“Warm words but no action” on English social work bursaries

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The Minister for Care has responded to the hundreds of social work students and recent graduates who recently joined a call to reform bursaries across England.

An “open letter” to the UK Secretaries of State for Health and Education set out arguments for an end to the unique nature of hardships social work students face.

In response, Helen Whately MP, a Minister at the Department for Health & Social Care who shares responsibility for social work training with the Department for Education, said: 

“I can assure you that both departments are committed to support the profession and those aspiring to enter the profession.”

However, John McGowan General Secretary of the Social Workers Union which has supported the students in the campaign, commented:

“The Minister’s warm words sadly contained no promise to change the unfair bursaries system in England. We have already seen Welsh and Scottish governments take notice of the unique challenges social work students face and we had hoped the Minister would promise to look into the issue.

“Sadly, neither the Government, nor the Labour front bench, have agreed to meet with the students to discuss the issues they face.”

Students on social work courses often complete front-line work as part of their courses, helping the most vulnerable in society. This means many social work students face unique levels of financial hardship as they are unable to work part-time while completing their studies.

Student bursaries for social workers in England are unequally distributed and limited in number. Where bursaries are available, the funding for them has been frozen for over eight years resulting in a real-terms cut in support for many students and the numbers of placements capped.

Joe Hanley, a Lecturer at the Open University, commented:

“There is nothing new or substantive in this reply, and it essentially dismisses the voices and experiences of social work students who have had their financial support crippled by the government in recent years. 

“As is typical, the minister simply points to targeted funding of routes like fast-tracks and apprenticeships as a justification to ignore and disadvantage the vast majority of social work students who still qualify through mainstream university programmes and are increasingly struggling. At a time of rapidly rising vacancy rates, caused by her government’s policy and neglect of the workforce, this is unacceptable.”

The campaign is being coordinated by the Social Workers Union and British Association of Social Workers following representations from students affected by the issue. The organisations have already written to Labour policy makers to ask for their support for reform and have been met with silence from shadow ministers.

Rebekah Pierre, BASW England Professional Officer commented:

“Despite acknowledgement from the Government that students are facing challenges with the cost-of-living crisis, it is disappointing that there is no commitment to making the student bursaries system any fairer. 

“With an ongoing recruitment and retention crisis in social work, we urge the Government to rethink their position and commit to supporting every student that wishes to pursue a career in social work.”