Fast Track – Wrong Track?

As a former family support worker working within social work teams, the news around the introduction of the fast track social work programmes undoubtedly caught my attention and filled me with concern for the direction in which the social work profession appears to be heading.

The fast track programmes cram three years worth of study within the full traditional BA Social Work degree programme into just fourteen months for the Step up to Social Work Scheme and two years with the Frontline Programme. It would be an understatement to express my fear that this does not allow trainee social workers adequate time to feel fully prepared and confident to competently manage what will be expected of them once thrown into the challenging realm that is children’s services. Recent case study research suggests a conflict between the education, practice and understanding of what appears to be a new ‘contemporary’ social work and confusion around what social work should look like in practice (Higgins, Popple and Crichton, 2014). Perhaps this uncertainty is the reason for any reform of the social work profession to be questionable.

Throughout my time in family support, many social workers commented on their level of disappointment about the traditional, university led Social Work programme failing to fully prepare trainees for the reality of being faced with complex child protection cases, report writing and court work, so how could these short programmes possibly provide the wealth of theoretical knowledge and develop the breadth of understanding and skills needed to prepare trainees to competently and confidently manage such a challenging role?

Court work seemed to be an area in which my colleagues felt they needed a significant amount of preparation due to the stressful and demanding experience court work brings. Dealing with conflict and highly charged emotional situations were also areas which were felt to be neglected from the course. Some may argue that as the fast track trainees spend much of their period of study working and learning whilst in practice within local authority social work teams, the level of knowledge and skills developed on these programmes may be far greater than that of the traditional programme. I would argue however, that in reality, these fast track trainees are simply ‘thrown in at the deep end’. In the news this is referred to as a ‘new radical and reformed way of social work’. Radical? I fear not. Many of us have experienced being at the receiving end of this at some point in our working careers, left to ‘go it alone’ usually as a result of a lack of adequate management planning and low staff levels. Certainly in my own experience, this way of working does force you into a position where learning occurs at a fast pace, but also where there is the potential for mistakes to be made because of a lack of knowledge, experience and skills for the role. Can we really afford to have trainee social workers in this position, when there are vulnerable children and families that depend on the support from children’s services? Whilst the fast track programmes state that the time trainees spend working in social work teams as part of their course is ‘protected, supported and supervised’ I fear that in practice, many trainees may quickly find themselves dealing with more complex cases than they are perhaps ready and indeed qualified for. This concern has recently been raised in the news regarding newly qualified social workers (nqsw’s), who are promised a protected first year in practice with a cap on the number of cases and should not be given child protection cases to manage during this time. However, cases have been reported where some nqsw’s have experienced a caseload which exceeds the protected cap and have found some cases stressful and difficult to manage due to their complexity. The reality also seems to be that in many cases they find themselves in court giving evidence on cases they have little knowledge of, leaving them open to much criticism and potentially failing the child.

Furthermore, the recent news that the government are reducing the funding for the traditional programmes in favour of the Frontline fast track programme is deeply troubling, particularly when the plan is also for Frontline to move away from university input. To reduce funding on traditional programmes over fast track schemes before this has been proven to be effective and successful is, in my view, careless.

One of the strengths that may lie within the fast track programmes however is the academic level at which trainees enter the programme. All trainees must be graduates with a minimum of a 2:1 classification. This means that trainees are slightly more mature and may arguably have more life experience to bring to such a demanding role, an important attribute I feel social workers should have when responsible for supporting very vulnerable children and families. Although, trainees on these fast track schemes are regarded by the government as a higher calibre of graduates, suggesting a hierarchy over those very experienced social workers currently practising and doing an amazing job safeguarding children and young people at risk. Here, lies the danger of further de-valuing the social work profession as it stands today.

Ultimately I believe these fast track programmes are simply a way for the government to increase the number of social workers in a shorter period of time, but in the process are potentially jeopardising the quality of education and training as a result of this. This could be detrimental for vulnerable families needing support from children’s services, leaving families without support and children at risk.

It takes a very special individual to fulfil a role as a social worker in children’s services. The dedication, passion and commitment required and the exemplary interpersonal skills are not attributes and characteristics which can be forced upon a person, they are qualities which are inbuilt and nurtured through attentive and responsive training. In order to raise the profile of the profession, periods of study should, in my view be increased and with greater attention given to the content delivered within the programmes which better prepares trainees for the realities of social work. I believe short fast track programmes may de-professionalise the social work workforce.

Above all, vulnerable families and children at risk deserve to be supported by professionals who are respected, valued and well educated. Social work isn’t about caseloads or numbers; it’s about the lives of vulnerable individuals. If the government was to invest in the wealth of experienced social workers currently in practice, giving them a sense of value rather than the criticism they often receive, this may help in keeping children and their families safe.

Emma Cotton, MA Education Student, Newman University

References

Higgins, M., Popple, K. & Crichton, N. (2014) ‘The Dilemmas of Contemporary Social Work: A Case Study of the Social Work Degree in England’, British Journal of Social Work, Dec p1-16.

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