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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.

One thought on “It’s time to take social work education seriously

  1. Old Fashioned SW says:

    Have to say that on the job it.mattered nothing.if you had a dipsw or a masters degree when faced with an.emaciated adult living in 12 inches of rubbish. Social.workers do not think what theory applies here? That is saved for reflective practice or using it as a case study for something but in that.moment you are making decisions to make that.person safe its the practical experience that counts.

    Its also a pity social.work appears to have gone qualification obsessed. I have 8 years statutory experience in.adult social work following a dipsw course, I did excellent work and was respected and trusted by managers however following a break of 5 years I cannot get a break back in.because my “knowledge” isn’t up to date. Actually it is, I have done the reading on safeguarding (pretty.much new term for protecting vulnerable adults with dedicated teams) & personalisation (I always did person centred care plans and was known to.be creative with them) & admittedly I do.need to get to grips with.personal budgets however I get turned away by agency after agency, can’t get shortlisted for interviews because I haven’t practiced for 5 years as.my son has aspergers syndrome so my career break was lo.germ than intended.

    I do still feel that.working full time in statutory, doing hospital discharge, out of hours and frontline duty does count for something in terms of experience but apparently not as the newly qualified tick all the boxes on the latest developments whereas I can only say I have studied it and practiced extensively its predecessors.

    Cest la vie, maybe one day a.manager will spot the potential of experienced staff returning to frontline.

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