On Friday, Education Secretary Michael Gove gave a very warm reception to IPPR’s proposal for a graduate fast-track programme in children’s social work. He promised to get the scheme – known as ‘Frontline’ – up and running as soon as possible.
Something certainly needs to be done to tackle problems that have plagued the social work profession for years. Chronic funding pressures, a ballooning workload and a poorly trained and supported workforce have all combined to put vulnerable children’s lives at risk.
These shortcomings were shockingly exposed through the tragic cases of Baby P and Victoria Climbie, who both died following abuse, neglect and torture at the hands of family members. All this happened despite the fact these families were both known to social workers.
Tackling this problem will require action in a number of areas - chief among them will be to improve the quality and training of the workforce. Social work has struggled to recruit enough high calibre staff. Last year, there were 1,350 vacant jobs in this field, many of which were concentrated in a handful of local authorities facing a severe shortage of well qualified permanent staff.
And despite a recent effort to train more staff, there are widespread concerns about the skills, competencies and calibre of new recruits to the profession. A number of leading bodies - from the Munro Review to the General Social Care Council - have flagged up that newly qualified social workers often do not have the knowledge or expertise to succeed in the job.
It is certainly true that social work is not attracting top graduates into the profession – last year only 5.6% of people who started to train completed there degree at a Russell Group university, and just five had studied at Oxbridge.
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. Frontline seeks to tackle this, by encouraging more top graduates and career-changers into children’s social work.
Frontline draws its inspiration from Teach First, which was established ten years ago to tackle very similar problems in inner city schools. By providing a fast track training scheme, Teach First was able to attract new people into the profession and place them in schools that were struggling to recruit staff.
It blended their teacher training with a mixture of academic study and on the job learning, giving them real classroom responsibilities. Many of these people have stayed in the teaching profession, and others have moved into top leadership roles in other areas of society, taking their knowledge and commitment of inner city education with them.
Of course it will take more than a new graduate training programme to solve the many problems that plague child protection. But reforming and raising the status of the workforce must surely be a step in the right direction.
Jonathan Clifton is a Senior Research Fellow at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @jp_clifton