Thinking about Think Ahead

The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) today launched its report on meeting the workforce challenges in mental health social work. Think Ahead makes the case for a fast-track graduate-entry route to a social work qualification to engage people in mental health social work who would not ordinarily consider it to be a career option.

I went along to the launch today to find out a little more about the plans and the rationale for them. I’ll say a little more about that in a moment – after my thoughts on the report itself. (Although I’m cited in the report and I gave IPPR my thoughts when it was being put together, my views are independent of IPPR or any organisation to which I am affiliated.)

On a first read through, I thought it was better written and argued than the IPPR report which made the case for Frontline for children’s social work. However, I was concerned that it started with the solution and worked backwards. That was partly due to the commission from the Department of Health who asked IPPR to investigate the feasibility of introducing a fast-track programme to recruit the ‘best and brightest’ into adult social work along the lines of Frontline. It was disappointing that other alternatives to enhancing the status and attractiveness of mental health social work as a career option were not seriously considered, such as focusing in depth on working in mental health settings within existing qualifying programmes, improving continuing professional development or reinvigorating social models and interventions in mental health services outside of social work training, for example. The conclusion was clear from the outset: a fast-track route to a social work qualification akin to Frontline was needed.

The report talks interchangeably about ‘adult social work’ and ‘mental health social work’. The former is typically working with adults with a learning or physical disability, older people or other adults receiving social care services. The latter is typically working with people with mental health problems, usually in integrated multi-disciplinary community mental health teams (though increasingly in local authority specialist mental health teams as partnership agreements are reviewed and the reality of public sector funding cuts bits). IPPR don’t help their case by being imprecise about this. Further, it is not made clear in the report why they were commissioned to investigate the potential of introducing a fast-track programme in adult social work and then report only on its feasibility in mental health social work.

The definition of the problem they are solving is also not clear. Similar to the argument for Frontline solving recruitment and retention problems in children’s social work, this report talks about recruitment and retention problems for Approved Mental Health Professionals (AMHPs) (pp. 22-23). It is true that surveys have found high levels of stress and mental health problems among AMHPs, but most are resilient and find the AMHP aspect of their job the most satisfying. I hear that fewer AMHPs are being trained at present, but I think the problem is one of demand rather than supply. Posts are being cut as local authorities adjust to smaller budgets and existing AMHPs are shouldering higher workloads. Social work students trying to find work in mental health services struggle because there are fewer vacancies than in other areas of social work. This anecdotal knowledge runs counter to the Think Ahead report which provides the example of ‘Local Authority A’ which has high vacancy rates for adult social workers and poor quality applicants from newly qualified social workers (pp. 24-25). It does not specify that these social work vacancies are in mental health services. I suspect not. Mental health social work may have its image problems, but it is still a sought-after career path for many social work students. My experience is that vacancies are slow to appear because practitioners are committed to their jobs and want to stay, and if they do go they are not always replaced.

The speakers at the launch reinforced my impression that the report was starting with the solution and fitting the problem in around it. Andrew Adonis introduced Think Ahead in the context of Teach First and Frontline, both of which are largely his creations. He placed a strong emphasis on bringing ‘bright young graduates from Russell Group Universities’ into social work, who are ‘highly able and highly motivated’. ‘Think Ahead deserves to succeed’, he argued, and referred to the coalition of supporters who have been gathered around the cause.

Norman Lamb, Minster of State for Care and Support, referred to the enormous challenges the public sector currently faces, particularly in relation to thinking afresh about how we do things with fewer resources. Social work is frequently denigrated, he argued, but it is critically important. He argued that we need to attract the very best people to do this work. He cited figures in the IPPR report, taken from David Croisdale-Appleby’s review of social work education, which state that fewer than 8% of social work students have placements in mental health settings (he didn’t address the issue that this was a problem of supply of these placements rather than a lack of demand for them). Echoing Adonis’ introduction, he argued for more Oxbridge graduates going in to social work. The retention rates of Teach First graduates in teaching are ‘almost as good’ as those who followed traditional routes, making it a worthwhile investment.

Paul Farmer, Chief Executive of Mind, was then introduced as a stand-in for Alastair Campbell, who couldn’t come because of a family bereavement. He made a joke about sharing a passion with Alastair for the ‘promotion of lost causes’ (I’m not sure if he was referring to mental health social work, but if so it wasn’t a particularly apt comment!) He argued that working in mental health services was not an attractive or rewarding career option for many people. However, there are groups of graduates, including those who can’t get onto clinical psychology training programmes, who could be tempted into mental health social work. Think Ahead, he argued, could provide them with a fast-track route into the profession. He did acknowledge, though, that mental health social work is different from teaching and social work with children and families. For example, people with lived experience of mental health problems need to be at the forefront of the programme, and graduates with lived experience need to be encouraged to apply. Also, the third sector needs to be at the forefront of delivering mental health services and mental health social work has an important role in forging these connections.

