In her eight years of working as a sociology teacher, Natalie Tuohy hasn't seen anything like it. "None of my students want to go into social work," she says, speaking from her sixth form classroom at Queen Elizabeth School in Cumbria. "This is the first year that this has happened. They see it as a low-status job; something that busybodies do."
As part of their A-level sociology course, groups of students are assigned a particular job within social care to research. They investigate what the job involves on a day-to-day basis and its place in today's society and culture. The group of pupils assessing social workers this year couldn't find any redeeming factors that would make them consider pursuing it. Even the fact that the Government has provided generous bursaries for social work undergraduate students is not an incentive; these sixth-form students presumed that the Government's desperation made it resort to these drastic measures.
"I think they're put off, not by the level of responsibility, but they really do see that social workers have been vilified," says Ms Tuohy.
She refers, of course, to the overwhelming negative press social workers have received in recent months. The horrific case of Baby Peter, who died in north London in August 2007 after being abused by his mother, her boyfriend and lodger while on the child protection register, was blamed largely on social workers at Haringey Council. "They are aware that social workers tried to raise the alarm before the Baby P incident but that they have been blamed," adds Ms Tuohy.
Haringey Council was also accused of allowing relatives of Abdulla Ahmed Ali, one of the men convicted of planning to use liquid bombs on planes, to foster a child and live in the same house as him, even though he was under police surveillance at the time. The 10 and 11-year-old brothers from Doncaster who were charged with attempted murder and robbery in April this year were also on the child protection register and should also have been visible on the social services radar.
Although highly unusual, these cases were given an enormous amount of media coverage and the blame was largely attributed to the social workers who allowed these children to slip through the cracks. In their defence, they argued that the endless paperwork, low levels of staffing and sheer number of at-risk children make it impossible for every child to be protected.
But while this goes some way to understanding how the situation may have occurred, how can teachers encourage a new generation of enthusiastic and capable social workers? A research report, published by the Liberal Democrats last month, confirmed that it is one of the most stressful professions, with one in 10 social workers in England taking more than 20 days off sick in the past year, far higher than the national average of 7.4 sick days per annum.
Annette Brooke, Liberal Democrat children and families spokeswoman, called the figures "shocking" and said that they demonstrated "the huge stresses that social workers are under. The incredibly high number of vacancies leaves them spread too thin, working under huge pressure and dealing with a lack of resources and mountains of paperwork."
While the number of applications for registered social workers has seen a small rise, not all of these social workers go on to work in the profession, especially in children's services where there is an acute recruitment crisis. Some local authorities have been forced to hire foreign social workers trained as child specialists to ease the burden.
A number of steps have been taken to improve training and provide support at a training and professional level. The new Society, Health and Development diploma for 14 to 19-year-olds, brought in only in September 2008, is intended to give students a practical introduction to social and health professions and, arguably, to equip them better for the realities of the job. Students cover the cultural, political and economic contexts of the sector, but work experience forms an integral part of the course, and there is more emphasis on professional practice in the workplace.
Katie Scott has been teaching the new level 2 diploma at Park Lane High School, Halifax, since it was introduced last September. "It's much more in-depth than the (GCSE and NVQ) health and social care course," she says. "They see me about 10 hours a week and it's a lot more intense, with a focus on functional skills (those needed for professional working life)."
Pupils also have to attend a work-experience placement, gain level 2 in maths, English and ICT, and complete a personal project.
Ms Scott believes it requires pupils to have a high level of maturity. "It appeals to different students," she says. "You need to be empathetic and of a much higher ability than the health and social care course. At 14, it was quite difficult."
Although Ms Scott was cautious about how to approach the Baby P case, the class brought it up themselves and they discussed the events as well as the issues surrounding care and the role of the social worker. "To be honest, (the students) thought something should have been done a lot sooner. But I think that's good: they see it as an isolated case," she says.
This perception is exactly what Bill McClimont, member of the General Social Care Council and the CRB health and social care sub-group, would hope for. Without denying that mistakes have been made, he believes that this is not representative of the profession as a whole and doesn't want it to put off potential recruits.
"(The media) present an accurate image of a small area of a small part of the profession," he says. "It's not that these things aren't occurring, it's simply that it's only a tip of what's going on. The vast amount of good work done by social workers goes unseen and almost always will do, because it's done on a very individual and personal level. And good stories don't make the news."
Mr McClimont was an adviser for the Society, Health and Development diploma and says that the new qualification is part of a wider maturation of social work qualifications. It is only in the past three to four years that degrees were required for social work, and standards at training and professional level are undergoing stringent testing to try to raise the bar.
While the diploma does go much farther than GCSEs or A-levels in preparing young people for the world of work, pupils will still have to go on to further or higher education before they can qualify in social work. So why should they have to specialise from the age of 14?
"Especially at this early stage, what you're getting is a general introduction to a sector," he says. "The social, health and development diploma covers a sector which employs about five to six million people. We came very close to calling it a People Centred Services diploma - for anyone who wants to do anything that involves working with people. If you hear someone say they'd like to work with people, this diploma forms the basis for that kind of work."
News reports and portrayals of the profession in advertising and TV will inevitably influence young people's view of social work. But, as with any career, factors such as expectation, parental occupation and personal aspiration will all play a role in what careers young people choose.
At Bryn Hafren Comprehensive School in south Wales, many of the pupils' parents work in social care, and this has a major impact on their ambitions. Janis Griffiths, head of sociology and chief examiner for the subject, says around 40 per cent of her sixth form class want to go on to do social work and haven't been too influenced by negative press.
"Often it's because they've got a parent who's a social worker or who has done social work" she says. "But also, we live in an area of deprivation. We work in a school which has a massive ethos of caring for the community. It might be that it's a school-based difference, part of our ethos, rather than anything else. We're very supportive of their volunteering and they're encouraged to do things."
In an attempt to improve the image of the profession and encourage people to pursue it as a career, the Government has launched a marketing campaign, entitled Help Give Them a Voice, which has the endorsement of celebrities such as actresses Samantha Morton and Sadie Frost and DJ Goldie. Take a Break, the women's weekly magazine, is also running a Thank God for Social Workers campaign as a way of changing public opinion.
Improving its image and getting young people interested early is one way of tackling the problems within the profession. But many more social workers are needed if they are to share the workload and increase the level of care they provide.
It will take some time before the public forgets the high-profile incidents of neglect at the hands of some social workers, and possibly before young people consider it as a fulfilling career.
THE `SOCIAL CARE' DIPLOMA
The curriculum for the new Society, Health and Development diploma will focus on six main areas, while higher and advanced diplomas will cover the same subjects but in more detail.
- The sectors in context: Focuses on the political, social and economic factors that affect the four sectors today.
- Principles and values in practice: The values and principles that underpin and inform the practice of everyone across the sectors. It puts the person using the service at the centre of provision
- Partnership working: New work practices mean that services work more closely together to ensure the quality, greater flexibility and more efficient use of resources for service provision and support.
- Communication and information sharing: Good communication is crucial to people working across the sectors.
- Personal and professional development in the work environment: Being able to reflect on own practice is a critical aspect - what did you do well, what can be improved, how can you improve your practice?
- Safeguarding and protecting individuals and society: People are often working with the most vulnerable people in society. It is important to understand what needs to be done to ensure that people are kept safe.