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BASW rejects Policy Exchange's view of social work's "bleak" future and calls for students and NQSWs to be given their chance to work

BASW challenged the findings of a report by a thinktank describing the future for social workers as “bleak” by emphasising the steps local authorities could take to widen the available pool of skilled social work practitioners.

The Policy Exchange report forecasts there will continue to be a shortage of social workers until at least 2022.

It points to high vacancy rates and problems recruiting to the profession, blaming this on a lack of suitable candidates as a result of inadequate training, a reluctance of employers to take on inexperienced practitioners and a dearth of quality placements.

The report, titled Reforming Social Work, also points to problems retaining good social workers in the face of low morale, budgetary pressures, limited opportunities for promotion and excessive paperwork.

Responding to the report, BASW’s Chief Executive Bridget Robb said : “It is very disappointing when reports constantly come out saying there is a training crisis or that the profession as a whole is in chaos when in fact there are plenty of trained social workers keen to commence their careers and any difficulties are about resources rather than skills.

“There are challenges in social work like every other profession and this report is right to highlight the financial pressures that many social workers are grappling with, something BASW has been very clear about for some time. We find local authorities employing social workers in extremely difficult times, facing budget cuts and problems recruiting staff and a rise in demand.

“But any crisis is about the cuts and the proliferating demand for more services - it isn't a crisis of social work, but a crisis of cash-starved local authorities meeting the needs of the country at times of severe financial pressure.”

Ms Robb rejected the Policy Exchange view that there are not enough trained social workers to fill vacancies, highligting instead the need for local authorities to better support students and to be prepared to give jobs to newly qualified workers. 

“Social work courses are always very popular with students so it is not that there are not enough people wanting to come forward to do the job.

“But there are real challenges for local authorities in providing sufficient placements of high quality for these students. That is a constant cause of concern and a real opportunity for local authorities to make a difference to the quality of social work training currently provided.”

The report by the Policy Exchange, which was co-founded by Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove, says: “For social services to be effective, they must have enough skilled, motivated and qualified staff.

“Unfortunately, the long-term outlook for the social work workforce is bleak. The profession faces two key problems: the recruitment of social workers with the right skills and retaining the most effective and experienced social workers.

“More importantly, failing to develop an effective social work workforce means that vulnerable groups in society do not get the support or help they need.”

According to the study of 155 local authorities in England, 13% of them had a vacancy rate of more than 20% in 2012. Half had a vacancy rate of more than 10%.

Despite this, more than a quarter (27%) of newly-qualified social workers were unemployed in 2011.

The report says: “A key problem is that many potential employers are reluctant to take on newly qualified social workers as they are not thought to have enough adequate experience. Employers are normally looking for up to two years post-qualification experience when hiring. This suggests that they may not believe that the current level of social work education prepares students for practice.”

The report highlights issues around morale and retention of staff, including a 60% higher leave of absence rate than the national average; BASW evidence indicating 70% of social workers view their caseloads as “unmanageable” and concern over public perception.

Budget reductions at a time of increasing demand on services were highlighted as barriers to reform.

The report says: “In an environment of constrained public expenditure, addressing these issues in the short-term will require a focus on reforming services and training to deliver greater outcomes with limited resources.

“These challenges also provide an opportunity to address some of the longer term structural issues which have affected social work for decades. In particular, the tendency to conduct enquiries and make policy changes in reaction to major scandals risk over-regulation and constraining the ability of social workers and local authorities to operate flexibly and adjust their resource allocation.

Recommendations for reform in the report include:

·      Establishing “teaching organisation” status in local authorities and other bodies to take on more students

·      Embracing fast-tracked social work education, to recruit the most able individuals

·      Establishing more diverse career routes for social workers and create “practice educator posts to supervise training/professional development

·      Greater focus on the benefits of multi-disciplinary models and preventative work

·      Making local authorities that fail to provide high quality placements partner with another LA awarded “teaching organisation” status

·      Easing local authority concerns over financing placements by paying placement fees up-front rather than at the end of placements

·      Councils should establish "student units" offering practice placements