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Expansion of the fast-track to child and family social work programme: BASW England statement

The Government must engage in a full stakeholder consultation and an equality and impact assessment on all the routes into social work

BASW England calls on the Government to develop a national social work education strategy that aligns with the evidence-base to ensure value for money, social work sustainability as a research-informed profession and an equitable system. 

In December 2021 the Department for Education announced an £80 million tender process for the development of the fast-track programmes[1]. This process is now underway, the deadline for expressions of interest is 9th May 2022. BASW is concerned that the evidence-base does not support this level of investment into one qualifying route. 

Value for money and quality assurance must underpin all decision making about the use of public money. At a time when recruiting and retaining excellent social workers is a key challenge, investing so heavily in a training scheme about which there is little evidence for improved retention, systemic change or better outcomes for children and families does not meet these principles. 

Almost 5000 full-time equivalent children’s social workers left their roles in the year to September 2021[2]. This is the highest number since comparable data collection began. Many contemporary research studies into the workforce show ongoing dissatisfaction with caseloads, quality of management and career development. These are issues that have not been resolved by the significant investment in expensive fast-track programmes in children’s social work. 

There are multiple routes into social work in England now, and each have merits and challenges. Many students undertaking well regarded mainstream university routes at BA and MA levels now face high tuition fees and lack of adequate bursaries. 

The Government must engage in a full stakeholder consultation and an equality and impact assessment on all the routes into social work. This must include current providers within the HE sectors and social work employers - on the long- and short-term implications in the funding and delivery modes of social work education.

Many BASW members have qualified through diverse training routes including the fast-track programmes. We recognise that passion, expertise, and dedication to supporting children, families and adults is not determined by any specific route into social work. We continue to support diverse routes into social work and support all social workers regardless of the route they have taken into the profession. However, the basis of access to any social work course/ programme should be equitable, fair and funded appropriately by government.  

Our primary concerns regarding this expansion in fast-track children’s social work training are as follows:

Evidence-based and Value for Money

We need to understand the impact of all routes into social work on outcomes for children and their families and on the workforce. Public money is a scarce commodity and value for money must underpin all proposals and interventions. 

The Dartington Social Research Unit[3] evaluation into Frontline noted several promising impacts of the programme but it also concluded that researchers;

…we were unable to address a core aim of this component – namely whether families experience better, worse or similar outcomes when they have contact with Frontline trained social workers than others (p.55) 

Employers face significant issues in recruiting and retaining experienced social workers and leaders. The 2021 evaluation[4] into the fast-track programmes highlighted areas that need further analysis. The conclusion that ‘fast-tracked social workers perceived qualified social work to be a major step up from initial training in terms of volume and complexity’ (p.12,) has huge implications for recruitment and retention The finding of a ‘disconnect’ between fast-track training (specifically Frontline) and local authority culture is significant and needs addressing as part of a broader review.

Equality issues

A Department for Education study found that the unit costs to government are significantly lower for the established mainstream routes into social work than for the accelerated routes: Undergraduate (£ 14,675); Postgraduate (£ 23,225); Step Up (£ 40,413) and Frontline (£ 45, 323)[5]. This raises important concerns about the continuing disparities between the funding available to programmes that ostensibly have the same aim; that is to educate the future workforce.

The remuneration for fast-track programmes, as opposed to students on traditional programmes is unequal. The fast-track programmes have tax-free bursaries of £18-20,000 to cover living expenses and no fees charged to students despite the much higher training costs. Students on mainstream programmes are charged fees and they must apply for bursaries, which are set at a substantially lower level. There are also concerns that those with lived experience of social work and people from poorer backgrounds are excluded from the Frontline programme, where the focus is on recruiting a more socially advantaged and less diverse group of entrants[6].

We ask that the Department for Education in line with the Public Sector Equality Duty undertake an equality impact assessment.

Social Work Sustainability: Impact on social work education and research in universities

The fast-track programmes offer students a significantly more favourable level of financial support than that offered to students on any other qualifying route into social work. Beyond the obvious issue of equity, this pattern of provision risks creating deep instability in the mainstream routes to postgraduate qualification that already exist in universities, with important medium and long-term threats for the sector. 

We are concerned that this expansion will reduce applications to – and directly threaten - courses in some of the most prestigious, research-oriented Universities where such post-graduate provision tends to be clustered. 

Masters and Doctoral students are of central importance to the sustainability of a research culture for the social work profession, not only within universities but also within practice environments. It is essential that the Government, engage with the implications for a profession that is currently built on independent and academically robust social work research and education.

 

[1] Department for Education (2021) Project: project_6167 - National Fast Track Child & Family Social Work Programme (Department for Education) (jaggaer.com)

[2] Children’s Services Statistics (2021) Children's social work workforce, Reporting Year 2021

[3] Dartington Social Research Unit (2017) Frontline Social Work Training

[4] Department for Education (2021) Social work fast track programmes: retention and progression. Final Report  

[5] Cutmore, M. and Roger, J. (2016) Comparing the costs of social work qualification routes, York Consulting, Department for Education, Reference: DFE-RR517

[6] Maxwell, N. et al., (2017) ‘The Pre-Training Characteristics of Frontline Participants and Mainstream Social Work Students’, British Journal of Social Work, 48(2), pp. 487-50