On 13th February Sir Martin Narey published his long-awaited report on social work education. In this post Dendy Platt offers his initial response.
Sir Martin Narey’s report, published on 13th February, is typically challenging and hard-hitting, but it is also thoughtful and insightful. Newspaper headlines have exaggerated some of his points, but behind these headlines are insights that social work academics would do well to heed. I, for one, welcome the encouragement to continue to improve education in child development and child protection on social work degrees. I also welcome the advice to move on from the dogma of anti-oppressive practice. However, Sir Martin was wrong to appear (perhaps unintentionally) dismissive of the importance of ethics and values in social work. There are fundamental and intense contradictions in our work. Sir Martin is right that overemphasis on an empowerment approach can lead to collusion with the parent and insufficient focus on the child. However, this is not an inevitable result, and good relationship-based practice is central to the work of social workers up and down the country, social workers who also keep the child clearly in view. My own take on this is summed up in my editorial (with Danielle Turney) of a recent Special Issue of Child and Family Social Work.
That said, I welcome Sir Martin’s view that there should be greater clarity with regard to the curriculum. The plethora of statements, competence requirements, and so forth, has long been a problem, and the former General Social Care Council was notably ineffective in addressing it. The role of sorting out the mess is clearly one that should be taken on by the College of Social Work, as the report suggests. The problem, however, is to avoid ending up with another mess. Once all the different interest groups have made representations about what should appear in the social work curriculum, if those views are all incorporated, we risk ending up with such a huge range of topics that teaching them all to an acceptable level, and assessing the students adequately, will be completely beyond the scope of a three year degree. Someone will have to prioritise.
The report re-iterates that newly qualified social workers are not ready for practice. Several points here. First, I agree, that some are not ready, and Universities must do better. Second, the transition from education to work is difficult in any context: so let’s not confuse normal transitional difficulties with lack of readiness. Third, many in the profession expect new workers to take on complex child protection duties a year or so after qualifying. You are seen to be “cutting your teeth” in child protection. Yet this is highly complex work, and personally it took me years of practice experience to feel I was reaching a sufficient standard. I was not incompetent, but you would not allow a newly qualified qualified doctor to undertake brain surgery within 12 months. The situation in social work is completely upside-down, with the most complex work being seen as the start-up domain of early career staff. In this respect, the structures of social work are dysfunctional, and we should find a way to address them, but Sir Martin is silent on the matter.
There are some other sacred cows that Sir Martin has not spotted. One is Universities’ expectations of students’ academic work at lower ends of the pass range. On mainstream social science degrees, it is not unusual for students to pass where their written work may be poorly structured and problematic, use of English may be weak, but overall it is sufficiently understandable, with enough relevant points covered, for it to be awarded a pass. Undergraduate work of this kind may be given a mark of 40 – 45%. Fully fluent, easily understandable written work is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Social work degrees use this model because to do otherwise would be seen as inequitable in comparison with students on other academic programmes in the same institutions. Clearly, in any subject, there will be a spectrum of ability, but if we truly want to turn out social workers who are more able in terms of written communication, we should raise the pass mark to 50% (and higher for Masters programmes). Applied rigorously, this would mean that all social work graduates would get a 2:2 honours classification as a minimum. It would result in a greater number of fails, and even more stress for students. Some who may be great with people, but academically weak, would be lost. The anti-intellectual voices in the profession would sound out loudly, but if Universities are assessing properly, the students who fail would be those who are least able to understand the knowledge base of the profession. And if I had had my children taken into care, I would not want the social worker to be someone who didn’t understand the reasons for those decisions adequately. Raising pass marks would lead to a raising of standards. The problem is that it would run contrary to the traditions and regulations of just about every University in the country, and wars would be fought to make the necessary changes without watering them down.
Finally, Sir Martin has under-played the lack of connection to practice of many University lecturers. I am one such example, although I do make the effort through research and related activities, workload permitting. Other professions require their educators to maintain a minimum level of clinical practice. Why not social work? It could be a registration requirement, just as CPD is fundamental for social work practitioners. The reasons may be structural and financial. As lecturers progress through an academic career, they earn more than a senior practitioner, and it would cost more to employ them in a practice role. Surely the profession should insist on minimum requirements? I guess that social work, and the vulnerable in society, are just not seen as important enough for us to spend the money.
Overall, Sir Martin addresses important issues. The methods he used to gather his data are rather unclear, and there is an overuse of negative comments which detracts somewhat, but I welcome the report and look forward to an improving future.
This post represents the views of the author and not the position of the School for Policy Studies or the University of Bristol.