Top graduates needed in children's social work
A new report highlights the severe shortage of graduates pursuing careers in social work and lays out plans to transform perceptions of the sector.
There are always many challenges facing graduates trying to enter the workforce, and the current economic crisis only compounds the difficulty of moving from learning to employment. Graduate unemployment levels are soaring, and many students fear poor employment prospects no matter how good their results are.
At the same time, there is a shortage of children's social workers – last year, there were more than 1,350 vacancies in this field. But only 6% of graduates from Russell Group universities started work in social work and just five of graduates from Oxbridge applied for postgraduate social work courses last year. In comparison, 10% of Oxford graduates applied to the highly competitive Teach First programme.
I was one the participants in Teach First, which started in 2002 and provides graduates with intensive teacher-training and a two-year contract to teach some of the most educationally-deprived children in the country.
In my first year of teaching, I worked with a child who had been taken into care and wasn't behaving or achieving at school. Although the school tried hard, nothing was enough; something was happening beyond the school gates. When we got in touch with his carers it turned out he had seen six social workers in 12 months, his current social worker was an agency member of staff, and he was one of over 30 cases being dealt with by the social worker. That child deserved the best and the brightest working with him but instead he fell victim to a system that was short-staffed and run-down. This is a familiar story.
What we need is a Teach First model for children's social workers. Like teaching, social work is tough, but the stakes are higher. Social workers need to have excellent academic and emotional skills. A typical day can involve speaking at the High Court as part of a referral case, writing reports, putting children in foster placements, and visiting at-risk children in their homes. It's hard work, but it improves the lives and chances of young people across the country. The role social workers play in the UK cannot be underestimated. Every day they are on the frontline, promoting social justice by being a bridge between danger and safety.
When you consider the demanding and highly skilled nature of the job in contrast with the low esteem in which social work is held, it demonstrates the scale of the challenge. This is why we investigated the idea of a high-profile-fast-track route. Could we attract exceptional graduates and career changers into a demanding and socially valuable job?
A new report from the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) puts forward the case for the establishment of 'Frontline' – an independent social enterprise providing 12 months of intensive training culminating in accreditation as a social worker, and followed by a minimum of one year as a practising children's social worker.
As with the Teach First programme, Frontline participants would be working with children on the 'frontline' from the very start. They would be exposed to the realities and excitement of the job, and develop excellence in their field as well as leadership skills.
This plan of action comes at an important time for social work. Recent years have seen a concerted effort to improve the status, training and development of social workers. It is important to point to the work already undertaken by the social work reform board and task force as well as Dr. Eileen Munro. We want to see a programme that attracts and prepares exceptional graduates to be outstanding social workers and I believe this goes with the grain of other reforms.
Today's report is a call for change to the profession and the government. It is not inevitable that social work remains one of Britain's least appealing careers when it is in fact one of the most demanding and important. A scheme like this could transform perceptions of social work and contribute to the huge task of tackling social disadvantage.