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Editorial: A Teach First for social work

Those who go into social work are by definition deeply committed altruists

Social work is unlike working in a shop or an office, or editing a newspaper. If a social worker makes a bad mistake, people's lives can be at stake. Social workers have to be consistently good at what they do. A difficult job at any time, but even more so when popular anxiety about child protection is running high. We are in such a period now, because of the revelations about Jimmy Savile's sexual interest in underage girls.

So this newspaper admires social workers and recognises that most of those who go into the profession are by definition deeply committed altruists. It is because we think social work is so important that The Independent on Sunday has campaigned for the equivalent of a Teach First scheme to raise the status of children's social work and to encourage more exceptional people to go into it.

Teach First has been stunningly successful in recruiting some of the best graduates into teaching in some of the most challenging schools. Like social work, teaching in underperforming schools was plagued with vacancies and low morale. The features of the scheme that make it work are that it is run by an independent charity, it is structured as temporary, two‑year placements (although many Teach Firsters stay on) and it pays well. They can all be replicated for social work, as we argued in a leading article two years ago.

We are delighted, therefore, that Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, last week asked Josh MacAlister, a Teach First alumnus who has worked on the idea at the Institute for Public Policy Research, to produce a business model for such a scheme.

We are not suggesting that only graduates with top degrees from Russell Group universities would make good social workers. There is no reason why social work should be a graduate-only profession: it should cast its recruitment net as widely as possible. But it needs good graduates too.

The danger in the present outrage over Savile is that the Government will be tempted to respond by tightening up rules and issuing new guidelines. Those offer the easy satisfaction of demands that "something must be done". But it is more important that fundamental change is driven through with imagination, speed and real reforming zeal. In the end, there can be no substitute for having more able people, with the confidence to use their ability, in the social work profession.

A Teach First for social work – Mr MacAlister calls it Frontline – is something that Mr Gove should be doing anyway, and it is something with which he should press on after the Savile hue and cry has died down. But the headlines offer a chance to make the case while the public is listening and a light is being shone on a neglected area of public service.

The brilliance of Frontline is that, like Teach First, it aims to capitalise on the idealism of young people who may not have decided on a career and who want to make a practical difference to children who have had a difficult start in life. Thus it could focus limited resources on where they can do most to attract able people into children's social work.

There are few responsibilities that the state bears that are as important as child protection. And there are not many jobs in Britain in which someone could make such a huge difference to people's lives, to protect them and to set them free. Teaching is one; children's social work is another. Let us make that difference.