Training of Children and Families Social Workers - Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

2  Entry to the profession

Academic standards

41.  Social work demands a great deal of those who practise it. Cathy Ashley, Chief Executive of the Family Rights Group, emphasised that a high standard should be expected from entrants to the profession because "it is a job in which you are investing the state's responsibility for protecting the most vulnerable children and families".[66] Professor Lena Dominelli, giving evidence on behalf of Universities UK, outlined the qualities needed to be a social worker:

For social workers, we have to aim at three different levels of competences. First, their personal skills as individuals: how do they relate to others and how do they understand how others operate? Then there is what I call the emotional dimension: how are they affected by really complicated and sometimes devastating situations that people have to respond to? Finally, there are the intellectual, knowledge and practical skills. I think that those things have to be co-ordinated to produce a good social worker. If you handle only one of them—either the intellectual or emotional, for example—without the practical and without bringing them all together, you are not going to make it as a social worker.[67]

Several witnesses were keen to stress the intellectual dimension of the social work task, and the analytical, cognitive and writing skills that it requires.[68] Moira Gibb, Chair of the Social Work Task Force, concluded that "you need both academic and emotional intelligence".[69]

42.  There is considerable concern that the intellectual aspect of the social work task is not consistently reflected in the level of qualifications held by those embarking on social work degrees.[70] All applicants must have achieved at least Key Skills Level 2 in English and mathematics and have undergone a Criminal Records Bureau check, but beyond this, higher education institutions set their own academic entry requirements.[71] Almost half of students entering social work undergraduate degree programmes in 2006-7 had fewer than 240 UCAS points (3 grade Cs or equivalent at A level), compared to fewer than a quarter of entrants to teaching and nursing degrees.[72]

Figure 1:

Source: Ev 126

43.  The range of UCAS points held by applicants appears to be significantly greater in social work than in nursing, medicine or teaching, and while courses and universities with good reputations can have their pick of students boasting A and B grades at A level, we heard that others admit students with E grades.[73] The Joint Universities Council reported complaints from some employers about the standards of literacy amongst graduates from social work courses.[74] It is important to note, however, that a substantial proportion of the total number of students embarking on social work qualifying courses—principally those studying for Master's degrees—already hold a first degree. In 2007-08, this group made up 24% of the student cohort.[75]

44.  Heather Wakefield, National Secretary of Unison's Local Government Services Group, argued that A-level scores are less important than ensuring that the social work workforce reflects the composition of the population.[76] However, Professor Sue White drew attention to what she called the "contradictory imperatives" of widening access to the profession, and ensuring that entry and assessment is robust enough to keep the standard of the workforce high.[77] The General Social Care Council identify this tension as an aspect of the Government's drive to widen participation in higher education in general, to which social work courses have contributed.[78] The Children's Workforce Development Council advocated "a more rigorous recruitment and selection process, with high expectations".[79]

45.  The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) has proposed that a "national benchmark" for A-level entry onto undergraduate social work courses be adopted.[80] Deputy Children's Commissioner Sue Berelowitz drew a comparison with the teaching profession, where, after some years of crisis, there is now healthy competition to get onto teacher training courses and thereafter into teaching posts: "That is not about lowering the benchmark. […] if the standards are high, the standing of the profession goes up, and that becomes a virtuous circle. We need to get out of the vicious cycle that we are in now."[81]

46.  Two main objections were made in our evidence to the idea of a national benchmark imposing higher academic entry requirements. The first is that A-levels are not necessarily a good, nor the only, indicator of future success on the social work course or in employment.[82] The second is that capable candidates with the right personal qualities, particularly mature candidates, could be discouraged or excluded from social work training by a rigid emphasis on A-level results.[83] Heather Wakefield argued that life experience is as important as academic qualifications: "there are very many people with relevant experience who could, and arguably should, be trained as social workers—they don't have A-levels at all, but would make excellent social workers."[84] The Association of Professors of Social Work pointed out that some universities have developed a range of selection procedures in order to assess potential and capability in more imaginative ways.[85] The Minister, Baroness Morgan, admitted that she found the statistics on UCAS points "troubling" but cautioned that they "do not always tell a very straight story. We want to welcome mature students and people with life skills who may have come into social work through an unconventional route."[86]

47.  A-levels are an imperfect measure of potential, but as they are a proxy for the intellectual ability that social work students need we wish to see an improvement in the average grades required for acceptance to undergraduate social work training. This should not, however, preclude universities ensuring that they have the means of offering places to experienced applicants who lack an academic background but whose personal attributes would be valuable assets to the profession.

