curriculum and delivery (recommendation 2)
- Practice placements (recommendation 3)
- Assessed year in employment (recommendation 4)
- Regulation of social work education (recommendation 5)
- Continuing professional development (recommendation 9)
- Social work supply (recommendation 14)
The “overhaul of the content and delivery of social work degrees” (Social Work Taskforce, December 2009:12) suggests that current programmes of study are inadequate and producing social workers that are unable to cope with the challenges of the profession. This is arguably a sentiment shared by some of the media and general public and which has been associated with social workers’ levels of stress and diminished professional self-worth, where the image perpetuated is of social workers’ inadequacies and mistakes. (Collings & Philip, 1996, Asthana, 2008)
The level of qualification for the social work profession has increased incrementally with each reform, from the Certificate, to the Diploma, to the current Degree. Therefore, it is of little surprise that the present reform is supporting the expansion of Masters level qualification. Whether the academic success of students equips them better to face the complexities encountered when undertaking the task of social work is debatable. Rarely, if ever, has a Serious Case Review following the death or serious injury of a child, concluded that the level of qualification of the professionals involved has impacted on the practice or outcome for the child. Instead, the invariable, familiar laments of poor communication amongst professionals and poor decision making are singled out in the analysis of ‘what went wrong’.
Academics, whilst embracing the principles of the Social Work Taskforce recommendations, have reacted to the explicit and implicit suggestions that Universities alone are to blame for the lack of preparedness felt by social worker upon qualification (McGregor, 2009). It could be suggested that the critical stance taken by the Taskforce in respect to the initial training of social workers mirrors that adopted by the media – the need for a scapegoat.
As in recommendations of numerous Serious Case Reviews, the need to further train professionals is a common, if not consistent, recommendation. However, offering training as a dose of medicine to rid social workers of their ailments is rarely the issue. The interpretation of legislation, inadequate recognition of the complexity of the task, lack of implementation of procedures and lack of appropriate supervision and support usually are the crucial factors.
Yet these are bewildering and rarely straightforward processes to deal with, which involve latent organisational as well as individuals’ cultures and practices. The delivery of training is a remedy that is easier to grapple with and administer, becoming not only the medicine, but also the proverbial spoon that helps it go down.
Social workers deal with facets of life that are uncomfortable to hear about and to look at and at times too unbearable to consider. Child abuse, poverty, substance and alcohol misuse, domestic violence, mental health, disability and dementia, to name but a few, are key issues and the essence for the profession. How universities can better equip students to deal with this reality in a empathetic way that safeguards individuals, whilst promoting respect and humanity is a task that can only be achieved in collaboration with employers who support students (through the supply of practice placements) and in managing newly qualified social workers.
The Taskforce recommendations have in principle been accepted by the Government. This includes the new concept of students not being fully qualified upon completion of their initial training, but for it to be dependent on
“some form of supported and assessed ‘probationary’ year” which is similar to the teaching profession. (Social Work Taskforce, December 2009: 23). How this probationary year will be assessed and the role that HEIs, together with that of employers, is yet to be debated and detailed.
In my experience as a Senior Lecturer in Social Work, when discussed with current students, it is a move that is welcomed. Students consider this to be a crucial time in their future career and look forward to protected case loads and increased levels of support. However, how managers will manage this transition, from trainee to fully licensed, is yet to be realised against a backdrop of increasing pressures caused by social work vacancies, rapid turnover of staffing and the inevitable budget reductions and restructuring that most local authorities are plagued with.
The landscape for social work training is shifting and the terrain appears different but occasionally looks familiar. For example, the Social Work Taskforce (December 2009) proposes that practice placement experience should decrease to 130 days (from 200), as it was when the qualification was a Diploma. Arguably, this loss of practice learning will be counter-balanced with the probationary year and additional time gained by HEIs.
Whether the proposed changes will have an impact on the training of future social workers is no longer an issue open to debate. Simply, it will. This is a consistent thread that has it has been identified strongly within the Taskforce recommendations. What these changes will look like, how they will impact and be interwoven into practice and better safeguard vulnerable children is yet to be either realised or agreed upon.
Angie Bartoli is Senior Lecturer in Social Work at the University of Northampton
Asthana, A. (15.06.2008) Social workers buckling under stress burden, The Observer Newspaper. Available from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2008/jun/15/socialcare [Accessed 21.11.2010]
Collings, J.A. & Philip, J. (1996) Predictors of Stress Amongst Social Workers. British Journal of Social Work. 26: 375-387
Department of Health (2002) Requirements for Social Work Training
Social Work Taskforce, July 2009, Facing Up to the Challenge: Interim report.
Social Work Taskforce, December 2009, Building a Safe and Confident Future: Final Report
Willets, D. & Soodin, V. (15.11.2008) Thousands sign Baby P petition, The Sun Newspaper. Available from: http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/article1933558.ece. [Accessed: 20.01.2010]