It’s time to take social work education seriously
As an applied social science the discipline of social work straddles the realms of academy and agency. It is concerned with applying knowledge derived from the social sciences to the practical resolution of social problems. Its foundation in social theory and social research means that social work practice is inextricably connected to the academy from which it is derived. Or is it?
Social work graduates commonly talk of a gap between university social work programmes and the reality of social work practice. They argue that theory taught on programmes is not applicable in practice settings, for example. Their employers frequently complain that graduates are not ready for practice and that lecturers are out of touch. Of course, this is not true for all, but it is often the case that the demands of academic life take lecturers away from frontline practice, making a divorce of the academy and the agency seemingly more likely in social work.
Non-academic routes into social work may be just around the corner. Non-governmental organisations provide the bulk of social care training in the UK and it is possible that they may develop social work degree programmes in an increasingly diverse higher education market. So why go to university if it is cheaper and more convenient to study elsewhere? Whilst universities add value to social work education through the practice-relevant research conducted by faculty members, unless adequate opportunities are provided for students to immerse themselves in research or for faculty members to undertake research in the first place, an argument could be made to remove social work from the academy entirely.
Universities are also seeking to divorce social work from the academy as financial realities bite in the Age of Austerity. University social work departments need to derive income from research and consultancy, in addition to teaching, to stay afloat. This is not impossible, but it does require a renegotiation of roles and responsibilities.
Opening Social Care Student Week in The Guardian Social Care Network today, Claire Burke highlights some of the key issues in this debate and compares the UK experience to Finland. Practitioners there require a longer period of training to undertake certain roles, such as taking children into care. Comparable with the widely-respected post-qualifying training for Approved Mental Health Professionals in the UK, for example, this is perhaps not too different. However, what is different is the extent to which social work is valued in the two countries.
As I comment in Claire’s article, I believe that the development of a credible evidence base for social work in the UK is essential – both from the perspective of the vulnerable people the profession serves and universities who send social work graduates out into the world. I am aware of some good social work research underway in the UK using robust methods, but more is needed. Enhanced research capacity and funding will help, but we also need to engage practitioners in the research process – from the development of research questions through to implementing findings in practice.