Finally, Francis Turner, a Cambridge graduate who subsequently did the MA in Social Work, argued that Think Ahead will encourage Oxbridge graduates to go in to social work. She spoke about her decision to go into social work as she wanted a career to which she could sign up wholeheartedly to its values and ethics. Social work has changed her and shaped her identity and beliefs. Her MA Social Work course prepared her for the profession, but so did her time at Cambridge. The intellectual rigour of her course and the development of her analytic skills are required daily in her work. She argued that that Oxbridge graduates can bring a lot to mental health social work.

Overall, the argument presented is that Think Ahead can help mental health social work to become an attractive proposition for ‘bright young graduates’ who may otherwise choose other career options. Think Ahead is being presented as an alternative route to a social work qualification – it would have to be sufficiently generic to achieve Health and Care Professions Council approval – with a particular focus on mental health social work. Traditional routes into social work are not under threat, but the fast-track route is seen as the way to attract graduates who may be allured elsewhere by other graduate training schemes.

The focus on Oxbridge graduates brings significant diversity issues, as these universities are not particularly renowned for their inclusive admissions policies. This is a problem which Think Ahead is unlikely to address and I think is one which requires further consideration. However, social work leaders in the future could equally come from traditional routes, so graduate schemes such as this may not have a profound impact. As I’ve argued elsewhere, there isn’t the evidence one way or the other about this just yet.

Think Ahead has a board of trustees and an interim chief executive is being appointed. Like Frontline before it, it will happen. Bearing this in mind, I can see the benefit of critically engaging with discussions about it to ensure that mental health social workers play a role in shaping their own future. We have been struggling for many years with having our role and identity shaped by policy makers and other professionals. Let’s not let that happen again here. Together with the College of Social Work report on the role of the social worker in adult mental health services, perhaps here is another opportunity for us to define and shape what we do to the ultimate benefit of the people we came into the profession to work with.

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  1. Thanks for this excellent analysis. There are indeed lots of areas in the IPPR report that need critique and some corrections. The primary focus of the scheme is to make social work explicitly attractive to people coming out of ‘top universities’ with high degrees – and with the other personal qualities and motivation for social work too. This inevitably raises issue of ‘elitism’. It also begs the question – why this approach and not better support for existing MA programmes etc? And what about retaining and developing social workers with a strong CPD programme and better job prospects?

    I would like this scheme – which has a very strong political head of steam behind it – to address (or at least does not distract from) these and many other concerns. I want to make sure the voice of our profession is really clear and loud to shape this scheme. I am also really pleased that a commitment was given by Norman Lamb yesterday to ensure service users are directly represented on the board. I said in the early consultation for the scheme there is potential to make sure this is explicitly driven by user and carer perspectives and if we do that really well we could shape something well valued and innovative.

    How as a profession we handle the Think Ahead proposition will be a test of our ability to manage politically sensitive innovation and to work in new – perhaps unlikely – alliances, while keeping our focus on long term quality and impact. Ultimately, my concern is great public service and collaboration/coproduction with people we work with for their benefit. Our profession primarily exists to support this and our wide ambitions for an inclusive and fairer society. Acid test for Think Ahead – does it promote social justice and mental wellbeing?

  2. Am I the only one who feels insulted by the IPPR report?
    I have a first degree and an MA from highly regarded Universities and have managed to stay in the social work profession for 33 years. I know I am not alone.I have been at the top of my payscale for at least 20 years and have worked in many sectors of Adult Social Work and have witnessed the status social standing and financial rewards of social work slip behind Teaching and Nursing. I remain committed to the values that brought me into social work in the first place. The IPPR seems to indicate a streaming of social workers; will the new graduates be better paid? If not, what will be the inducement for the brightest and best and how will they be retained in the profession? There also seems to be a message that what is wrong with social work is the intellectual quality of the workers. Is there any evidence to support this or is it completely ideologically driven?

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  4. My reaction is much the same as Elaine’s. I have an MSc from the Institute of Psychiatry (Martin was my tutor) and have survived as a social worker for 27 years so Elaine is defintely not alone. I have also worked in many different sectors of both adult and children’s social. What I would really like to know is how the government intend to prepare these highly intelligent individuals they will find in the top universities to cope with working in the system they have created in the last 4 years! Higher intelligence ought to be a factor that would screen someone out of involving themselves in such a job at this time given the prevailing environment most social workers have to cope with now!! I agree with Elaine that this government are ideologically driven and obviously do think that social workers aren’t very clever. Perhaps if we were more clever we would have all gone out on indefinite strike by now…or got out of the profession altogether…

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