Don’t take social work training away from universities
Written by The Guardian Social Life Blog
In a response to the growing number of child sexual abuse allegations, David Cameron has argued that social work interventions and specifically child protection work can be delivered by using “common sense”. Higher education institutions delivering social work education and training have also been criticised for focusing on theory and avoiding practice issues, being too left wing, and concentrating on sociological and intellectual materials at the expense of training students how to be social workers.
These criticisms aren’t levelled at other professions, such as nurses and lawyers, that work with vulnerable groups and individuals. And this leads me to question what these criticisms are really about.
Social work education and practice is distinct from other professions, and is underpinned by a commitment to social justice. Social work seeks to tackle inequality and discrimination by bringing a unique perspective to society and human behaviour. It’s also important for social workers to have a willingness to change and critically reflect on our work. In addition, we are governed by a set of professional values that students and practitioners must abide by.
These critiques of social work education are not new, and are largely ideologically driven, espoused by politicians and commentators who view childcare social work as about rescuing children from wicked parents.
In England, there is a political appetite to remove social work education and continuing professional development from universities, and instead fund private businesses to train student social workers and future social work leaders (such as Frontline). There is, as yet, no evidence that these training programmes work or are effective or able to resolve the issues, such as rescuing children from abusive parents before it’s too late. Nor, as far as I am aware, is there an appetite for privatisation of social work education in Scotland.
Students who attend university are motivated by more than just their course of study. They establish long-term affiliations with an academic institution and access many other developmental opportunities, including sporting activities, societies, community volunteering, as well as making new friends and relationships. In the universities I have worked in, I still meet students who are the first member of their family to go to university. The widening participation agenda is particularly pertinent to social work students, who often enter study through a non-traditional route, bringing a wealth of personal experience as well as a drive to make their world a better place.
Contrary to political opinion, social work academics are not divorced from practice once they are based in universities. There are many ways in which we retain involvement in and understanding of practice – through partnerships with agencies, undertaking research with and about social work services, and people who use these services, including parents and carers. Most social work academics work directly with students and placement providers, supporting students through their practice learning as well as in their academic work.
Social work academics are also willing to fail students who do not achieve the required grades, or meet the standards for social work practice. Student social workers have the same opportunities as other students to retake assessed work, whether that is academic or practice based. But regulation of the profession means that students must achieve specific learning and professional goals in order to register for practice. In a nutshell, social work academics in universities take the training of their students very seriously.