We need to talk about social work education. Indeed, we need two conversations. One is urgent and must be held and concluded now. The other should start quickly, but be given time.
The first is about the imminent threat to university social work students and to social work education. It is only weeks before the new intake of students should be arriving but, for the second year running, the government has not yet announced what bursaries will be available for those studying social work from September.
Not only is this disrespectful and distressing for potential students, it is also damaging and destructive for social work education in universities. Last year, with no information about whether they might receive a bursary, a number of students abandoned their ambition to become social workers and, over the summer, withdrew their applications.
This makes it less likely that courses will meet their intake targets, and so undermines universities’ financial planning. There is only so much uncertainty and risk universities with their business plans will tolerate. The outcome may be more universities deciding to withdraw from social work education.
Social work degrees are also being made vulnerable by the government’s persistence in piling debt on students. In particular, there is the concern that it deters more mature students, those who are less affluent and people with lived experience – particularly relevant for social work – from taking a degree.
Its impact is compounded by the potential alternative funding support from local authorities, seconding people to take social work degrees, drying up amid the 40% reduction in government funding to councils.
In the absence of national or regional workforce planning, there is likely to be the rapid closure of university social work courses. It will be decided university by university, based on their own interests without a consideration or commitment for what is required locally or regionally.
The consequence could be that some areas might find themselves with no readily accessible social work education programme for their local communities, from which the most stable and long-serving future social workers are often to be recruited. Local authorities in these areas would also not have a flow of students from local university courses on practice placements whom they might encourage and entice to stay as qualified social workers.
So the second conversation needs to be about workforce planning in local areas and nationally. It must involve local authorities and other employers of social workers, the associations of directors of adults and children’s services, higher education providers, and the professional association and trade unions for social workers. Social work education needs a regional planning process and framework. This is not new. It was in place in the 1990s through regional social work post-qualifying employer and educator consortia.
National and regional workforce planning also needs to consider the emerging threats as much as opportunities of the potentially disruptive impact of the intention to introduce mandatory social work accreditation; the government’s prioritising of apprenticeships over full-time university education; the content and structure of qualifying and post-qualifying social work education and training; and the increasing impact on workforce recruitment and retention of the government’s cap on public sector pay.
There is some considerable distance and disconnect between the positive rhetoric and warm words about social workers from the new minister for children and the relatively new education secretary (I cannot recall any sympatheric utterance about social workers by the health secretary) and the reality of a social work workforce that is being disrespected and destabilised by the government’s actions.
The warm rhetoric is welcome, but the reality must be recognised: there is an urgency to confronting this emerging crisis for social work education and averting the chaos that could ensue. It is time to talk and act.