Fast track social work training schemes: How I went from believer to sceptic — Part II
In Part I, I discussed my initial attraction to Think Ahead and those parts of the programme that left a lasting positive impression. In order to explain how my enthusiasm for Think Ahead waned, to be replaced with a growing scepticism, I will now turn to experiences and observations of key aspects of the scheme that led me to adopt a more critical stance.
A frequent issue raised by social work students on traditional routes is the lack of statutory placement opportunities. Students understandably fear being ill-equipped for the realities of frontline (statutory) practice and the received wisdom is that prospective LA employers really value statutory experience. It’s often said a key benefit of fast track programmes is that they offer guaranteed statutory placements. Reflecting on this, should we be concerned about the message this sends about the relative value of statutory and non-statutory social work experience? Not all social work is statutory social work after all, and non-statutory social work is no less valid or valuable. Research shows that whether a placement is statutory or non-statutory matters less than support and learning opportunities. A recent evaluation of teaching partnerships found that their promise to provide students with two statutory placements meant that this was prioritised over other areas, including the need for contrasting experiences.
I also wonder if there’s a potential downside to host organisations providing placements to units of four fast track students at a time, with some organisations hosting multiple units. Does it diminish their capacity to offer placements to students from other routes, further compounding the perennial lack of statutory placements available to traditional route students? During my time as CSW our organisation hosted two consecutive units of four students. Due to being a relatively small team, we were unable to host any students from other routes. Prior to that we had regularly hosted students from a variety of BA and MA courses. I also noticed the department as a whole hosted far fewer students from other routes during that two years. I am aware of similar concerns from those within other organisations hosting Think Ahead, though both Think Ahead and Frontline, the children’s social work fast track on which it is closely modelled, are keen to promote the view that they are just ‘one route among many’. However, the recent announcement that Think Ahead is to receive additional funding in order to increase its yearly intake while students from other routes face ongoing uncertainty about their bursaries suggests favouritism at the expense of other routes and further speaks to the need for broad-based, longitudinal data on the impact, positive and negative, of fast tracks on placement opportunities for students on other routes.
Contrasting learning experience
The contrasting learning experience (CLE) sees each student spend 30 days in a children’s social work team. While I have significant reservations about the early specialisation in practice promoted by fast tracks, CLEs do at least ensure students have some substantive learning and development in the other arm of statutory social work. Thirty days is not long, though, so it is important to make that time count for the students and, most importantly, for the people they support. Work has to be carefully allocated and overseen to ensure it stands to have real benefit to people while also providing opportunities for students to meet their learning outcomes. It is crucial in these shorter placements to avoid compounding any issues or concerns relating to people having frequent changes of social worker.
I worked with my colleagues delivering the Frontline programme in my LA on offering reciprocal CLEs which saw our unit hosting some Frontline students and the Frontline unit hosting some of our students in return. This contributed to a collegiate atmosphere of mutual aid, learning and development among the students and CSWs while promoting links between adults’ and children’s services where links are, historically, few. At the same time, I began to question why such opportunities should be the preserve of fast track students. I also began to wonder about the implications of promoting closed networks of fast track students. I later learned that successful entrants to Frontline, Think Ahead and the other public sector fast track courses, Teach First, Unlocked Grads and Police Now, could defer entry to the civil service fast stream, through a group known as the ‘Transform Alliance’ which is made up exclusively of those five fast tracks. Both Think Ahead and Frontline have been open about encouraging their alumni to pursue careers in other fields, as part of their ‘movement building’, and I have come to seriously question the implications for social work of elite graduates using the profession as a ‘stepping stone’ to other careers.
Social media and criticism of fast tracks
Someone suggested I use Twitter to expand my networks within Think Ahead and the wider social worker community. This was a revelation to me. I found Twitter to be a great source of information and support. I Tweeted regularly about my experiences as CSW and shared non-case specific findings and reflections from the CCM. It was positive and quite lovely. But I also became aware of significant disquiet regarding fast tracks, accompanied by cogent criticism, mainly of Frontline. I didn’t agree with or understand all the criticism, though it did lead me to engage with alternative views. I don’t remember exactly when I began to engage with the political dimensions and implications of fast tracks but it did coincide with my growing awareness of the highly political nature of social work, not just in the area of policy itself, but in how the political is expressed in everyday practice.
