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Are the new social work apprenticeships a threat to our academic base, asks professor

Apprenticeships due to start next year in England aim to broaden access into the profession, says the Government. But Professor Jane Tunstill warns they could also pose a threat to its knowledge base

Apprenticeships and fast-track training could present “existential threats” to social work’s education base in England, an academic warned.

Writing in the October edition of Professional Social Work, Professor Jane Tunstill said there were unanswered questions ahead of the launch of the social work apprentices next spring.

The emeritus professor of social work at Royal Holloway, University of London, said: “Is there a danger that both the number and role of universities involved in social work education will be reduced?

“They may then face existential threats at both ends of the training spectrum, having to provide a bespoke programme for a small number of apprenticeships while being excluded from the Government-favoured Frontline fast-track scheme.”

She questioned whether the criteria employers use to select candidates and the assessment process being developed by “trailblazer” learning providers would put social work values at the forefront ahead of organistional priorities. And she also raised concern over whether some employers would only provide the minimum 20 per cent “off the job” learning guarantee, warning this could be delivered by private providers rather than universities.

“In this context, we must ask the question: should we be worried about the credibility and independence of professional social work?” said Professor Tunstill.

The Department for Education said the apprenticeships were part of changing a perception that “one route is better than any other” by offering a wide range of routes into social work.

A spokesperson said: “Apprenticeships benefit people of all ages and backgrounds, for example parents returning to part-time work who need to re-train, or young people looking for on-the-job experience and a high-quality alternative to a full-time university course.”

BASW England national director Maris Stratulis agreed apprenticeships could play an important role in widening access into the profession.

“Social work apprenticeships can provide an alternative vocational route for some people already working in related roles but who haven’t got the time, available funds, capacity to take a loan or the opportunity to take a career break to study full-time.

“Social workers have come into the profession through diverse social work education routes and we need to ensure access to social work education is fair and equitable.”

But she added key to the success of the apprenticeships would be employers creating the right conditions for candidates, including time to study and learn and to have “protected workloads in the workplace”.