Will Fast-Track Training Improve Social Work?

Graduates

Yesterday, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) published a paper called ‘Frontline’ subtitled ‘Improving the children’s social work profession’.

The programme they call ‘Frontline’ is based on the ‘Teach First’ programme.  It’s interesting that the paper was written by Josh McAlister who was one of the drivers behind the Teach First programme.

In the proposed ‘Frontline’ programme, there would be a ‘fast track’ qualification route into social work (or ‘children’s social work’ which the paper seems to consider as a separate profession in itself!).

As the paper says in the introduction

‘This new programme – Frontline – would help attract the best people into one of Britain’s toughest professions, and in the long term create a movement of leaders to challenge social disadvantage’.

The methodology of the study seems ‘unusual’ to say the least. The focus group for a start was of participants in the Teach First programme where I’d have thought it would have been more useful to speak more broadly to practising social workers rather than only to social work academics. I think, as well there are significant differences between Teaching and Social Work and while ‘representatives of BASW and the College of Social Work’ were involved and ‘case studies’ were submitted by five local authorities, there is absolutely nothing written about discussions with those in practice or those who use social work services. Looking at the ‘focus group’ it seems the few who might once have been social workers, would have left frontline practice behind many many decades ago.

How can eight teachers really provide an idea of what might work for social work? I’m truly baffled this is presented as an acceptable ‘study’ of the profession when no practising professional is actually mentioned as having been spoken to in the methodology stated?

The study works on the basis of high vacancy rates and a need for ‘quality recruits’ which personally I find quite insulting as a proposition. The report states

‘Of the 2,765 people starting social work masters-level courses last year, only five completed their undergraduate degree at Oxford or Cambridge , among only 150 from any Russell Group university’

Excuse me while I rage for a moment. So the criteria for a ‘quality entrant’ is THAT? Seriously?? There are many reasons including those of familial expectations, type of school attended and social background which affect choice of university.  I got a good degree from a Russell Group university myself so I feel able to comment but having a degree from one of those specific universities is absolutely NO indication of quality. Honestly. If we start differentiating between an Oxford degree and a London Met degree we start moving into very difficult ground. Are we really saying ‘middle class’? Because that’s a little of what it feels like.

The other aspect that the report criticises is ‘quality of training’ – to which their response is to propose a ‘fast track’ scheme? Again, it doesn’t make sense to me. Surely the answer would be to extend rather than reduce the qualifying course? (I’m not in favour of extending the course beyond what it is currently, by the way, I’m just not sure I see the logic in reducing it if that’s an issue!).

So ‘Teach First’ uses an initial six week residential programme and then places ‘teachers’ in a ‘challenging school’ for two years while they do their PGCE in the first year.

Hm. So the PGCE is one year course anyway. I don’t see how that corresponds to a ‘summer school’ for social workers and then putting them into a ‘challenging’ situation for a couple of years. There’s a lot more study that will be missed along the way with this ‘fast track’ scheme in social work.

Not least, the issue that is completely overlooked in this paper that a social work training course and qualification is generic not specific to ‘children’s social work’ and that ‘children’s social work’ is not a profession apart.

This proposal seems to have completely ignored the idea that social work training is generic. Teacher training would be specific both to age group (secondary) and to subject so narrow in focus.

Someone who qualifies as a social worker needs to have broader experience outside children and families field because people don’t exist in silos attributed to age, because sound Mental Health and Community Care knowledge actually makes all social workers more effective and more skilled in their jobs.  This ‘Frontline’ programme proposes similarly to ‘Teach First’ that it is a two year commitment but that the ‘social worker’ qualifies after one year. I find it mind-boggling that anyone thinks this is a workable model – with the Teach First at least you have a PGCE which is one year but with this ‘Frontline’ the MA programme is two years anyway so that’s much more to ‘pack in’. Too much, I’d say.

What is obvious to me is that the person writing this report has no idea about social work – what it is, how it works and how it should work. He seems preoccupied with his ‘Teach First’ baby and is convinced that Teach First raised the profile and status of Teaching.

