Fast track social work training schemes: How I went from believer to sceptic — Part I
August 2019 marked the end of my two years as a consultant social worker (CSW) in a local authority that hosted two consecutive cohorts of post-graduate students (or ‘participants’) on the Think Ahead mental health social work fast track training programme. I still feel quite conflicted over this period in my career. While I had many positive experiences during this time, I also began to have misgivings about the ideological underpinnings and implications of social work fast tracks. These are some of my personal views and reflections.
In this part, I’ll focus on those aspects of the programme which attracted me and which made a positive impression.
First, a brief summary of the course structure.
The course structure
The Think Ahead programme is, essentially, a Master’s level social work programme and the Assessed and Supported Year of Employment (a year-long ‘probationary’ period for newly qualified social workers) compressed into two years’ on-the-job training. Successful completion of the first year results in the award of a postgraduate diploma in social work which allows participants to register and practice as qualified social workers in England.
The second year sees students working towards the Master’s component while simultaneously undertaking their Assessed and Supported Year in Employment (ASYE). This accelerated pace of learning is made possible by compressing a large portion of the total teaching days into a six-week summer school held at the beginning of the first year, with additional teaching days interspersed throughout the year. The year is divided into placement stages of seventy days and 100 days, with an additional 30 days in a ‘contrasting learning experience’ in a children’s social work team.
Think Ahead students are required to demonstrate their ability to implement four prescribed ‘social interventions’:
- Motivational interviewing
- Solution focused brief therapy
- Family group conference
- Connecting People
The last of these — Connecting People — is a model devised by a team of academics at York University, a founding partner of the programme, and developed with research partners in the field as a way of formalising — and therefore rendering outcome-measurable — a relationship-based community engagement approach to addressing the social consequences of mental health issues.
The Consultant Social Worker role
When I first learned that Think Ahead was coming to my LA, I was attracted by the description of a full-time practice education role (the Consultant Social Worker) in the context of a scheme aimed at improving the calibre of social workers entering the profession through a ‘movement’ of similarly inclined people. At the time, my own views on the profession aligned with the rhetoric that we need more social workers ‘remarkable enough to make a difference’ to the lives of people with mental health problems. It seemed my dream role and I enthusiastically applied.
The role of Consultant Social Worker (CSW) is to act primarily as the full time practice educator for a group — or ‘unit’ — of four Think Ahead trainees. The units I supported were hosted by a local authority (non-integrated) mental health social work team. Aside from the usual practice educator roles and responsibilities such as providing weekly supervision, observing and assessing practice and preparing reports, the CSW also acts as primary worker for the unit’s shared caseload. In my experience this involved being primary worker for up to 25 cases, with each student co-working a number of cases within that. (I use the word ‘case’ here to refer not to people but to the prevailing circumstances, contexts and issues leading to social work involvement.) The CSW is also responsible for chairing a weekly ‘case consultation meeting’ in which they facilitate a structured, critically-reflective group discussion on one or two cases or situations presented by the students.
The case consultation meeting
The case consultation meeting (CCM) is a key part of the Think Ahead programme, and one which the students I was fortunate to support benefitted from and appeared to enjoy a lot. The aim of CCM is to support and encourage students in the first year of the programme to apply theories, research and practice models in their placements. Generally speaking, opportunities to participate in critically reflective individual and group practice forums are precious few in contemporary social work practice, yet they are vital to promoting values-driven, rights-based, legally literate and theory-informed social work practice. So I found the CCM a most welcome and useful aspect of the Think Ahead programme. Such forums not only benefit the people we hope to support but contribute to the wider aims, purposes and functions of the profession. The CCM also provided a regular opportunity to ‘touch base’ and bond as a unit. Throughout my time as CSW, students frequently said how much they valued CCMs and all of them lamented no longer having CCM after completion of their first year of training.
On the whole, support from Think Ahead for me and the students was good. Think Ahead students and CSWs are supported by ‘practice specialists’ who serve as liaisons for the unit and other key people and organisations. Practice specialists have a key role in ensuring the smooth running of the programme in each host organisation, from planning and preparing for students’ arrival to regular visits throughout the year to attend placement agreement meetings, midway and final report meetings, to observe CCMs and for any
I found the academic and pastoral support from York University staff to be excellent throughout. York is no longer the academic partner for Think Ahead, the contract having been awarded to a different university for the 2019 cohort onward. I understand many of the York-Think Ahead teaching staff transferred to the new university where, if my experience is anything to go by, they stand to make a very positive contribution.
My employer was very supportive of me throughout my two years as CSW. I appreciate being supported and encouraged to develop the role in interesting ways while giving me additional tasks and responsibilities around practice development, quality assurance and management of the mental health team which have been really beneficial to my professional development.other matters on which their input is warranted. Our practice specialist was approachable, warm and responsive. She always made herself available for us and was ready and willing to travel to our office whenever we felt it would be of benefit. Others within Think Ahead were also approachable and supportive.
In order to explain how my enthusiasm for Think Ahead waned, and was replaced with a growing scepticism, Part II discusses my experiences and observations of other key aspects of the scheme that led me to adopt a more critical stance of the two main social work fast-track training schemes.