A better way is possible: developing a dialogue about reform in social work

We are pleased to be offered the right to reply to ‘Change or get out of the way’. We write on behalf of a group of senior social work researchers. For some readers the way we educate social workers may seem a niche concern. However, the interview and its treatment in Progress raises deeper questions about how Labour develops policies and how it makes use of available expertise, particularly in terms of addressing the terrible consequences of austerity for the most marginalised and vulnerable. We wish to make a number of key points in this brief reply.

First and most important is our concern about the current settlement between the state and families. Decades of political interference and a damaging adherence to a risk-averse ‘command control’ mode of governance have resulted in an authoritarian system for protecting children. Our research and that of others shows that the poorest families face serious inequalities in the chances of their children being removed. It has also produced a practice workforce that has been demoralised over time with diminishing resources and intense public scrutiny. We face huge challenges, therefore, in a society where current austerity measures have intensified inequality and hollowed out the supports that are a vital buffer against the maltreatment of children. The model of practice promoted by Frontline involves ‘changing’ families. This is far too simplistic. A clinical model of family change can only be part of the story and may be a small part where social adversity is extreme.

That Frontline might be the ‘answer’ in such a context is simply not a tenable proposition. Shortening the training and uncoupling it from the social sciences that enable an understanding of the wider social and economic causes removes the social from social work. There is currently no evidence that better outcomes for children and families will be achieved by an initiative such as Frontline. The fanfares are at very best premature. But, most crucially, nobody has advanced a rationale for such a radical foreshortening of the taught knowledge base for what everyone agrees is highly complex work. New models of education are of interest to us, but their design is crucial.

‘Change or get out of the way’ argues that the resistance of social work academics has to change. We have consistently argued for change, but questioned initiatives such as Frontline not least because of the absence of clarity about funding, and the implications of funding decisions for the whole system. The investment is substantial but why it came about is unclear. Why does this matter? There are two reasons. The first relates to the privatisation by stealth of children’s services. The source of Frontline funding is very unclear but includes unparallelled access to: central government funds, support from various private companies, sponsorship from the commercial sector. The appeal of an ‘on the job’ specialised training scheme to those seeking to provide services for profit requires further interrogation. The second is the unprecedented inequalities in student experiences generated by recent developments. Hundreds of students on social work programmes, all over England, are struggling in serious financial hardship while they train to do a job concerned with caring for the most vulnerable. We welcome that fact that Frontline is able to offer its small cohort of students a living wage and protected resources but the overwhelming majority of social work students face uncertain bursary arrangements that offer minimal assistance. Surely Labour would want to promote adequate arrangements for all?

The argument made that there should be less regulation and bureaucracy in social work is one with which we completely concur. Indeed social work researchers have been at the forefront of the work that has highlighted the damage done by successive government reforms in this regard. The piece in Progress ignores all of the reforms and changes that social work education has undergone in the past several years, and which are already under review yet again, heralding yet more upheaval no doubt. It is surprising that the interview did not contain mention of this, given its implications for students, employers and service users.

Finally, there is no shortage of goodwill or expertise that can be drawn upon. Yet two shadow minsters produce an uncritical account that is completely uninformed by any of this expertise. How this happened and why it happened should be of concern to Labour and indeed to the electorate.

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Kate Morrison is professor of social work at the University of Nottingham. She is also a qualified and registered social worker. Brid Featherstone is professor of social work at the Open University and is a qualified social worker and editor of the journal Families, Relationships and Societies. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the University of Nottingham, the Open University or Families, Relationships and Societies

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Photo: Ewan Shears

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Comments: 2...

  1. On February 11, 2015 at 9:54 pm Daniel C responded with... #

    Dear Kate and Brid,

    Thank you this response.

    I am involved with frontline as a PE in a LA engaged with the programme.

    Whilst I accept and acknowledge my biases, like the vast majority of our profession my loyalty lays with the children and families who need social work support. My loyalties focus on skilled, informed empathy based practice, not with Frontline, the government or my LA.

    I can not claim to be responding on behalf of Frontline, but feel compelled to contribute as a practitioner who has been working with children and families for over 10 years.

    It is regretfull that Frontline has been experienced as a critique of other qualifying routes, this is not something that I have encountered in my experience on the programme and it is certainly not representative of my views or the views of other colleagues engaged with the programme on the ground.

    The programme is seeking to equip students with the necessary skills and evidence base to do things differently. The academic team lead Professor Donald Forrestor offers an academic perspective that very much focuses on social justice and the key theoretical underpinnings (MI, Systemic Therapy and social learning theory) very much supports a challenge to practice which promotes the muscular authoritarian approach that you are also seeking challenge.

    Whilst qualifying time is reduced, it is my understanding and experience that the programme has the same amount of teaching time and practice placement time as other post grad courses. I am confident that my Frontline student, like other students graduating on other routes, have a huge contribution to make our profession.

    Daniel c

  2. On February 12, 2015 at 4:28 pm Donald responded with... #

    Daniel’s comment helpfully corrects some inaccurate assumptions in this piece and I won’t say more except to be glad that has been his experience.

    First, it is clear that nobody says Frontline is THE answer. The question is whether it helps us improve services for children and their families. Unfortunately, the debate around Frontline is unhelpfully polarised. Frontline will not resolve all the problems of social work; yet nor is it training a vanguard of technicians who will lead the “privatisation” of social work or naively try to change families without a strong understanding of social context and enduring social work values.

    Here is what I believe – when I retire in 20 years I think Frontline will be around as a major provider of social work education as one of a number of ways into our profession to attract the mix we need to sustain us. Frontline graduates will have made a positive contribution to the profession, with social workers who have come through Frontline making a difference in practice and other positions across the profession. When we reflect on the Frontline experience (from my imaginary retirement party) we, as a profession, will – I believe – agree there are things that Frontline got wrong. But we will also think that there are contributions it made to social work and the education of social workers that are helpful and innovative.

    I would write more but I am busy marking the practice recordings of Frontline student social workers. It is a privilege to listen to the way they are wrestling with how to help people who experience complex difficulties. I think that as a group they will make a truly exceptional set of social workers. Ultimately Frontline will be judged on whether that is true or not…

    [Donald Forrester – Professor of Social Work Research at the University of Bedfordshire and Academic Director of the Frontline course]

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