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Diary of a social work academic: Friday

If this week has taught me anything, it’s that I’m not cut out to be a diarist. It’s a real struggle to come up with something original to say each day without it becoming too dull. Anyway, here goes for the final time this week…

This morning started with social work in the news. A new Chief Social Worker (for children and families) was announced and Frontline was announced again. Twitter sparked into life with social workers (in my twitter feed at least) spitting blood with fury.

The Frontline proposals have divided the profession, including social work academics. Against the tide of discontent, Donald Forrester’s thoughtful blog makes the case for change. I found myself agreeing with many of the points he makes.

The proposed method of practice learning in Frontline involves intense weekly conversations about practice, often involving taped sessions. This is the method of advanced practice learning we used on the post-qualifying advanced award I led at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London. Experienced practitioners attended weekly case consultation groups with tape recordings of their practice which were analysed by an experienced psychotherapist and discussed by the group. Students found this an intense, but transformative experience.

Our experience has been that this method is an excellent bridge between the academy and social work practice. It challenges practitioners to consider theory and research to support the interventions they are using. I am certain that if it is properly resourced it provides a good model of practice education for experienced practitioners, though I am less certain how it will work on a qualifying programme. Our students needed considerable resilience to withstand our intense focus on their practice and I’m not sure a 5-week summer school will provide that. But I’m happy to be proven wrong.

I am also concerned about the resource implications of the Frontline model and how sustainable it will be if rolled out wider. For example, where are the experienced clinical supervisors going to come from? Social workers at the BASW conference yesterday bemoaned the lack of supervision they received. When they did receive supervision it was focused on targets and processes rather than permitting them to reflect on their practice. A new cadre of supervisors may need to be trained, but by whom? My post-qualifying course which trained people to provide this form of supervision was closed down as soon as I handed my notice in last year as it was less profitable than other courses ran by my former department.

I’m not convinced that 5 weeks training is sufficient to gain the knowledge required to safely practice as a social worker. The proposed curriculum appears very narrow in focus and I’m concerned that graduates may struggle with complex cases where the intervention techniques they are trained in don’t work. I know it’s not a very good comparison, but graduates I have taught on Increasing Access to Psychological Therapies courses have the same menu of intervention options for a range of different case scenarios. They have a limited ability to think laterally or creatively in situations of complexity. I am a little worried that Frontline graduates, who are taking responsibility for challenging child protection cases within 12 months of starting their training, may similarly struggle.

My scepticism is not based around concerns that resources may move away from universities to practice based learning in the future if the model is proven to be effective in protecting children and improving social work practice. I fully support evidence-based interventions and I welcome evaluations of social work education (though I wonder what the control group will be and if the graduates will be randomised to Frontline or a normal Masters programme in social work). But I am concerned about the narrow focus on children’s social work and the likely squeeze on mental health and other areas of a traditional social work curriculum. All social workers need to know something about working with people with mental health problems and understanding their needs. Many of the parents Frontline graduates will work with will have mental health or personality problems. Ignorance about this may lead to defensive or insensitive practice.

I am not frightened of change, nor am I pretending that all is well with social work education. But there is an on-going reform process and I can see no reason why this method could not be piloted as part of a wider reform process. It is being imposed from outside the profession, creating suspicion and hostility. It is focused on only one practice domain – child protection – leading to fears about diminishing status or importance of other areas of social work practice.

The attention it attracts through government backing and the media circus which follows it, distracts focus away from what is not permitting practitioners to practice effectively: the conditions in which local authority social workers are working. Caseloads have grown exponentially since the Baby Peter case. One practitioner I spoke to yesterday had 90 (yes, nine-zero) cases. How can that be allowed? Local authorities are having to save £millions because of the austerity measures and Directors of Social Services are happy to commission less effective services if they save them money (I was in a meeting with them last week when this was openly discussed). If social workers had reasonable case loads, proper clinical supervision, supportive managers who were not driven by targets imposed from above, and the support to develop their practice, it is likely that their practice will improve. It is disingenuous to suggest that poor qualifying programmes are solely responsible for bad practice.

I welcome the desire to attract people into the profession who could potentially enhance it in some way. That is to be welcomed. But why create a completely separate entry route? There are already postgraduate programmes who only take graduates with a minimum 2:1 degree. There are already work-based routes into social work.  At risk of repeating myself, why couldn’t this initiative be considered within the existing package of reforms?

As I have banged on about for many years – though mostly before I started blogging, unfortunately – investment needs to be made in enhancing post-qualifying education. Yes, qualifying education should be robust and equip students for practice on their graduation. But post-qualifying education – in the first year of practice and beyond – needs to be properly resourced and supported by employers. The Frontline method of practice education could be used as an intensive on-the-job post-qualifying training in different specialisms for newly qualified social workers (who have received a robust generic qualifying education). Many Approved Mental Health Professionals have rated their specialist post-qualifying training very highly and are respected for their expertise. If a similar model of high-quality practice education were rolled out across the profession, we could similarly enhance the status of social work across the board.

This had started out as a diary entry but I haven’t actually said anything about my day and the work I did. It wasn’t terribly interesting, to be honest, and involved mainly catching up on a backlog of emails, half-finished reports and some marking. As I said, I don’t think I’ll take up writing a diary.

Competition time

There were three entrants to my competitiontwo on my blog and one on twitter.

The three most viewed posts on my blog to date are:

End of social work at the Institute of Psychiatry

Good practice in personalised care in mental health services

Social workers and self-disclosure

Unfortunately no-one guessed them correctly, but I have used my random number generator to pick a winner from the three entrants.

And the winner is … {Drum roll} … Ermintrude.

Many congratulations. Your prize will be in the post c/o The Magic Roundabout!


2 thoughts on “Diary of a social work academic: Friday

  1. lyndsey says:

    I enjoyed reading this blog. I am in my second year of my social work degree and cannot imaging how 5 weeks of training will prepare someone for front line social work. I also worry this will devalue the training. I have found my degree to be intensive and varied and the constant message that social work training is in need of reform leaves me feeling demoralised before I have even entered the profession! Would really like to see some positive views on social work education coming through in the reforms.
    Your blog was an interesting read, thank you.

  2. Armrget says:

    em, I have had the oportunity of being qualfied as nurse and then entering into SW both models of tranning miles a part I did prefer the nurse trainning model.
    The bottom line there is no right or wrong way to study the sooner you get hand on practice the better no amount of books will help you on cold face resilience is not taught it developed through experaince.
    I dont disagree with the new change proposed as i just completed work in a local authority where 90% of staff were newly qualfied and struggling to apply practice which is fine but runnig alongside that was struggling managment model and with that omg drama.
    I study pyschosexual therapy and did not enjoy the refelctive practice it was over the top but you had to fit into the model or else you were “problem”. Ultimately after 24 years of direct work and layers of great study funded by myself I learnt that one must walk with confidence and clear focus and enjoy the gift of what is given to you by the client once you lost that edge of excitment down tools and walk away. This is more than just salary.
    Continue to learn and learn from each new situation and mostly ask for help when your stuck and dont be slave to your company and laugh because it is painful but some you make difference with. Yes do have psychotherapy periodically it helps you greatly and heals you.
    Reach out for tests wihin yourslef set yourslef wacky targets like writing a paper try to accolades they help your ego. And be prepared for glitches and trauma and drama that is the life of the job no amount of book reading will teach you that- you may get lost confused and angry and lash out on managment but that part of learning no system is perfect it about growing up into the trade you set your heart on.
    Goverment will always tinker with the system as it is itself never going to eradicate abuse and will always need to blame our profession because we are easy target.

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