Personally, I can’t imagine ‘Frontline’ would have an equivalent role within social work. I think it is dangerous to separate off the profession and focus on the ‘children’s social work profession’ separately because I think learning and experience (through placements) across the life course is something that marks social work training out. I also think that there is a very facile definition of ‘good social work entrants’ that doesn’t seem to have had regard to any complexity I’d expect from a report.

I hope this programme goes nowhere because the experiences of Teaching and Social Work are very different but it’s ridiculous and elitist enough for this government to want to run with it.

I hope they don’t. I hope someone talks to social workers before anything close to this is implemented. Do I think that will happen? On previous record, unlikely and mores the shame for the social work profession as a whole.

photo by Quick, like a Mule @ Flickr

Shifts in Support Planning

Pen and Paper (1024)
Community Care alerted me to a new report developed about a great model of support planning  called ‘Empower and Enable’  that is being proposed as a way to invigorate the ‘personalisation’ agenda and move it back to the roots of putting the user at the heart of support planning and removing this from the scope of professionals.

In the process of developing and implementing care currently, after the assessment has been fed through the ‘resource allocation system’ and an indicative budget has been established – the ‘support planning’ comes in to build, yes, you guessed it, a ‘support plan’ which would be what might have been called a ‘care plan’ in the past and details how that support will be delivered for the individual to whom it relates.

Groundswell  Partnership , the ‘personalisation consultancy’  who wrote it, explain that councils should change their models of support planning and move the focus back towards the users of the services provided.

I couldn’t possibly agree more. This is what we were told when the whole personalisation agenda was moved out and I can’t honestly see what’s different apart from the lack of roll out to wider groups than those that  benefited from direct payments. This was the ethos behind rolling  ‘personalisation’ out beyond those who were receiving direct payments previously to everyone in general.

The model presented is one of ensuring that information is more freely available and that ‘professionals’ don’t need to take hold of support planning. It  talks about shedding the ‘belief’ that professional support is necessary to enable support planning. Absolutely right.   I would counter that councils have been trying to move away from professional support for support planning as it is more expensive but are too slow to change and stuck in systems of commissioning and getting services ‘approved’ to have moved quickly enough on this.

Currently, I am deeply concerned that the level of access to support and different kinds of support can be based on the particular social worker or care coordinator allocated in terms of our own knowledge of available services – particularly as regards managed personal budgets. I agree that the way around this is to make as  much information about resources and services open access – including costs and deductions and details of block contracts and how they are delivered,  so that anyone and everyone can have equal knowledge.

I love the idea that support planning should take time but there needs to be some thought to the more immediate support planning that might take place in a crisis situation and looking at how that can feed into these models and look at ways that people can – as far as possible – build in contingencies and forward planning into the current support plans.

The report also talks about building on community capacity to provide support and support planning. Wonderful. Truly wonderful but it fails to tackle those who are excluded by the communities in which they live. Working with a number of people who may lack capacity to manage their own support planning, lack informal support and are isolated or excluded by their community, I often wonder when a realistic report is going to tackle this issue properly – rather than a sentence saying ‘some people may need professional support’.  Maybe it needs it’s own report. I’d love to see that. Honestly. I want to cheer these reports as they flow out of the ‘personalisation consultancies’ and I often do but I need to see some innovative thinking that looks at the realities I face daily.

I would counter that ‘these people’ who lack capacity require independent advocacy on top of professional support. Relying on a social worker for support planning, particularly in work with older adults where the case loads and expectations regarding quantity of work undertaken is particularly high, is absolutely going to  produce a poorer quality support plan. I don’t think anyone is denying that – including the local authority employers – I suspect they would love to tender out this role however the clunky nature of contracting and commissioning makes this slow moving.

I know I put together some poor support plans myself. It doesn’t make me proud. I don’t go to work thinking to myself ‘today I’m doing to produce a poor support plan and I’m not going to ask Mrs Brown or her family about what she actually wants’. I try to consult but the time needed is squeezed. I try to engage family and friends, but you know, believe it or not, some families or friends actually don’t want to be actively involved and some people don’t have family and friends.

These reports are fantastic. We need more. We need more reports to explain why we are doing a poor job about providing support planning.

But what we also need are properly assessed and arranged targets set to local authorities that demand involvement by users in more than a peripheral box ticking way.

