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‘Overwhelming but exciting’: inside social work’s latest graduate scheme

Posted on 11/08/2016 by


Rachel Carter spends 48 hours with students from Think Ahead, the programme that aims to fast-track graduates into mental health social work

Declan Newton Hague thought he’d move into academia after graduating from his geography degree. But a voluntary placement with asylum seekers led to a dramatic change of plan.

“It made me realise I wanted to be working with people and wanted to make a difference. Quite a lot of the men I supported had post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression.

“I could see the effect I was having just from listening and talking to them. That made me want to go into a caring profession.”

Declan, 22, is now training to be a social worker. He’s secured a place on Think Ahead, a government-backed scheme that aims to fast-track graduates and career changers into mental health social work. It’s an area of care Declan’s also seen closer to home.

“My mum has suffered with depression. Depression and anxiety are also common at university. Stress is high and talking to my friends opened my eyes to how I could help, listening to them, saying to them it’s going to be okay.

“I also saw there was quite a strong push from GPs for prescription medication, which people end up getting stuck on, and that made me realise that social work is definitely necessary.”

Declan, and the 95 other successful applicants to Think Ahead’s first cohort, are now in Leeds for the programme’s summer institute – an intensive six week residential course offering students a grounding in both mental health and social work.

‘More employable’

Today’s schedule includes lectures from chief social worker Lyn Romeo on social work with adults, BASW chief executive Ruth Allen on social work in mental health services, and an overview of children’s social work from Tony Holmes, principal social worker at York council.

“The curriculum is generic with a mental health focus,” says Martin Webber, social work professor at the University of York, which is leading the teaching on the programme.

“What we’re covering today is a good flavour of that as an overview, the three speakers are discussing what we’re going to be covering – either in the institute or throughout the course.”

The mental health focus comes through in two ways, says Webber. First is the length and setting of placements. After the summer institute, the students will spend a year predominately working in small practice units in a mental health team overseen by a consultant social worker, before going on to work as newly qualified social workers in those teams in year two.

Second, he says, is Think Ahead’s focus on providing skills-based training in social interventions, such as solution focused brief therapy and motivational interviewing.

“Each of these types of intervention can be applied outside of mental health social work, so the curriculum still retains that generic nature of the qualification. But because Think Ahead students are exposed to working in a community mental health team and getting that experience, it makes them much more employable within a mental health setting afterwards.”

‘Quite overwhelming’

The students will start their placements with the host NHS trusts and local authorities in September, but everyone undertook a ‘taster’ shadowing day before the summer institute.

Aisha Salim, a 22-year-old English Literature graduate, will be based in a team in Hackney, east London. She says the taster day brought home some of the realities of her future career.

“I knew it was going to be a challenge, but on that day some of the things we were faced with and some of the stuff I read was quite overwhelming. But it was also exciting and I felt that this would motivate me even more – I’m glad I had that snippet before starting the placement.”

Aisha left Queen Mary’s University in London last year not knowing what she wanted to do. She applied for a number of different jobs that she says “just weren’t me” and has spent the last six months working in a human resources position for a high-end fashion company.

“It was a great experience but I couldn’t see myself doing it forever, I wanted a job that would be rewarding but something that would also benefit the society we live in.”

Think Ahead participants: the stats

84% of the students are female, 16% are male.

Participants come from 48 different universities and have studied a range of degree courses including Psychology, Sociology, History, English, Politics, Drama, Sports Science and Archaeology.

Almost half (49%) of the students are aged between 21 and 25, 34% 26-30, 7% 30-34, and 9% 35 or older.

Like Declan, Aisha had never really considered a career in social work, but the idea was planted when her parents applied to become foster carers.

“I’ve had a social worker in my life for the last year or two and I managed to spend a lot of time with her during the time I was at home after university and unemployed. I didn’t know too much about the role of a social worker until I met her, but I learned a lot about the work she was doing and how in-depth she was looking into my parents’ history.”

Aisha considered applying to Frontline, the fast-track equivalent for child and family social work, but says Think Ahead appealed more because of the mental health focus.

“In South Asian culture mental health is very much seen as a taboo, it’s dismissed. I’ve known people back home in Pakistan who have mental illnesses but none of them will be diagnosed. It’s not taken seriously at all and if anything people are made to feel bad about it.

“Those experiences led me to apply – although I’d never considered mental health social work, when I saw the scheme it just perfectly came together.”

‘Shaping the profession’

Social workers who back Think Ahead see the programme as a much-needed opportunity to boost social work’s profile in the medically-dominated world of mental health services.

