Fifty years ago, I started a four-year degree in sociology and social work at Bath University, and reflecting on that time has made me appreciate the qualities of those now graduating and joining the profession.
First, I am impressed by their commitment. I did not have to pay fees to do my degree, and I received a maintenance grant. With earnings from my summer job, this meant that, when I graduated, my only debt was the money I had borrowed from the bank to buy the car I needed to get to work. What a contrast with the financial position confronting most social work students today, who leave university with tens of thousands of pounds of debt.
Second, today’s qualifying students are more competent and informed than I was when I started work in 1972, and there is a stronger focus on core skills to be used and developed throughout their careers through the social work professional capabilities framework. It starts with the assessment and relationship practice skills social workers need from day one and moves on to the leadership, training and more strategic planning roles they may take on later in their career. There was much less coherence when I was qualifying and initially practising about the required skills and knowledge.
Third, the introduction of the Assessed and Supported Year in Employment requires newly qualifed social workers to embed their knowledge and skills in day-to-day practice. It is a demanding year of juggling a job with continuing learning and development and the requirement to produce a portfolio of evidence to show their growing practice competence. It is building strong practitioners. However, there still needs to be more focus on developing education and training for social workers as they change roles throughout their careers.
Over the past eight years, I have been working with local authorities to improve children’s services that have been rated inadequate by Ofsted. Without exception, managers recognised the high quality of newly qualified social workers in children’s and adults’ services. Managers’ overwhelming impression was of their commitment and competence, although I am anxious for them – and for their more experienced colleagues – due to the huge workloads and the impact of the government’s austerity measures.
For my first few years as a social worker, I did not have all the confidence or the patter to do the job as well as I would have wanted. Knocking on a door to initiate contact as a result of concerns about the welfare of a child; sitting down with an older person who fears having to leave their home because living alone has become difficult; accompanying a frightened teenager from a youth court to a children’s home and away from their parents for the first time; assessing the safety and vulnerability of someone in the community having an acute psychotic crisis – all of these, and more, were part of my day-to-day work.
But I did not initially have the experience to know how best to handle these challenges and it takes time – in my case two to three years – to build the necessary competence and confidence.
So when I hear comments about students completing their degrees not being the complete professional social work practitioner, I recall what it was like for me. The people who make these comments – including senior managers and government advisers who have little idea about this demanding and distressing work – should be more realistic and less undermining.
These newly qualified workers, committed, competent and growing in confidence, are the stars who will be the bright future of our profession.
- Ray Jones is a social worker and emeritus professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London. He is a former director of social services and a former chairman of the British Association of Social Workers.