Social work needs a Teach First revolution

9th October 2012 Articles Featured

Teach First has just celebrated its tenth anniversary. Last week more than 3,000 young teachers, with education and government leaders, gathered in the Festival Hall to praise its success in transforming schools in England’s toughest neighbourhoods. Nearly 1,000 top graduates started in the classroom through Teach First this September, with seven applicants per place. It is one of the best things to happen here since the millennium.

We now need to transform an equally important related profession: children’s social work. The status of the social work profession is frankly a national scandal. The status quo is similar to comprehensive school teaching a decade ago: high vacancy rates and far too few good young graduates with burning motivation or excellent training and support. In fact there are thousand of graduates who have the passion to undertake social work but many of them are put off by the existing system.

I was in care as a youngster and I owe a huge amount to brilliant social workers. For tens of thousands of children each year social workers not only make a profound difference to their life chances; they are often the difference between danger and safety in a child’s life.

Yet too many of the most vulnerable children in society — those in care or at serious risk of harm — are getting neither the protection nor the opportunities they deserve. And the profession is deeply demoralise, particularly after the failings in the Baby P case and in the grooming of girls in Rochdale and Rotherham.

Last year there were 1,350 child social work vacancies. A quarter of councils have near-crisis vacancy levels of 15 per cent or more, including many in cities. In a similarly high proportion of councils, agency staff — here today, gone tomorrow — constitute more than one in ten social workers. There is also widespread concern about skills and calibre. Only two thirds of social work degree students pass first time round and only 12 per cent of social work applicants had the equivalent of three grade As at A-level, compared with 20 per cent for teaching. Last year barely one in 18 new social work trainees came from a Russell Group university, who account for the great majority of Teach First’s intake.

We cannot carry on like this, with too few good recruits, unfilled posts, high turnover and temporary staff. I am excited therefore to be helping to promote Frontline, a proposed new charity to recruit children’s social workers based on the Teach First model. It will recruit highly successful young graduates, train them intensively, then place them in localities of high demand with a commitment to serve for a few years but not necessarily a whole career.

A plan has been prepared by Josh MacAlister, a Teach First ambassador, supported by social work professionals, the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation and the Institute for Public Policy Research. Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, who has been a passionate supporter of Teach First and its expansion, has promised to give the idea serious consideration. I hope it can be launched soon.

It will take an entirely new institution such as Frontline to change the status quo decisively. Frontline can’t do it alone but, like Teach First, it could make a decisive difference, both in its direct recruitment of successful graduates and in rebranding and improving children’s social work.

Under the MacAlister plan, there would be a single annual national process, focused particularly on final-year undergraduates and young graduates, with high academic entry requirements. Those selected by Frontline would start with an intensive national summer school to provide initial training and generate a strong ethos and esprit de corps. Thereafter participants would be placed with a local authority frontline team to undergo on-the-job training coupled with university study.

Subject to reaching the required standard, Frontline recruits would receive a social work qualification after a year. They would be expected to stay working for their local authority for at least a further year, including further training.

A minimum two-year commitment gives a fair return on training costs while not closing other career options. For Teach First recruits the minimum commitment is also two years but a majority stay on beyond this. I would expect the same to hold true for Frontline as young social workers become passionate about their work and the difference they are making.

When Teach First was launched, the sceptics were everywhere. “Look, the idea of getting Oxbridge graduates to flock to god-awful comprehensives — fat chance,” one senior Education Department official told me. Teach First confounded this deep fatalism, has helped transform comprehensives and now enjoys universal political and professional support. The same could be true of Frontline. It is a great venture in an imperative cause, and it could help change society for the better.

This article first appeared in The Times on October 4.

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