There was one incident that personally troubled me and which in hindsight undoubtedly fed into my growing disquiet. I tweeted something quite strongly critical of Think Ahead’s policy for remunerating experts by experience who taught on the course, which at the time saw experts by experience being paid significantly less than academic experts. This prompted a call from the practice specialist who expressed that the communications team had been ‘alarmed’ by my tweet. I agreed to have a meeting to discuss and ended up having a very interesting discussion about the value (or not, as was the counter-suggestion offered by the TA comms people) of radical perspectives in social work, which ended with assurances that issues would be discussed at future alumni events. I never heard anything on the matter again and I have since come to believe it was probably all an exercise in quelling dissent from within the ranks.
All public facing organisations are, to a greater or lesser extent, concerned with public relations and each has its own approach to managing its public image. One of the ways Think Ahead do this is by requiring those accepting an offer of place on the course to sign an agreement stating they will not say anything critical of Think Ahead in online or public forums. While it is fairly common for universities and employers to have policies about not bringing their organisations into ‘disrepute’ through online or public conduct or criticism, I believe it’s unusual to ask students and employees to sign a specific agreement about this. I understand that social media and other public outlets are not the place for airing personal grievances, but I also strongly believe that organisations training and educating social workers should not seek to quell dissent but actively encourage students to think critically about policy and to develop skills in constructive challenge, public debate and promoting organisational transparency and accountability. Of course, social work education providers doing this are also inviting scrutiny and challenge of them, which in my view is completely healthy, if uncomfortable.
This touches on what I came to believe was a major omission from the Think Ahead curriculum: a lack of emphasis on anti-oppressive practice and, more specifically, the structural causes of poor mental health outcomes. That is not to say students were discouraged from advancing such critique in their assessed written work, as many did, often with strong support from their academic tutors. However, this structural appreciation was not in my view embedded in the programme in a way that properly recognised the importance of structural factors in shaping the experiences and outcomes of the people experiencing mental health issues. Critical, radical and anti-racist/anti-oppressive approaches did not, as far as I could tell, feature prominently in the teaching, despite being foundational to the profession and as important now as they ever were. Instead, there was a heavy emphasis on four key interventions: motivational interviewing, solution-focused therapy, family group conferencing and the Connecting People model. In my experience, Think Ahead has produced critically-adept, structurally-aware social workers. However, this appears to me to be largely influenced by the preoccupations and interests of individual students rather than by course content. I have come to believe, through my experiences and observations, that the lack of emphasis on structural critique coupled with the focus on assessing students’ abilities to deliver four prescribed social interventions risks Think Ahead inculcating a de-politicised, technique-based conception of social work practice over a wider, structural appreciation of social determinants of mental ill health.
Think Ahead is keen to advance the idea that it is promoting societal change through building a ‘movement’ and places a great deal of emphasis on leadership as a key factor in achieving that. I was sceptical of this from the outset but tried to approach it with an open mind. Those delivering the leadership training I attended were keen to point out that leadership in this sense did not mean the agency of powerful individuals and was more about influencing skills. This did little to assuage my growing unease about ‘leadership’ in the context of social work reform, allied as it is to rhetoric promoting the idea that fast track candidates are outstanding — or, as Think Ahead has it, ‘remarkable’ — individuals. This is uncomfortably close to saviour narratives in the helping professions — the idea that what disadvantaged, vulnerable and marginalised people need is the right sort of ‘special’ person to enter their lives and, effectively, rescue them. This seems counter to the notion of social movements as citizen-led, grassroots, collective endeavours. Related to this is the re-conceptualising of social work students as ‘participants’, which speaks of an exceptionalism which I believe is not in keeping with a profession founded on notions of equality and solidarity. In reality, it serves to set fast track students apart from their student colleagues elsewhere. All of this has contributed to my deep scepticism of moves to corporatise social work and social work education and training and I have written about the influence of global corporations on fast track schemes and the wider social work reform agenda in which these schemes have emerged and grown.
Having said that, I found the majority of students I encountered on these schemes tended not to buy into the elitist rhetoric and were on the whole realistic, humble people, and no less committed or effective practitioners for it. However, there will always be those who buy into this idea that they are somehow special or exceptional. Is this something we should encourage social workers to believe from the outset? That is to my mind highly contentious and touches on issues of power and privilege in already unequal and class-riven social contexts. My experience of being a CSW told me that if you encourage people — especially the type of very idealistic, high performing and ambitious people who tend to be attracted to fast track schemes — to have very high expectations of themselves, of the programme, of the host organisation, and of social work itself, you will encounter problems when those expectations are, inevitably, not always met in the real world, when the realisation dawns that they are not, in fact, special, but part of something much bigger than any individual, no matter how confident they may be in their own abilities.