Webber is hopeful the scheme could help redress the balance in mental health social work, which he feels has become too reliant on its statutory functions – with too many social workers being funnelled into becoming approved mental health professionals.

“That is a very important role – but it’s not the only role. One of the things we can address in this programme is say we want to train practitioners to be confident in working with individuals, families and communities, and this will help to shape the profession and shape what mental health social work actually is.”

For BASW’s chief executive Ruth Allen, it is a “real coup” to have a renewed focus on mental health social work. She believes Think Ahead also presents an opportunity to reflect on the way mental health is covered across social work education.

“Basic skills in mental health awareness, understanding the system, understanding mental health issues at different parts of the life course, should be absolutely standard to social work.

“We don’t know yet, but I would hope that Think Ahead might shine a light on the fact that other courses aren’t covering mental health in enough depth, it might help with that curriculum and it might help raise the profile of research in mental health.”

Allen backed Think Ahead because she was responding to the “real problem” that able and dedicated social workers were finding themselves in jobs that did not allow them to develop. She’s hopeful the scheme will help to clarify social work’s role in mental health services.

“It’s not the practice, skills, or perspective of social work that’s pushed it to the margins, it’s really the political and structural contexts of not supporting social work as a workforce.

“We know that at its heart, social work approaches are and should be central to what people say they want from mental health support – now we need to develop those further.”

‘A different audience’

Yet Think Ahead, like Frontline before it, is not without controversy. Both schemes are part of a government drive to invest more in fast-track social work training, underpinned by a belief that traditional university courses are producing too many graduates not up to the job.

The funding being pumped into fast-track schemes means the programmes can offer trainees a grant upwards of £16,000 and a guarantee of a job after they qualify. At the same time, government funding for social work bursaries – the main financial support for students on mainstream degree programmes – has been cut in recent years.

Bursaries are now only available to 1,500 postgraduate students, who can receive a maximum of around £8,000 towards their studies, including tuition fee support. Ministers are also considering abolishing this support entirely.

This disparity has sparked fears that postgraduate degree courses will be hit hard as potential applicants opt for the greater perks of a fast-track place, over a traditional master’s degree.

Webber doesn’t agree that Think Ahead is somehow “taking away” from other MA courses.

“Think Ahead is capturing a different audience, capturing people who wouldn’t have necessarily applied or even thought about applying for a MA social work programme.

“These are people who yes, they are switching career, but they’ve been attracted by the mission of Think Ahead, the values, the way they can provide leadership – and that’s not management, it’s very much focused on using yourself as an individual to bring about change.”

Webber himself was initially a sceptic of Think Ahead having been unimpressed with the think-tank report that led to the programme’s creation. However he says he’s been reassured by the fact that as an organisation Think Ahead is “much more social work led” than its fast-track counterparts, and has been inclusive of service user, practitioner and academic perspectives.

“I think it’s very easy to stand in opposition to something that’s new. My argument has always been that there’s a real opportunity for change here, a chance to do something good for the profession. So let’s embrace it, give it a go and let’s run with it.

“That’s what’s really got me on board and passionate about it.”

‘Be ambitious’

Allen is acutely aware of the growing unease around funding for mainstream social work education but says it’s an issue for the government, not those involved in individual training routes, to be taken to task on.

“We should not be having to make choices about a national profession that trains 5,000 people each year. There are 100,000 social workers in the country. There should be scope for a solid mainstream well-resourced and properly effective MA and BA level programme.

“It’s really important that mainstream courses retain the right funding and we’re worried about bursaries. We’re looking at some bursaries this year, possibly no bursaries going forward, and that’s a very worrying scenario – but it’s not the fault of Think Ahead.”

Nor are the politics the fault of the students, all of whom have committed to training for one of the toughest jobs in the country in a sector under incredible strain.

In her lecture at the summer institute, Allen reminds the Think Ahead participants of why their new career matters. She shows a moving video from Patricia Deegan, an American psychologist who was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a teenager and now specialises in researching and lecturing on the topic of recovery.

“We want to promote social approaches and recovery,” Allen says.

“That is the profession I want to be part of, I want to make it like that.”

The video is a contrast to some of the other issues raised in Allen’s talk, where she asks why social workers are not leading the design of mental health services. The dominance of the medical model, a poor evidence base, and the invisibility of the workforce all come up.

“The spotlight is not on us,” Allen tells the students. “But you are going to change all of that. Be the system leaders. You need to be ambitious for social work in mental health.”

Source: Community Care