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Think Ahead, but don’t forget the added value of the social work academy

Work-based routes to qualifying in social work are not new. Step Up to Social Work and Frontline provide intensive graduate training in working with children and families leading to a qualification in social work. Think Ahead, which today publishes a tender for an academic partner, aims to do the same for mental health social work.

Last year I worked with Think Ahead to articulate a radical vision for the future of mental health social work and to help them to develop an outline curriculum for the programme. I argued that through organisational change in community mental health services and the social work profession over the last 40 years, we have diminished our therapeutic potential. This needs to be rekindled through a focus on social interventions within an ecological framework of a person within their social environment. I characterised this as intervening at the micro (with the individual), meso (with the individual and their family or people close to them) and macro (with the individual and their wider community) levels. Although a rather crude over-simplification, it illustrated how mental health social work needs to engage systemically with a person’s immediate and wider social networks to effectively support an individual’s recovery. Interventions must be evidence-informed to ensure that mental health social work practice can be as effective as possible. This is a radical vision as it will require community mental health services to change to permit it to happen.

My advice to social work educators as they prepare their tenders for the Think Ahead programme is to carefully consider how universities and practice agencies can work together to deliver the programme. Previous experience suggests that university social work departments must work closely with practice agencies to ensure that education and training is fit for purpose.

W(h)ither the academy?

Towards the end of last year the European Journal of Social Work published a paper I wrote with colleagues from the University of York and Finland on the role of university social work in defining the future of social work in Europe. This was written in response to Frontline, long before the Think Ahead proposals were devised. Evidence from three practice fields was reviewed to reflect on this question.

Firstly, there is a disconnect between the expectations of social work students and their experience of social work practice on placements and in work after qualifying. For example, there is an expectation of spending time undertaking direct work with people whereas the reality of statutory social work is typically working in front of a computer entering data and commissioning services. Also, there is an expectation that social workers can spend time developing working relationships with service users whereas the reality is typically one of crisis management and brief interventions. Ensuring close connections between university social work education and practice placements is crucial to managing the expectations of students and providing a high quality learning experience for them.

Secondly, we can learn from the experiences of colleagues in nursing and probation, who have recently undergone shifts in the role of higher education in their professional training. Nursing has followed social work and recently introduced a requirement for a bachelor’s degree as the minimum academic level for all nurses in the UK. At the time of writing the paper in 2013, there had been no large-scale evaluations of whether the shift from largely vocational to largely academic training has led to higher quality nursing practice. In probation, changes in the opposite direction occurred when it was ‘divorced’ from social work. Training to become a probation officer (now known as Offender Managers in many places) is now largely work-based. But, similar to nursing, there have been no rigorous evaluations of the impact of this change on the quality of practice.

Finally, our Finnish colleagues discussed the Heikki Waris Institute in Helsinki which integrates research, teaching and practice in social work in the city. It bridges the gap between education and training, and stimulates local practice research to facilitate the development of an evidence base for social work in the region. Academia and practice are not considered as separate entities in this model. Again, though, no formal evaluations of this model have been conducted though it is has been recommended to be adopted by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health Education in Finland.

There is no clear evidence to suggest that professional education is best located in universities or practice agencies. While in the UK we can move towards increasing the synergy between the provision of social work education and social work services, it is important to evaluate new developments so that they are led by evidence rather than rhetoric.

The proposal for the evaluation of Frontline has recently caused controversy in the social work academic community. To avoid this happening with the evaluation of the Think Ahead programme, it will be important to co-produce the proposal with social work educators, researchers, service users and practice agencies. It is important to get evaluation right to ensure that rigorous evidence is produced about the outcomes of new forms of social work education and training.

The full text of the paper is available via this link: Webber, M., Hardy, M., Cauvain, S., Kääräinen, A., Satka, M., Yliruka, L. & Shaw, I. (2014) W(h)ither the academy? An exploration of the role of university social work in shaping the future of social work in Europe, European Journal of Social Work, 17 (5), 627-640. If you are unable to obtain a PDF of the paper via this link and would like one to be sent to you, please do not hesitate to contact me.

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