by davidshemmings

Over the past two years I have met or spoken with over 2500 social workers in various CPD events, conferences and seminars. Although the groups contained newly qualified workers, most participants were experienced professionals. I have routinely been asking them this question: ‘If you needed to find out the wishes and feelings of a child about (say) “being adopted” or “how they feel about their father/mother” etc., would you feel able to do so?’ The overwhelming majority say that, other than asking the child the question directly, they really wouldn’t have much of an idea. I also show them a clip of film from the first episode from last year’s BBC Panorama series ‘Protecting Our Children’, and then ask them ‘If you were able to work with this family for two hours a week for six months, what would you do?’ Other than drawing up a plan involving other agencies, very few feel confident or knowledgeable enough to work with the family.

However much they enjoyed their social work degree at university, which is usually spoken about with affection, respect and fondness, social workers tell me they don’t always feel it prepared them to work directly with children and families. They wonder whether their modules on psychology, sociology, social policy and social theory could have been presented differently. As one recently qualified social worker put it ‘I thoroughly enjoyed sociology and social theory … but it could have been related more directly to my practice. It was just “Sociology 101”’. However interestingly or inspiringly these subjects were taught, they wanted them focussed more on the actual job. I see this a lot in one of the modules that I have taught now for over 20 years – Lifespan Development. Unfocussed teaching of this subject consists of a series of lectures around ‘ages and stages’ which, while they may be relevant to a health visitor, teacher or psychologist, a different approach is needed in social work. Culturally-competent practitioners working with families have to understand how children and caregivers co-construct relationships inter-subjectively. A linear knowledge of, for example, Piagetian ‘staged development’ is of limited use when the worker is trying to contextualise allegations of abuse or neglect within a wider ecological perspective.

I believe that this lack of confidence about using direct work with children and families, in parallel with a perceived lack of connection between important theoretical ideas and the realities of contemporary social work practice, is in part responsible for three challenges we face at present. Firstly, it is proving harder than ever before to retain social workers after they have qualified. Compared with similar professions, HEIs do a pretty good job recruiting and keeping social work students. It’s when they start doing the work that high rates of attrition become noticeable. For example, in a study of 1738 social workers Curtis, Moriarty and Netten (2010) found that the expected ‘working life’ was 8 years for a social worker and 13 years for a social care worker, compared with 25 years for a doctor, 15 years for a nurse and 28 for a pharmacist (gender differences were weighted accordingly). But, perhaps more worryingly, the authors found that in their large sample, of those holding the relevant qualification only 25 per cent were working as social workers (Curtis et al., 2010, p.1635).

Secondly, an important consequence of this low expected working life is that more social workers need to be trained. At one level this is good news for HEIs but in reality it masks a threat because social work education becomes proportionately more expensive. A more recent report by the same authors found that, compared with health professionals, the cost of ‘qualifying a social worker’ is two to three times more expensive (Curtis et al., 2012).

The stresses of being a social worker, along with inadequate or insufficient supervision and comparably low rates of pay, all contribute to the retention and attrition problem. But, after listening to the feedback I’ve received from so many professionals, I’m becoming more and more convinced that their lack of confidence about actually helping, supporting and working with children and families is also a key determinant.

I believe that these problems will increase as a result of the third challenge, which is that a number of contemporary developments in social work practice – particularly the Munro review of child protection and the Allen report on early intervention – depend on professionals working more directly with families: a move away from ‘social work by numbers’ towards creative, mindful and reflective practice aimed at supporting families where possible.

The Frontline initiative aims to address these challenges in three distinct ways. Firstly, a different pool of potential students is explored. Other sectors do this routinely when they encounter recruitment, retention or attrition problems. One under-represented group within the social work profession is graduates from ‘top-ranked’ UK universities. Seeking social workers from among this group is seen by some academics as elitist, and based upon an assumption that such graduates will be more ‘intelligent’, or more capable of critical and analytic thinking. This is not necessarily the case, and it is recognised that good social workers need equal measures of general intelligence (i.e. what IQ tests purport to calibrate) and emotional intelligence, as well as unsentimental compassion, sensitivity, resilience, a natural sense of justice but, probably above all, ‘intelligent kindness’. The main reason why graduates from the ‘top-ranked’ universities are of interest is simply that they are an obvious group to seek to recruit because they currently do not tend to see social work as a career option.

The second way that Frontline proposes to address the challenges is by organising the teaching into a concentrated learning programme with the specific aim of lubricating the links between research, theory and practice. As one social worker put it to me recently ‘during my social work degree, I really enjoyed learning about ideas from three different sources: Carol Smart, Pierre Bourdieu and Roberto Unger. But when I watched Protecting Our Children I didn’t have much of a clue about how I could apply that knowledge’. But ‘that knowledge’ can and should be applied. There are other ways of strengthening the links. Here at Kent we are developing two: ‘interactive virtual reality simulations’ and – still in the pipeline – the use of a ‘training house’, with actors and cameras. Both developments offer practitioners a chance to try their hand at progressively more complex, demanding and challenging situations, but in a safe environment.

The third innovation within the Frontline initiative is that after a very focussed ’summer school’ students form into teams – with their peers, not with other qualified social workers – led by a dedicated and experienced consultant social worker whose role will be to help make the connections between the academic inputs and the real world of practice. Over a two year period students will receive many additional taught inputs, in particular around the acquisition of direct work skills with children and families. And by the end of the programme they will be expected to become skilled in a number of interventions; they will also receive inputs on case leadership.

The Frontline initiative will be rigorously evaluated to explore the effect on the learning experience and its transformation into confident practice with children and families. Its aim is not to replace or take over from existing university provision of social work education. Rather, it is to examine in depth key differences in syllabus content and knowledge transfer which, if successful during the Frontline pilots, should lead to adjustments and amendments to the way we do things now.

Frontline shouldn’t be feared. We should view it with an open mind, see what happens, and then apply the lessons learned within the mainstream of social work education. This open-mindedness starts by re-thinking the length of time students need to be in the ‘classroom’. The reason for the condensed period of teaching in Frontline is that classroom learning in the form of lectures and seminars only accounts for about 5% of the variation in transferability of knowledge gained at university to the task of working with families. You can get to around 10% if you add in demonstrations, and a few more percentage points if you build in reflective feedback after someone has had a chance to try things out – but only to about 25%. But if we add to this mixture coaching and mentoring, you can achieve 90-95% transferability.

This is what can be different about Frontline. It draws the lecture hall into the real world of practice. This is important because social workers say they lack confidence in direct work, critical analysis and how to apply research-based and theoretically-informed insights learned at university to their work with families. It’s unhelpful to think of the period of teaching as ‘it’s only five weeks’ – that’s just the pure ‘academic’ component which, in and of itself, rarely leads to transformative social work. That happens as a result of mentored and reflective practice with inspirational teachers in the workplace who help make the links to classroom-based theory and research.