Guest Blog: Aidan Worsley on education and training

Our guest blog this month is from Aidan Worsley who is currently on secondment with the Social Work England implementation team. Aidan is developing policy options around education and training in readiness for the arrival of our new chief executive, Colum Conway and his leadership team.  Here he explains what motivated him to get involved.

I qualified as a social worker back in 1987 and before that worked as a probation officer before starting in higher education. I have led social work courses and been an academic manager for the last twenty years. During that time, I researched quite a bit into social work regulation, which gave me a deep understanding of how regulation works, especially in education and training. I am interested in where and how the voices of different stakeholders come together to help shape the regulation process. I know first-hand how much it matters to  everyone from students, practitioners, employers, academic staff and of course service users.

To bring you up to speed, the government ran a public consultation in February 2018 encouraging everyone with an interest in social work and professional regulation to respond to proposals for Social Work England. The response is now published and we have a new chair, Lord Kamlesh Patel.  Our new chief executive, Colum Conway is due to start in September. As both appointments are qualified social workers, I feel positive that leadership will come from those who know the profession well.

Alongside the leadership team, are a group of civil servants and policy professionals helping to build the new organisation. They of course know a lot about social work, but I was glad they recognised that people from ‘outside’, are valuable to help aid understanding and strengthen planning. That is why my colleagues Liz Howard and Nimal Jude  represent the sector by bringing a lived experience of social work into the team, reflecting child and adult social work.

It is really important that Social Work England succeeds, for both the profession, the public and of course ministers in line with their ambition for wider social work reform. We all need to work to make this a success. Who wouldn’t want better practitioners to support the users of services and better education to equip practitioners of the future?

I am enjoying thinking through some of the challenges that surround education and training in particular to see what different approaches might mean. For example, when I consider qualifying or ‘initial’ education, I know that the current standard for Education and Training (SETs) contain six key areas or generic standards across all sixteen professions that HCPC currently regulate. The sort of things the SETs cover (not an exhaustive list) are:

  1. Level of qualification for entry into the profession; currently set at BA (Hons) level.
  2. Admissions; ensuring that applicants know what they are applying for, the process is fair and covers suitability.
  3. Governance; ensuring the programme is well governed and resourced, monitors, collaborates with stakeholders, ensures there are sufficient practice learning experiences and is delivered by people who know what they are doing.
  4. Programme design; ensuring that students going through the programme learn what they need to learn to get on the register, be properly equipped for current practice and learn from a range of educators.
  5. Placements; ensuring that how they operate is suitable, appropriate and delivered by suitably qualified and prepared people.
  6. Assessment; ensuring that student assessment leads to good decisions about qualification, is fair, equitable and is properly moderated externally.

When we start to think about the uniqueness of social work, what should the key components of good, quality standards look like under those six headings? Everyone will have a view about what’s most important of course and those views will inevitably differ. However, we have a real opportunity here to look at what makes our profession special and what we want to value and promote in the areas we prioritise.

To take a sounding from the sector I have recently run a short series of workshops in Manchester, London, Birmingham and Coventry where academics, practitioners and service users came together to look at what they thought were the important standards issues that Social Work England should look at most closely. The workshops were really well attended and I spoke with over 100 different people representing dozens of universities, colleges, local authorities, private, voluntary and independent sector agencies and service user groups. The information I gathered has proved invaluable for Social Work England and we are grateful for people’s time and input. It is important that Social Work England continue to engage and learn from the sector as it moves forward and there will be opportunities for your involvement over the coming months.

One of the many issues in all this is that there is not a large evidence base around social work education, certainly not in England. There is a thunderous amount of ‘grey literature’ and policy reports that inhabit this policy world which have tried to capture the learning around regulation. However, these are sometimes well-argued judgments as opposed to hard evidence. I have been reading a lot of this material to make sure I understand what we do know versus what we think we know about best practice regulation. I am trying to also keep a firm focus on what we would like to know more about in future. I’m very interested in ideas around ‘upstreaming’ – that’s regulator jargon for using the information you gather to feed back into the system and ‘head off’ problems for those being regulated before they occur.

So in summary, lots of reading, talking and in part trying to understand the experience of regulation from the regulators point of view, to look at what evidence we have and take learning from other professions. I am very mindful of the impact of the current changes in Higher Education on social work students and courses for example – fees, the new Office for Students, the Teaching Excellence Framework to name a few. There are also subject specific national frameworks to think about such as the Professional Capabilities Framework (PCF) and the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) benchmarking statements for Social Work particularly, which have been recently updated.

One thing has struck me so far and that is the dedication of the people moving Social Work England forward who know what they are doing and are driven by the right reasons. They are especially sensitive to the need to ‘let go’ at the right moment, so that the organisation can set sail as an active, independent entity and take on its role as a respected, regulator of the social work profession.

If you have any thoughts about education and training in particular, please do drop me a line
@SocialWorkEng or via the contact us form.