Personal qualities

48.  Application processes need to assess not only academic ability, but also whether a candidate possesses the personal qualities needed to be an effective social worker.[87] Intervening to protect children requires courage as well as skill, and the ability to handle risk, uncertainty, stress and conflict.[88] The NSPCC conducted a brief consultation with young people about their views of social workers. Among the traits they highlighted were: being a good listener; sincerity and honesty; reliability; understanding and empathy; respectfulness; calmness and confidence. To this list the Association of Directors of Children's Services added resilience, fairness and reluctance to pre-judge.[89] One young woman told the NSPCC that "social workers should have experience with young people in general […] Having a social worker qualification does not mean you can or have the experience to work with young people."[90] The Family Rights Group reported that many parents express concern about qualities of social workers such as perceived prejudices and lack of knowledge about issues affecting their families, and the Association for Improvements in Maternity Services complained about lack of respect shown by social workers to parents.[91]

49.  The General Social Care Council (GSCC) state that:

there is a rigorous selection process for entry to the social work degree, stipulated by the Department of Health. This includes requirements that entrants should possess appropriate personal and intellectual qualities to be social workers. All short-listed applicants must be assessed through group or individual interviews, which should involve employers and people who use services and their carers.[92]

Mike Wardle, Chief Executive of the GSCC, explained that existing requirements "give various general statements about the types of quality you should be looking for […] and say you must have a process to make that selection", but that "there is no nationally prescribed guidance as to exactly what you are looking for and what you should be doing when selecting students".[93]

50.  Bournemouth University commented that "we need to be clearer about fitness for practice and this is where the regulator can help; leaving this to universities may create differential approaches."[94] Enid Hendry, representing the NSPCC, commended some universities for involving children and young people in their selection processes, but suggested that assessment of students could more regularly involve observing social workers' interactions with children and young people.[95] The Family Rights Group argued that universities should take into consideration the applicant's personal history and motivation in choosing to train as a social worker.[96] Professor Sue White said that universities have an opportunity to develop imaginative methods of assessing candidates' emotional aptitude for the job.[97] In particular, there may be opportunities to involve employers more closely in application processes, to ensure that candidates show potential to develop the personal qualities needed to be an effective social worker.[98]

51.  The 'Social Work Development Agency' that we have proposed should make available more guidance about best practice in assessing the personal qualities of applicants to social work degrees. We are encouraged to hear that some universities involve service users already, and we believe this should become standard practice. Employers should be routinely involved in application processes to help universities identify those candidates with the potential to be effective social workers, not just successful students.

52.  Surrey County Council argued that prior experience in the field, such as in a support role in children's social care, is a much better way to test an individual's aptitude for the work than academic study.[99] It also enables candidates to get a better understanding and more realistic view of the work they are studying for.[100] One recently-qualified social worker who worked for a year in residential care before commencing her studies told us that she still draws on that experience every day.[101]

53.  Previous practical work experience in related fields seems to us an immensely valuable attribute to bring to the study and practice of social work. This should be taken into account in application procedures, and consideration should be given to making it a mandatory requirement.

Fast track and other routes

54.  The Children's Workforce Development Council put forward the view that "the number of entry routes to the profession should be increased, so that it is easier and more attractive for a wider range of talented and committed people to qualify as social workers."[102] One of these possible alternative routes is through a Foundation degree, which could function as a way to qualify staff to work in roles supporting and supervised by social workers, or which could be preparatory to a social work degree.[103] Diplomas and apprenticeships offer other possible routes.[104] The NSPCC have developed a traineeship scheme which attracted over 3,000 applicants from a diverse range of backgrounds in its first year. However, they reported facing a number of barriers to introducing an NVQ route to a social work qualification: "academic elitism, the extra work involved for universities, and less revenue from courses if students are exempted from some elements of the course."[105]

55.  The Children's Workforce Development Council is developing options for a fast track to social work for mature graduates with experience in "allied professional areas".[106] There was significant anxiety about such a proposal in our evidence from the academic community, largely because of the breadth of theory and practice which social workers must assimilate during their degrees.[107] Whilst an undergraduate degree takes three years, the time available for communicating the knowledge base is limited by the requirement for 200 placement days. Professor John Carpenter cited research showing that the topic of first degree does not make a significant difference to the final outcomes or marks of students taking the Master's in social work.[108] Professor June Thoburn wrote that

I do not believe that it is possible to compress the knowledge component of the qualifying social work curriculum any more than at present, even for those with 'relevant' degrees. Past experience […] taught us that there was too much room for interpretation about what was 'relevant'. Degrees in sociology, psychology, social policy and law, and professional qualifications in nursing or teaching, for example, all left students with much ground still to cover, and the need for time to re-appraise earlier learning in the light of the realities of social work practice.[109]

Anything less than 18 months' full-time study, Professor Thoburn argued, would "compromise standards at the point of qualification".[110] Professor Michael Preston-Shoot rejected the idea of a fast track to social work qualification because of the distinctiveness and complexity of social work "and the fact that getting people to the point at which they are ready to begin their journey of practice cannot, and should not, be rushed."[111]

