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Social Work Bursary Swimming Against the Tide


The Social Work Bursary won't fix the world: why is this a surprise?


The Department for Health is currently consulting about reforms to the bursary scheme for social work trainees in the UK. Following in the wake of nursing and teaching, social work became an entirely 'graduate profession' in 2003; the bursary was supposed to make sure recruitment didn't drop off when trainees were faced with an extra year of study. There are two main reasons for changing things now. Firstly, of course, the government doesn't want to pay the £112M annual bill. The Comprehensive Spending Review has identified a saving target, though they're not saying exactly how big it is. Secondly, there's been a debate about whether the bursary could be used more effectively to target the 'best' candidates, which surfaced following the recommendations of the Social Work Taskforce (set up after the death of 'Baby P').


As well as specifying the five different options for changing the bursary scheme, the Department of Health helpfully lists ten criteria developed with the Social Work Reform Board that will be used to make the final determination. Amongst them are:

  • No adverse impact on equality

  • Improving quality of entrants to the profession

  • Widening participation

Not only do we want to have our cake and eat it, but we'd also like it to be cheaper, less fattening and made from Fairtrade ingredients! Responding to the consultation, then is really about picking a winner: we all know that none of the solutions proposed can deliver against all of these targets, so which is most important? It's a tough call, and not one I'd like to have to make. Instead I want to highlight the folly of expecting one comparatively tiny area of public policy to make a difference in the face of an overall shift in the opposite direction. If diminishing inequalities, widening participation and improving social care services are desirable, we need a comprehensive range of polices to make them happen.


Firstly, let's take equality of access. It's hard to find a minority or disadvantaged group that hasn't found itself worse off over the past 4 years, both in relative and absolute terms. According to the Campaign for a Fairer Society, “£23.7 billion of cuts fall on disabled and older people and people living in poverty – 58% of all the cuts. 24% of all cuts will fall on 1.9% of the population, people with the most severe impairments.” (Manifesto for a Fairer Society 2012). Ironically, every social work student will study the social model of disability, and be expected to understand that people with impairments need not be 'disabled' as long as ajustments are made that allow them to participate. It is clear that many adaptations to patterns of public expenditure are being reversed, and that as a result many people with impairments will no longer be able to participate, not just in Higher Education but in many areas of society. Targeting the bursary on disadvantaged groups, though worthy, is just paddling against the spring tide.


Secondly there's the issue of improving 'the quality' of entrants to the profession. What exactly does this mean? I don't want to be overly critical here: social workers need to be able to do the job, and educators need to recruit people who have the potential to reach the required standard. Too often, though, we rely on 'proxy indicators' – things like having a good first degree from a good University – instead of assessing people's abilities and experiences on their own merits. Again, most social work students will be taught about how patterns of disadvantage that span generations can make it very hard for people from some social and economic groups to get into 'good Universities'. As the Russell Group of Universities puts it:

The socio-economic gap actually widens as children progress through school and by GCSE, the gap becomes a gulf. Attainment of 5+ good (A* - C) GCSEs varies by over 40 percentage points between the top and bottom socio-economic backgrounds (77% compared to 31% in 2002), so that children with professional parents are well over twice as likely to gain five or more good GCSEs than children with parents in routine occupations. Young people whose parents have degree qualifications are also disproportionately more likely to study post-16 at A-level – 61% of pupils with at least one parent with a degree level qualification as opposed to 27% where neither parent has A-level qualifications.” Page 9

Targeting 'high calibre' graduates, then, may amount to excluding people from working class backgrounds. It's not really widening participation, then, is it?


How might social work widen participation whilst reducing expenditure? It's a trick that Universities are trying to pull off across the board following the decision to allow them to charge up to £9K per year for undergraduate courses. Although tuition fee and maintenance loans are available, there's evidence that people from poorer backgrounds will be put off by the prospect of debts (Usher, Alex (2005) A Little Knowledge is A Dangerous Thing: How Perceptions of Costs and Benefits Affect Access to Education. Toronto ON: Educational Policy Institute). In order to qualify to charge £9K a year, Universities are set targets for 'widening participation' by the Office for Fair Access (OFFA). Will they work? The truth is that no-one knows yet, although the early signs aren't good. Last September OFFA stated that 23 UK Universities were already failing to meet their targets, and that the proportion of money being spent on improving access had declined steadily in the 4 years since the economic crisis hit. All this is before the fee hike, which will come in this September.


Widening participation, tackling inequalities and improving the quality of entrants is an impossible task - for the social work bursary on its own. Is it impossible for society as a whole? Far from it. A decent publicly funded, universal education system would do the trick nicely. Back it up with a comprehensive, fair welfare system and you'd probably also be able to recruit high quality candidates from minority or disadvantaged groups. It's just a shame that public policy is heading in the opposite direction.


Deciding on how best to use whatever's left of the social work bursary is an important task, and I don't want to demoralise the people who are doing it. On its own, though, it isn't going to create a fairer society. Sorry. For me this points to the general hoplelessness of a depoliticised social work profession trying to fix the world by focusing inwards. If social justice is important for social work trainees, then it's important for everyone. It's only by tackling the wider policy issues that we'll be able to achieve the changes to the profession that we want.


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