We need resources to provide effective and independent advocacy which will allow for equality of access to innovative support planning tools for those who are not able to independently access them for themselves.

My own dream was to break free from the LA yoke and establish some kind of local social enterprise type organisation that would be able to offer dual support planning and non-directed advocacy for those who lack capacity to produce really good support plans and support networks to fill in the gaps for those who don’t have the informal networks or whose family want to support and help but might not be able to to the extent expected sometimes.

If anyone wants to fund me or pay my salary while I do that, please do let me know.

There are better ways. I’m sure of it. While I enjoyed reading the report as it is,  my brain was buzzing about how this model could work with the people I see every day – I’m still waiting for a report to deal with that. And if noone will fund my little social enterprise project, perhaps they could commission me to write report – for myself – about ways it could work better.

But I don’t think I can promise what these reports promise – which is zero cost.

And possibly that’s the key.

What makes a good Best Interests Assessor?

Paperwork
Community Care carried an article a couple of days ago about Paul Burstow and the College of Social Work potentially turning their attention to the current training of Best Interests Assessors and finding the paucity of the system as it exists now to be in need of reform.

I’m a Best Interests Assessor as well as an AMHP (Approved Mental Health Professional). There’s a general awareness within the sector about what being an AMHP may be – there’s a lot less understanding about what is involved in being a Best Interests Assessor. The role itself is much newer having developed from the Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards which were a tacked onto the Mental Capacity Act (2005) by the Mental Health Act (1983) as amended 2007.

Lots of dates and lots of legislation but the role came into being in 2008 and created this role of ‘Best Interests Assessors’ who could be nurses, social workers, psychologists or occupational therapists with a couple of years experience who would be trained specifically to carry out particular assessments under these new legislative frameworks and make recommendations on the basis of these assessments as to whether someone who lacks capacity is being a) deprived of their liberty in a hospital or care home and b) whether it is in their best interests.

It can get enormously complicated but that’s perhaps, the reason that the focus has turned to the training of BIAs.

I was an ‘inaugural’ BIA, meaning that my training took place before the legislation had actually ‘gone live’. It took place over five days at postgraduate (masters) level training  delivered by a university and requiring an examined essay and presentation.

The problem is that we were then released into a ‘vacuum’ – there was an incredible feeling of insecurity about what these assessments required but there was also a hope that case law would eventually arrive to clarify! (oh, how deluded we all were!).

As it happens, case law is coming thick and fast now and each legislative decision adds layers of complexity. We have a better idea of the rate of referrals and the amount of time a good quality assessment takes so reappraising the course isn’t a bad idea.

Some AMHP courses now incorporate Best Interests Assessor training. I’m not sure I see this as necessary.

I’m not even sure more than five days is needed regarding an understanding of the legislation.

What is absolutely needed is constant and ongoing updates/training/discussions and forums to promote constant learning.

Currently there are no established and consistent  regulations concerning continuous professional development of BIAs – it is up to the local authorities to themselves decide. I’m fortunate that I have access to a host of BIA update training and a chance for specific supervision related to this role. I see it as fundamentally necessary, particularly at the rate with which the legislation framework changes, to be constantly in touch with the latest developments.

I also think that it is necessary for any new BIA (something that was impossible for me when I trained for obvious reasons) to have a similar experience as AMHPs have of ‘shadowing/fronting’ assessments with a more experienced BIA alongside them to get a feel for the type of work that i is.

This feels like a neglected corner of social work and social care in that it is a role that still is predominantly taken by social workers but few apart from those who actually do it, have an understanding of what it might entail.

We need to support each other on this – especially as so few of the trainers are actually Best Interests Assessors themselves – in my experience. This is an area where peer-led learning and understanding of the role could really move into the fore front.

I revert back to my premise that everyone working in social care with adults needs a better understanding of the Mental Capacity Act. That would form a better basis for those who do go on to become Best Interests Assessors.

I’ll be interested to see if Burstow picks this up. There’s a long way to go to improve both the Deprivation of Liberties Safeguards and the way that they are assessed and implemented. It’s quite right that the training and in particular professional development of BIAs is considered alongside this.

I’d be interested in what other BIAs thought about how training both initial and ongoing could be improved. Please feel free to leave comments!

Photo by anniebby