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BLOG: Frontline scheme is no laughing matter

Andrew Ellery, Social Worker and BASW member gives his verdict on the proposed IPPR 'Frontline' scheme for social workers, that promises to 'Fast-track high-fliers' into front-line child protection social work. Andrew can be contacted on Twitter @Andrew_Ellery

I personally found the reports of the recruitment of ‘elite’ graduates as the answer to children’s social work ills somewhat laughable at first.
 
The public support pledged by Education Secretary Michael Gove MP for the ‘Frontline’ scheme has made it less funny and more worrying.
 
Social work prides itself on a code of ethics that enable us to challenge oppression and to empower people. If it is then decreed that the social work profession is built on foundations of those with a 2:1 or higher from a Russell Group University, does that not challenge our core values?
 
There are indeed changes needed within this profession, but as social workers, we have to ask ourselves whether yet another damaging quick fix solution is really the way we want to go. 
 
I am now sick of hearing about how a summer school and practice learning is the way to improve the quality of children’s social work. One of the greatest things about the social work degree in my view is that it remains largely generic, providing the opportunity to specialise in a particular field later on. 
 
I have seen the anger expressed on Twitter from social work graduates at all levels in their career who have been through the often gruelling process of training in social work, and do not take kindly to a scheme that has its roots in teaching (Teachfirst) telling them what they should be doing as social workers. I suggest that Mr Gove considers shadowing a social worker for at least a week if he wants a proper understanding of what we do. 
 
Surely we should be focussing on other options to improve the recruitment and retention of social workers. I firmly believe that employers should sponsor many more unqualified members of staff to undertake a generic qualifying course. 
 
No one is suggesting that academic skills are not important in social work, but what social work requires other skills, such as being able to engage sensitively with people who are often in crisis. 
 
If a university is failing to deliver good quality teaching, then by all means take stronger action against them. It would be naive to think that only the highest ranking universities will be able to deliver the course any better.  
 
At many universities the degree programme is oversubscribed, this picture does not suggest that social work is not currently regarded as an attractive career option. It is what comes later that deters people from frontline social work; such as massive caseloads, lack of support, excessive paperwork, the very issues that BASW have long campaigned about. 
 
The skills and competencies of social workers are something that will hopefully be strengthened by a good quality Assessed and Supported Year in Employment (ASYE), with access to regular supervision and engaging continuous professional development activities. 
 
The ‘Frontline’ model appears to show no appreciation for the complex work being carried out by children’s social care teams. It focusses too much on how alleged ‘high flyers’ will be able to transform the quality of social work and its public reputation. In my view this is utter rubbish. 
 
We have to ask ourselves with this frontline model whether or not we are looking for people who are great social workers, or people who will make adequate managers in a short space of time. 
 
If we, as a profession, are concerned about the skills and experience of people applying to qualifying degree programmes, this is something we need to work on in partnership with the further education sector. 
 
What we must not do is generalise and stigmatise all the degree programmes; my experience of engaging with universities on Twitter is that many work tirelessly to improve student experience thus motivating them towards greater success. 
 
Many social work graduates, who are still finding it difficult to obtain a job in the statutory sector, are very highly qualified, have been well trained and have developed a great skills set. 
 
The reasons behind the public’s generally poor view of social work is multi-faceted and is largely to do with a lack of understanding about aims of social work as a profession. 
 
I cannot foresee the public having any greater trust in a profession that recruits ‘top graduates’ and then gives them apprenticeship style hands-on training. It is insulting, it is dangerous. 
 
This entire ‘Frontline’ scheme reinforces the misconception that social work is just about child protection, which is yet another blow to those who work in different sectors and with different service user groups. 
 
Implementing this scheme also risks creating a disparity in the skills set and quality of expertise across those working in different areas of social work. 
 
Ultimately, we want to reflect the communities we provide services to. If that means, judging by the content of the Frontline report, we have to continue to fight longer for greater recognition as we lack the prestige and elitism of law, teaching, medicine and academia, then so be it. 
 
As a profession, we cannot afford to mask a recruitment and retention problem with a ridiculously damaging idea. Do we really care if the degree is or isn’t attractive to top graduates? I would rather the degree be attractive to those who want to make a positive difference to lives of vulnerable people.