We need a Teach First scheme for frontline children’s social work

Josh MacAlister, a teacher, a researcher at IPPR and a Teach First ambassador; argues for a Teach First scheme for children's social work.


Josh MacAlister is a teacher, a researcher at IPPR and a Teach First ambassador; his report, “Frontline: Improving the children’s social work profession” is available here

The quality and quantity of people joining children’s social work can only be described as in a crisis state – last year, there were more than 1,350 vacancies in the field; at the same time only six per cent of graduates from Russell Group universities started jobs in social work.

Only five individual graduates from Oxbridge applied for postgraduate social work courses. Evidence collected by an IPPR report (pdf) this week also shows a wide level of dissatisfaction with the quality of new recruits and university training on offer.

In a single year, one child may be passed between multiple social workers, to the detriment of their education, life stability, and emotional development.

Social workers are invariably stretched when the profession faces such a shortfall of new talent, and local authorities are forced to depend on agency workers to bridge the gap. When you consider the demanding and highly skilled nature of the job in contrast with the low esteem in which social work is held, it demonstrates the scale of the challenge. This is why we investigated the idea of a high profile fast track route.

Could exceptional graduates and career changers be attracted into a demanding and socially valuable job? The Teach First scheme has done exactly that.

Teach First has a social mission: to challenge educational disadvantage. From its beginnings in 2002, it is now one of the most highly competitive graduate programmes in the UK and attracts top talent. Whilst only five Oxbridge graduates went into social work last year, in contrast, ten per cent of Oxford graduates applied to Teach First. This is reflected in the numbers of people applying to teaching and social work degree courses in the UK.

Chart 1 below shows students with higher UCAS scores choose teaching, and only a small number go into social work degree courses; meanwhile, lower performing students go into social work in much greater numbers. Only two thirds of candidates for social work degrees pass first time round and only 12 per cent of social work applicants had the equivalent of three grade As at A-level compared to 20 per cent for teaching.

Chart 1:

Despite recent improvements in recruitment practice, there is still a real problem in attracting top graduates into careers in children’s social work. The job is one of the toughest in the UK, and requires highly skilled people to fill it. It demands both academic ability and emotional strength.

In a report (pdf) published by IPPR yesterday, I argue an independent social enterprise along the lines of Teach First needs to be set up to encourage top graduates into children’s social work. This programme, which I call ‘Frontline’, would provide high quality and intensive training on the front line of children’s social work provision, for a minimum two year contract.

It would incorporate the accreditation of participating graduates as social workers, and prepare them for careers in the field whilst equipping them with transferrable skills such as leadership, confidence, and independence should they choose to move into other fields after the two-year period.

Social work shouldn’t be one of Britain’s least appealing careers when it is in fact one of the most demanding and important. Outstanding people should be on the front line of children’s social work.

A scheme like Frontline would transform perceptions of social work and contribute to the huge task of tackling social disadvantage.

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