Jane Fenton wonders whether we need to consider more emphasis on logic, analysis, problem solving and a framework for critical reasoning as a core and systematic theme within social work education.

Dr Jane Fenton

Are social workers like wine - better with maturity?

I know that's a controversial question with which to open an article, but please bear with me as I share some of my thoughts and ideas, and understand that I am only opening up an area for discussion and debate. I remember as a practice teacher in criminal justice, getting my first 18 year old student, and being full of pre-judgement and doubt. How would she have the life experience to deal with some of the people who came through our doors, with unimaginably grim and chaotic lives? As it turned out, however, I was amazed by the student's insight, sensitivity, motivation and intelligence. She was fantastic and, once qualified, became a permanent and valuable member of staff. In over eleven years here at the university of Dundee I have also worked with many young students whom I am proud to see walk across the Caird Hall stage on graduation day.

All of the above notwithstanding, I do have concerns about the ability of some of our younger students on our social work programmes, and younger workers in the field. This concern grew from an unexpected finding from my PhD research which I undertook with 100 criminal justice social workers across Scotland in 2012. I was looking at the experience of 'ethical stress' - a type of stress generated when people want to, but cannot, base their actions on their values (Fenton, 2015) - and unexpectedly found that ethical stress was significantly correlated with both the age and experience of the social workers in the sample. In essence, younger social workers were less troubled by neoliberal and managerial restrictions on practice and felt less strongly about, for example, the dominance of risk discourses and 'tools' and the downgrading of welfare and relationship-based work (Fenton, 2014). I suggested that this might be due to younger workers (and students?) being steeped in nearly forty years of neoliberal hegemony. What other way is there to think about practice? Older workers, who may have experienced an alternative 'welfare' or social democratic paradigm for social work, have different frameworks for understanding service users' problems, and for thinking about intervention and help. Younger workers appeared more inclined to accept uncritically the 'moralising self-sufficiency discourse' (Marston, 2013, p132 ) which is an essential element of neoliberal thinking; that people make their own success or failure and are therefore individually completely responsible for that. Structural disadvantage, economic oppression and deprived circumstances make little difference and are, in fact, simply excuses. The uncritical acceptance of this neoliberal view means that the task of social work becomes one of condemning rather than understanding, correcting behaviour and coercing people into pulling their socks up (as promoted by Conservative ministers Major (1993) and Gove (2013) for example).

Looking at the literature in this area, there appears to be an emerging body of research which might add validity to my research finding. For example, Lafrance, Gray and Herbert (2004) found that practice educators expressed concern that students did not consider that social conditions or deprivation impacted on service users' lives, and Woodward and Mackay (2012) found that year one social work students had problems applying social justice values and that this persisted into year three. Norstrand (2017) found that practice educators in Norway were quite vocal in their criticisms of younger students who they described as lacking humility and understanding service users' problems in a reductionist and simplified way.

To further my own understanding of the issue, I undertook a statistical analysis of three years' worth of assessment marks on my own first year module, which is directly concerned with exposing, challenging and analysing the neoliberal hegemony and its effects on people. I found that there was, again, a significant correlation between age and marks, with older students being significantly more able to think in this way. I also undertook a comparison analysis with another, non-political module from the same year over the same time period, and also found a significant, although less stark, correlation between marks and age (Fenton, forthcoming, 2018).

What should we make of this? The younger students who do well appear to have a hunger and motivation for learning, demonstrated by their engagement in classes and in reading, and by an outward focus when it comes to thinking about society. Conversely, a political understanding that is about the self in terms of individual identity (Lilla, 2017) and Thomson's p-level of understanding discrimination (Thompson, 2001) appears to be the arena to which some students confine their thinking and understanding.

Just to add weight to the concern I have attempted to condense into this piece, I want to consider a recent and very worrying article by Sheppard et al (2018). The authors studied twelve social work programmes in England and Wales and measured graduands' interpersonal and critical thinking skills in order to compare them to a normative sample of the UK population. They found that social work students scored higher on compassion and warmth, but less on assertiveness (interpersonal skills). However, they also found that students scored highly significantly less than the UK population sample on critical thinking skills! This means that our almost-qualified social workers are much poorer at critical thinking than the UK average - a horrifying finding. Furthermore, when the researchers compared undergraduate and masters' programmes, they found that there were significant differences between the two with the masters students doing significantly better (but still below the UK average). This means however, that the undergraduate results were extremely poor compared to the UK average, with a quarter of the sample as a whole scoring less than chance! It can, perhaps, be assumed that there were also age differences between the masters and undergraduate samples, but this is not explicitly analysed in the article... suffice to say, however, that there is something going on here that we, as social work educators, really need to think about.

In conclusion, Sheppard et al (2018) suggest that if these critical thinking skills are pre-dispositional, we should look at testing them at the application stage of social work programmes. However, if they can be learned, we need to consider more emphasis on logic, analysis, problem solving and a framework for critical reasoning as a core and systematic theme within social work education. We also, perhaps, need to assess this in a more rigorous way - in both the academic and the practice setting. Food for thought indeed.


Fenton, J (2015) An Analysis of 'Ethical Stress' in Criminal Justice Social Work in Scotland: The Place of Values, British journal of Social Work, 45 (5): 1415-1432

Fenton, J (2014), 'Can social work education meet the neoliberal challenge head on?', Critical and Radical Social Work, 2 (3) 321-335

Fenton, J (2018) Putting old heads on young shoulders. Social work education: the international journal (forthcoming)

Lafrance, J., Gray, E., and Herbert, M. (2004) Gate-keeping for professional social work practice, Social Work Education: The International Journal, 23 (3) 325-340.

Lilla, M. (2017) The once and future liberal, London: Harper Colliins

Marston, G. (2013) Critical discourse analysis, in M. Gray and S. A. Webb (eds)The New Politics of Social Work (pp. 128-142). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Norstrand, M (2017) Practice supervisors' perceptions of social work students and their placements - an exploratory study in the Norwegian context, Social Work Education: the International Journal, 36(5) 481-494

Sheppard, M., Charles, M., Rees, P., Wheeler, M. and Williams, R (2018) Inter-personal and critical-thinking capabilities in those about to enter qualified social work: a six-centre study, British journal of social work, doi: 10.1093/bjsw/bcx143

Thompson, N. (2001) Anti-discriminatory Practice (3rd Ed.). Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan

Woodward, R. And Mackay, K. (2012) Mind the gap! Students' understanding and application of social work values, Social work education: the international journal, 31:8, 1090-1104

About the author:

Jane Fenton is a senior lecturer at the University of Dundee, where she has worked for approximately 12 years. Her research interests are motivated by her twelve years' experience in criminal justice social work, and her observation that social work values were being eroded as managerialism took hold. Subsequently, her research interests have evolved into the exploration of a wider disconnect between social work values and practice, particularly in regards to social justice. She publishes regularly on these topics.

Jane is a member of the Editorial Board of Social Work Education: the International Journal, a member of the Management Board of Critical and Radical Social Work and is a regular peer reviewer for several social work journals. She is the co-ordinator for the Dundee branch of the Social Work Action Network.

You can follow Jane on Twitter at @JaneFenton8


Next Month...

We're taking a break! