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Summer Institute Week 5: Social work education – A marathon not a sprint

The final week at the Frontline Summer institute is always my favourite. It’s a time for reflecting back, a time for endings, and for looking forwards to the future. It’s also a reminder that although much has been learnt there is still much more to be curious about, experience, and further skills to be gained.

The past five weeks have seen participants begin their social work education and over the next year they will start to put what they have learnt into practice. Throughout this time we have been helping participants to understand the key ideas taught on the programme: systemic social work, motivational interviewing, parenting interventions and practice leadership combined with an understanding of the law, discrimination inequality and the importance of social work ethics.

This is a lot for participants to get their heads around, and many have found it demanding. We have made no apology about this. There is certainly much to learn, but a good grounding is essential for practice.

Last year I wrote, at this time, that social work education is about education for the head and the heart. But what I was reminded of in the last week was that good social work education should be transformational. This was because of two things. Firstly, we were joined by participants from the 2015 Cohort who are about to qualify and begin their second year on the Frontline Programme. One of them said that:

“This has been the best year of my life, I think we have all grown and changed so much in the last year both personally and professionally.”

This was not surprising to hear and will resonate with many social work students qualifying across the country. Social work education changes you, it makes you really think, and challenges previously held beliefs and prejudices.
Secondly, we were joined by Experts by Experience. Having co-taught much of the Summer Institute, they returned for the last week when we strive to pull all the educational threads together. Their input has been invaluable in helping participants to understand the lived experience of those we work with.

The final exercise of the last day was led by young people from Central Bedfordshire’s Children in Care Council, who challenged participants to make a pledge to the young people they will be working with in Local Authorities across the country. Participants wrote down their promises and took them away with them, making a commitment to hold to them in their practice even when the bureaucratic nature of social work practice threatens the focus on the child.

This time next year our 2016 Cohort will return to the Summer Institute changed by the first year on the Frontline Programme both personally and professionally. They will continue to learn and grow through their practice. When they return we will remind them of their promises to young people. We will challenge them to consider whether they have been able to keep to this commitment, and how this has positively impacted on their practice. We will then begin to know whether their social work education has led to transformational social work practice.

Social work education and practice is indeed a marathon not a sprint; we are all constantly learning and developing.  As long as we remain focussed on strong social work ethics, are committed to our values, and retain an understanding of the context which so many of the people we work with face, social work education and practice can be truly transformational.