56.  Dr Eileen Munro, however, offered qualified support for the idea of a 'fast track' when applied to mature students, supported by high-quality supervision.[112] Surrey County Council were keen to see alternative routes developed through foundation degrees, and even shorter 'intensive' foundation degrees for those with extensive relevant professional experience such as youth workers or police officers. They considered that people already working in the field would not need the same amount of time for practice placements, and that quicker qualification would help to ease the current staffing shortages.[113]

57.  We are persuaded that there is little scope for routinely compressing the content of the social work degrees into a shorter, 'fast track' package. However, as an option for students with relevant experience, a clear idea of what sort of social work they wish to specialise in, or prior qualifications incorporating clearly relevant content, a 'fast track' would make a valuable contribution to increasing opportunities for applicants through non-traditional routes.

58.  'Grow Your Own' (GYO) is a term referring to schemes whereby a student is supported and funded through their social work studies by an organisation that will employ them once qualified. These schemes can take various forms, principally secondments or sponsorships of current employees, or traineeships into which external candidates are recruited. The proportion of schemes falling into the latter category has recently increased, and as employers often prefer the Master's route—being shorter and therefore cheaper—this has increased opportunities for highly-qualified external recruits, sometimes at the expense of internal candidates with long experience in the sector. Heather Wakefield, representing Unison, reported evidence from its members that it is increasingly difficult for unqualified staff to obtain secondments to gain a social work degree; "we are being told that they have to resign from their jobs and apply for bursaries if that is what they want to do."[114]

59.  The benefits of GYO schemes include students' prior experience in the field—traineeships often include a pre-study year in employment—and one or more guaranteed placements.[115] Students on these schemes are also less likely to withdraw from courses. However, of the 2007-08 intake onto social work degrees, only 10.4% were studying on employment-based routes.[116] Research carried out for the General Social Care Council found evidence of local authorities cutting back their GYO schemes because they are unwilling to commit to funding places over a number of years when working within annual budgets.[117] This is especially so when an authority feels there is no guarantee a student supported in this way will remain with them in the long term.[118]

60.  We consider the proportion of students on Grow Your Own schemes to be surprisingly low. These schemes appear to be a concrete way in which employers can exert more influence on the type of training and preparation they wish social work students to receive, as well as an important route into the profession for people with highly relevant skills and experience. We recommend that the Government consider funding arrangements that would encourage more local authorities to offer more of these opportunities. GYO schemes could be a particularly fertile ground for the 'fast track' study options discussed above.

66   Q 260 Back

67   Q 75 Back

68   Qq 23, 69 [Professor White], 281; Ev 103 Back

69   Q 24 Back

70   Q 82; Ev 31, 105 Back

71   GSCC, Raising standards (February 2009), para 8 Back

72   Department for Children, Schools and Families, 2020 Workforce Strategy: the evidence base (2008), p 32; Ev 126 Back

73   Q 24, 258, 261; Ev 31, 85  Back

74   Ev 28 Back

75   Ev 48 Back

76   Q 42 Back

77   Q 70 [Professor White]; see also Q 258. Back

78   GSCC, Raising standards (February 2009), para 28 Back

79   Ev 44 Back

80   Ev 14 Back

81   Q 258 Back

82   Ev 17, 26, 31 Back

83   Q 80; Ev 26, 183, 197 Back

84   Q 42; see also Q 239 [James Brown]. Back

85   Ev 31 Back

86   Q 306 Back

87   Ev 146; Q 238 [Sue Berelowitz] Back

88   Q 235 Back

89   Ev 86 Back

90   Ev 121-3 Back

91   Ev 103, 174 Back

92   GSCC, Raising standards (February 2009), para 8 Back

93   Q 101 Back

94   Ev 150 Back

95   Q 238; see also Q 238 [Sue Berelowitz], Ev 83. Back

96   Ev 103 Back

97   Q 75 Back

98   Q 239 [James Brown]; Ev 2, 44, 180, 195, 201 Back

99   Ev 200 Back

100   Ev 167 Back

101   See Annex Back

102   Ev 44 Back

103   Ev 27, 32, 179 Back

104   Ev 188-9 Back

105   Ev 107 Back

106   Ev 44 Back

107   Ev 27 Back

108   Ev 172 Back

109   Ev 180-1 Back

110   Ev 180-1 Back

111   Q 181 Back

112   Q 181 Back

113   Ev 199 Back

114   Q 41 Back

115   Ev 204 Back

116   GSCC, Raising standards (February 2009), p iii Back

117   GSCC, What works in Grow Your Own initiatives for social work? (December 2008), p55; see also Ev 82. Back

118   Ev 200 Back

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