Is any public service more reviled than social work? Policemen, when not drinking with journalists, chase down baddies; firefighters save babies, and doctors cure diseases. Social workers, on the other hand, take away people’s children. They miss catastrophic abuse. In no news story are they ever -heroic. The perception of social work is unremittingly grim. It’s badly paid, box-ticking, mired in bureaucracy. Only go into it if you like being a martyr.
Josh MacAlister, the chief executive of Frontline, wants people to imagine things differently. In a decade he thinks social work will be one of the main options for top graduates. At an Oxford careers fair, he suggests, students will be queueing up at the social work stand. Entry will be fiercely competitive. ‘These things are not unimaginable,’ he says. ‘It’s happened in other professions.’
You might think he is daft. But he’s right: in the past decade something similar has happened to teaching. It’s down to Teach First. The scheme, set up in 2002, recruits bright graduates to work in challenging schools. It’s been a ridiculous success — this year it received applications from one in ten Oxbridge graduates.
Teaching has clear similarities with social work. They are both tough jobs that can transform people’s lives. The pay is comparable, too. A newly qualified social worker can earn £27,000 in some areas — enough to make a freelance journalist envious.
MacAlister is a product of Teach First. He became frustrated with the social workers he encountered at his school in Manchester. He started off with the idea of a Teach First for children’s social work and, after writing a policy document about it, quit his teaching job to make it happen.
His organisation, Frontline, is recruiting 100 graduates for a pilot scheme in London and Manchester next year. It has cross-party support — Michael Gove and Lord Adonis are speaking at its launch next month. But the idea hasn’t gone down brilliantly well with social workers. Some regard it as elitist and insulting. The assumption that a bunch of Oxbridge types can swoop in and sort out the mess must be galling. But to see it like this — an attempt to make social workers posher — misses the broad changes that a scheme like Frontline can bring about.
I meet MacAlister at the Frontline office. He is tall and rake-thin, with a quiff and a bit of designer stubble. The aim, he says, is not just to tackle the image of social work. ‘We also need to change the way we train and do social work.’ The training programme, devised by social workers and academics, squeezes what is usually a two- or three-year degree into 13 months. MacAlister says it is not just a compressed version of the current course, but something ‘built from scratch’.
Like Teach First, it begins with a five-week summer boot camp. Then for a year the students are placed in local authorities in teams of four. They ‘co-work’ complex cases under the supervision of a consultant social worker (who is legally responsible for those cases). At the same time they continue to study. Steve Goodman, a social worker who helped devise the scheme, compares it to the way doctors and barristers train. ‘You can’t really beat working alongside someone who’s an expert in their field,’ he says. At the end of the year they qualify; for their second year they complete a master’s.
In the long term MacAlister thinks these dynamic graduates can have a ‘catalytic effect’, ‘challenging the system to improve across the country’. With more professional leadership, he says, they can ‘break the inertia of agencies orbiting around families and bring about change for the children’. Even if they don’t always stay on as social workers, they might become managers or take up an academic or clinical post. They may end up being MPs or journalists able to influence policy.
All of this might make you wonder why academic high-fliers are expected to make such a difference. They aren’t necessarily, of course, going to be good at social work. What is crucial is to have a large pool of applicants. If you have lots of candidates to choose from you can select the best — the smartest and most suited to the work. In this, Frontline is seeking to emulate Teach First, which has a ratio of six applicants to every place, higher than any other route into teaching.
The practical emphasis of Frontline’s training has attracted big supporters within the field. Andrew Christie, who is director of children’s services for three local councils in London and a trustee of Frontline, is strongly critical of the way many social workers are trained at present. Some graduates, he says, emerge ‘completely ill-equipped’ for the task of children’s social work. They might understand the theories, but ‘aren’t able to visit a family and decide whether a child is at risk’. Another problem, he says, is that new social workers do not get to tackle the most difficult cases. They are doing the social work equivalent of ‘syringing ears’. The inadequacy of some of the training of social workers has been recognised in two major reviews of the profession. Two further reviews specifically on social work education have been ordered. It is a period of rapid change in the field.
Prof Eileen Munro, of the LSE, is the author of a child protection review commissioned by Michael Gove. She is ‘the guru’ among social workers. Her report called for more space for them to do their job instead of being constricted by government. She estimates now that about a third of local authorities are taking on ‘quite radical improvements’. She describes Frontline as ‘potentially a very good development’ and adds: ‘The way it’s implemented is what matters.’ When she became a social worker in the 1970s, she says, the profession was prestigious. In a more socialist era, ‘helping the disadvantaged was an admirable thing to do’. A lot of her generation, she says, were driven out of the field by bureaucracy. ‘They weren’t able to use their own skills enough,’ she says.
What MacAlister is doing, it seems, is trying to reverse this trend — to restore prestige. It is an aim the profession should embrace. But no matter how much Frontline insists that social workers are ‘doing a great job’, those working in the field are inevitably going to take umbrage at the group’s emergence. Social work is a vocation, they say, it shouldn’t be something that privileged kids try out on their way to a lucrative career in the city.
When I meet MacAlister I put some of the criticisms to him. He is only 26 — isn’t he a bit underqualified? Can social work really be an option alongside Deloitte and PwC? He is a bit nettled, and recites the things naysayers tell him: ‘You are never going to be able to do this because social workers are hated. They are hated because they have to go into families to take children away. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. All those phrases you hear about social work all the time. Well, it just does not have to be that way.’
It’s hard to resist his insistence that things can be better. ‘If you’re not careful you get caught up in a view of how things are at the moment and your imagination is limited to tweaking or adjusting the way things work,’ MacAlister says. ‘But the most exciting public service reform is actually saying this can be totally different.’ If the system is broken, why stop someone who is trying to fix it?
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