Poor pay, stressful working conditions and a bad press are deterring would-be social workers. Claire Sanders discovers a profession in crisis
Applications to study social work have more than halved since 1995. No other profession has seen such a fall.
Directors of social services say that they face a recruitment crisis, as serious as that for nurses and teachers - in some parts of the country even more serious. Mike Leadbetter, chair of the human resources and training group at the Association of Directors of Social Services, and director of social services in Essex, says that in his county one in five posts cannot be filled.
"Social workers deal with people the rest of society wants to turn a blind eye to," he says. "Children in need, for example, are least able to make a fuss about their standard of service."
Last month John Hutton, the minister of health responsible for social care and mental health, organised a summit to address recruitment problems in social services. The government is particularly alarmed that it has provided funding for childcare posts that cannot be filled. Mr Leadbetter was there.
"We have long called for the sort of recruitment campaign that the government has run in teaching and nursing. There are indications that the government is now moving in that direction," he says.
The shortages come at a time when the government's plans to modernise social services will, according to Christine Smyth, course coordinator at Queen's University, Belfast, "radically alter the lives of all social workers".
Don Brand, director of policy at the National Institute for Social Work, says:
"Some of these changes have been signalled for up to three years. There is a sense of drift and something needs to happen very soon. In the meantime, it is hard to get messages out at a national level to maintain confidence and build morale. In the circumstances, it is not surprising that applications have dropped."
The Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work approved diploma in social work is the recognised United Kingdom qualification for social workers.
The CCETSW accredits the "DipSW programme partnerships" that offer the training - these are usually based on a university working with social work agencies.
About 60 per cent of places are filled by students who apply through a specialist clearing house, the Social Work Admissions System, run by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. Up to 10 per cent of places are filled through the normal Ucas system. The remaining 30 per cent are filled by direct entry students.
Students can study for the diploma as part of a degree, as part of a postgraduate course, or simply as a diploma.
The number of applications coming through the SWAS has fallen by 58 per cent since 1995. The number of applications to the diploma has fallen by 70 per cent in this period, the number of postgraduate applications by 35 per cent.
Applications through Ucas have fallen by 26 per cent in the same period, from 18,200 to 13,475. The number of acceptances has, however, gone up by 35 per cent to 2,385. This could indicate a drop in the quality of people being enrolled.
The Ucas figures are for any course with social work in the title - this does not necessarily mean that people taking them are studying for the professional qualification.
Steve Trevillion, head of the social work department at Brunel University, says: "Many universities are converting diploma courses into degree courses, boosting the number of degree courses on offer."
For many years Brunel ran a heavily over-subscribed diploma that was converted to a degree course two years ago. "There was initially a huge drop in applications," he says. "This has since improved, but we are not back to where we were."
John Skidmore, registrar at the CCETSW, blames adverse publicity, modest rates of pay and stressful working conditions for the fall in applications. He also blames the new system of student funding.
Applications for diploma courses have fallen far more drastically than applications for the postgraduate courses. Students studying for a diploma have to pay fees and rely on loans. Those on the postgraduate route, however, continue to have their tuition fees paid and to receive a means-tested maintenance grant, or bursary, through the CCETSW.
The majority of applicants to social work are in the 25-34 age group, and it is mature students who have been most severely hit by the government's funding reforms.
Ian Johnston, director of the British Association of Social Workers, says, "The social work and social care workforce is in crisis. The government must do more to get people on to courses and into the workforce."
* CASE STUDY The view from one school of social work
The University of East Anglia has an established and highly regarded school of social work.
Over the past 18 years, it has expanded from a single two-year MA programme, training 30 social workers a year, to five major full-time and part-time programmes at undergraduate, postgraduate, qualifying and post-qualifying levels.
In 1999, 479 full-time and part-time students registered with the school. The school also has a strong research base.
But June Thoburn, dean of the school, is worried. "There is too much opprobrium for social workers and not enough support."
Diana Hinings, a lecturer in the school, says: "There are major changes in store for social work as a profession, but at the moment we are operating on rumour and innuendo."
What the school is particularly worried about is that postgraduate entry to the profession will be abandoned in favour of undergraduate entry. This means that the future of UEA's long-running MA programme is uncertain.
Students on this course are awarded a bursary from the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work, without which the vast majority say they would not even have entertained becoming social workers.
The school recently contacted past MA students from courses throughout the United Kingdom to find out their views on the qualification and where it had led them.
In all, 313 students responded. Of these, 35 per cent had at some time gone on to be a team leader/manager; 44 per cent had become practice teachers; 20 per cent had lectured at some time; 32 per cent had led development projects; and 12 per cent had been mentors to junior colleagues.
Just 1 per cent of the sample said that they could have done the course without the bursary.
Today's students are equally adamant that they could not survive the course financially without the bursary.
Shika Unaka is in the second year of the MA. "Even with the bursary, this course has cost me a lot of money," she says.
Jennifer Rogers, also in her second year at UEA, says: "I have two teenage sons, and to get through this course I have had to do two jobs as well as study.
"I would never have entertained doing the course if it had not been for the bursary - small as it is."
Ms Unaka finds the changes happening in social work at the moment "bewildering".
"I feel that I have no idea of what the future of social work is," she says.
"I am enjoying the course, but my family are always saying to me 'are you sure you know what you are doing?'"
The only constant that Ms Unaka sees ahead is the "poor pay".
Susie Driver, another MA student, says: "Sometimes I feel that I am being trained for nothing and that everything will change and I will have to do a whole series of further qualifications."