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Social Work training must not be de-valued by government agenda


Last week in the Queen’s Speech the government set out its plans for the Children and Social Work Bill, the details of which had been widely trailed following a Sunday Times article written three days earlier by the Prime Minister, David Cameron, writes Mark Willis.

Among the Bill’s chief aims is a determination to ‘speed up’ adoption, improve services for children in care and place a duty on councils and schools to promote educational achievement for adopted children.

However, the part of the new Bill that attracted my attention was the appointment of a new regulator to focus on training and professional standards for children’s social workers.  Whilst on the face of it this looks sensible and even progressive, it is the drivers behind this announcement that provoke most interest.

Wrapped up in the Prime Minister’s Sunday Times piece was the stated intention that when making decisions social workers should be relying on ‘experience and common sense’.  Mr Cameron added that he no longer wanted to hear of trainee social workers spending too much time in the classroom ‘studying thousands of pages of guidance and not enough time in real-life, on the job training’.

This agenda fits neatly with the government’s enduring promotion of Frontline training programs for social workers at the expense of full time three-year degree courses at higher education institutions, the like of which I attended almost 25 years ago.  According to the Prime Minister social work education has clearly changed significantly since the 1980’s for I recall spending precisely zero hours sitting reading government guidance at University.

Moreover, the suggestion that social workers should place evidence based practice and sound theoretical analysis below ‘common sense’ is a dubious throwback to Victoria Bottomley, who as Health Secretary in 1991 claimed children’s social work needed a force of “street-wise Grannies”.  I’m not making this up.

The fact this government wants to prioritise ‘on-the-job’ training for social workers through their much-heralded Frontline initiative should not be derided in itself.  Indeed, early evidence appears quite positive about the scheme and recruits to the program speak highly of it.

However, the notion that experience and common sense will somehow produce safer outcomes for children displays a staggering disregard for the social work profession as a whole.  If experience and common sense are the main ingredients of a good child care practitioner then why bother to train social workers at all?

If we are to promote common sense as the primary criteria for social work education there are presumably plenty of people in society who would qualify to undertake a child protection investigation or produce a complex parenting assessment involving drug misuse, domestic violence and neglect.  When life-changing decisions have to be made about removing a child from the care of their parents then the application of some good old-fashioned common sense and some life experience will surely suffice?  Really?

Regrettably the government agenda also fails to recognise society’s wider problems including cuts to services, increased poverty and lack of social housing.  It subtly places the blame for inadequate children’s services upon social workers themselves while proclaiming them in public as society’s unsung heroes.  It criticises local authority children’s services departments for ‘failing’ children while removing 25%+ of their budget – all at a time when the numbers of cases in care proceedings increases year on year.

No one disputes that experience and common sense are important components of a good social worker.  But so is proper rigorous training including a comprehensive understanding of the human condition and a sound theoretical knowledge base.  A good social worker also has empathy and recognises people’s circumstances and environment and the impact these have on their life.  Reducing these qualities to trite political soundbites gets us nowhere.


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