The brightest graduates are to be encouraged to train to be mental health social workers amid warnings that councils are unable to cope in the under-resourced sector.
A report by the IPPR think-tank – published to coincide with the launch this week of Think Ahead, a new fast-track programme modelled on Teach First – finds that half of local authorities are struggling to recruit high-quality adult social workers.
Just 10 Oxbridge graduates studied for a social work master's degree in 2011-12, compared with 10 per cent of the entire cohort applying for Teach First, the successful graduate teacher training programme. Despite the high skills required and difficulty of adult social work, very few top-flight students regard it as a prestigious job, the IPPR report says.
Think Ahead will be launched by the IPPR and Norman Lamb, Care minister, who developed the idea after reading an article on the success of Teach First by Lord Adonis.
Mr Lamb said last night he was "very enthusiastic" about Think Ahead. "We are looking for people who can commit to do something to make a difference to young people with mental health problems, particularly people in their late teens and early twenties," he said.
The IPPR research shows that nearly 50 per cent of local authorities have problems recruiting high-quality adult social workers.
The Think Ahead scheme will run as a social enterprise and operate rigorous two-year courses, starting in September 2015, for the "best and brightest" who could bring leadership to the profession. The board of the social enterprise will include Paul Farmer, the chief executive of Mind, and Dame Carol Black, the chairman of the Nuffield Trust and an adviser to the Government on health and social work. Mr Lamb also consulted Alastair Campbell, who has written extensively about his personal struggle with depression, on creating the programme.
The new IPPR report says that "more than 90 per cent of directors of adult social services believe more needs to be done to attract the highest possible quality candidates into the social work profession". Directors believe many job applicants lack analytical ability and intellectual capacity, awareness of evidence, practical experience of social work, and leadership skills.
Demand for adult social workers is high: a third of all families includes someone who is mentally ill, while one in four people will experience a mental health problem during their lifetime. In 2010, more than 1.25 million people used specialist NHS mental health services.
The two-year course includes one year of on-the-job training. People who complete the full programme will receive a postgraduate diploma and a master's degree in social work, emerging as fully qualified social workers.
Jonathan Clifton, senior research fellow at IPPR, said: "As the number of people diagnosed with mental ill-health increases, there is a moral imperative to develop effective services that can support each of them.
"Too many people can be let down when things go wrong, causing distress and putting vulnerable people at risk. A fast-track programme like Think Ahead could be one step on the journey towards changing this."