Two cheers and one big question

June 22, 2001

Welcome change is being made but it may be too late for social work education, writes Terry Philpot

The lot of social work education has not been a happy or a settled one. Criticised by employers for its inability to turn out graduates equipped for the increasingly complex world of day-to-day practice, it was attacked for years by the Conservative government and by some insiders for its alleged political correctness.

It has also suffered the upheavals of reform. In the 1970s and 1980s, the college-based certificate in social service, intended for residential and care workers, was offered alongside the certificate of qualification in social work. In 1991, the two were combined in the diploma in social work, but many residential workers and non-social work staff prefer the NVQ route.

Such a history makes it hardly surprising that yet another re-gearing of social work education in England (the other countries have still to announce their intentions about replacing the DipSW) is being swept along by the government's modernisation agenda. Announced earlier this year by the social care minister, who was then John Hutton, it is due to be introduced in 2003.

The minister's reference to "a greater emphasis on field experience" indicated that one deficiency of the system would be addressed. Too much has had to be packed into two years, and not enough of it was of practical value.

One cheer, then, that after more than 15 years of campaigning, the qualification will be three years, so it can be recognised in other European Union countries. The second cheer is being raised because demoralised social workers see three years as furthering their professional credentials: they will be on the same professional footing as nurses and teachers.

Perhaps these two advances and the belief that at last a government has done something positive about training rather than castigate it is why the announcement has provoked little questioning. But behind the obvious merits lie some unasked questions and possible pitfalls.

Creating a degree-standard qualification is seen as putting some sadly lacking intellectual ballast into training. But the flipside is that social work relies much on mature entrants, who could be put off because the number of diploma providers is being reduced from 80 to a smaller core of what are already being called "centres of excellence" just as the problems of student financing are growing. Student teachers are being funded for their "teaching" year and being given golden hellos and top-ups for some subjects. Student nurses are funded for their full training. But the Department for Education and Employment, as it was then, was not persuaded that social work students should be exempted from fees.

The Local Government Association and others argue that the new qualification will aid recruitment and retention. That claim is dubious. Applications for course places have fallen worryingly. But the fact that teaching and nursing are also struggling to fill places and keep staff makes such a hope seem wishful thinking.

But no one is asking the big question: where will the new qualification stand when it continues to offer generic training at a time when social work - both organisationally and in terms of the work practitioners undertake - is fragmenting? The 1970s vision of a generic service ("one door on which to knock"), which ushered in social services departments, has been rapidly disappearing for some years.

Today, greater specialisation is partly catered for by post-qualifying awards in social work. But coming into being are new posts that look suspiciously like social work, for example, mentors in the Connexions programmes. Care managers already highly populate social services departments. All these trends will increase.

The great danger is that in less than a decade we may find that - whatever the other shortcomings of the new qualification turn out to be - the greatest fault could be that it will offer training for a profession that we will no longer recognise.

Terry Philpot is author (with Anthony Douglas) of Caring and Coping: A Guide to Social Services , published in 1998 by Routledge, price £16.99.

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