The shared caseload model worked well when the people we supported were in relatively stable situations and levels of risk and complexity were relatively low, with students therefore able to work with suitable degrees of autonomy. But life is messy and unpredictable and when things went wrong or did not go according to plan, I sometimes had to take a lead role. Paramount, always and without question, are the people we support, which for me meant rescheduling student supervisions, not being as available for desk side advice, not being able to quality assure work in a timely fashion, delaying finishing write ups of reports and so on. It can be stressful for CSWs and students to manage these competing demands and expectations in the context of a compressed and accelerated programme. To militate against such issues, Think Ahead encourages host organisations to appoint a reserve CSW. Therefore, my reflections should be read with the knowledge that, save for a period of a few months at the beginning of cohort two, our unit did not have the benefit of a reserve CSW. Those times when our reserve CSW (who left for another role) provided supervision and direct observations were greatly appreciated by me and the students, who had the chance to benefit from the input of different, highly experienced and knowledgeable practitioner. Not having a reserve CSW meant there was a lot on me and there were pressure points of the sort described above.
One reason host organisations such as NHS Trusts and LAs are attracted to Think Ahead is that it offers the chance for them to ‘grow their own’ social workers and I have seen how this has borne fruit during and after my time as CSW. However, host organisations are required to take a gamble here, for two reasons. One is that host organisations have absolutely no say in who Think Ahead places with them. Given the commitment to employ Think Ahead students as ASYEs when they qualify after year one, this always struck me as remarkable. Host organisations are effectively outsourcing the recruitment of these social workers to Think Ahead. There are a number of issues and difficulties I envisage could arise from a poor fit between participant and placement.
The second is that Think Ahead, along with the other public sector fast tracks Teach First, Frontline, Unlocked Grads and Police Now, along with Lead First (army) and Entrepreneur First, form the ‘Transform Alliance’, an initiative that allows successful applicants to those programmes to defer entry to the Civil Service Fast Stream. This isn’t well known, and I’m almost certain Think Ahead don’t proactively inform host organisations that some participants may well be planning to leave host organisations on completion of the programme. For these reasons, organisations hoping to ‘grow their own’ social workers with Think Ahead should, in my view, be involved in the selection of the students placed with them and whose long term commitment they’re seeking.
I have no doubt that those involved in conceiving and implementing Think Ahead — at least those I met — are motivated by a genuine desire to contribute to lasting positive social change for people with mental health issues. As is evident from what I have written, I am critical of aspects of how they’re going about achieving that. Nevertheless, I feel fortunate and remain grateful for having had the opportunity to be part of the Think Ahead project for two years. I met and worked with people with whom I shared lots of memorable experiences. I learned a great deal and made some friends along the way. By far the best bit was the opportunity to contribute to the development of student social workers on the programme. I was frequently deeply impressed by their practice and values.
My abiding concerns about fast tracks centre round a number of key aspects of the programmes. One is the focus on prescribed social interventions, possibly to the detriment of students having the option to admit a wider range of theories, models and approaches into their practice, notably those rooted in critical/radical traditions. Another is the compressed, fast-paced nature of the scheme not allowing sufficient opportunities for development through critical reflection (offset to a degree by the case consultation meeting). I am worried about early specialism contributing to further division of the profession into homogenous practice areas. I am concerned about the emphasis on ‘remarkable’ individuals as the key to societal transformation and the attendant spectre of saviourism, accompanied as it is by elitist rhetoric and admission criteria. On the last point, I did find it ironic that, having obtained a 2:2 at undergraduate level, I would be precluded from applying to a programme in which I had a key role in promoting the development of academically high achieving students.
A key question is whether the impact of the growth of fast tracks comes at the expense of traditional routes. If host organisations are — as I believe they may be — less inclined to offer placements to students from other routes, this would constitute a serious threat to diversity in the provision of social work education and training, which is crucial if we wish to retain and advance social work as a culturally- and contextually-responsive, politically- and structurally-aware profession and an academic discipline rooted in social justice. There seems to me something quite foundationally beneficial about having a variety of diverse routes into social work. This benefit would be maximised by students from different routes having opportunities in placement to learn and grow together, as was the case with Think Ahead and Frontline students in my LA. From such connections these nascent professionals may create networks and forge alliances with counterparts in other areas of practice which they cultivate and maintain throughout their careers, enabling them to better work and stand together, part of a single profession equipped to deal with an increasingly diverse, complex and challenging world, with room for as many styles and specialisms in social work as there are social workers to develop and practise them.
A full, independent evaluation of Think Ahead is available here.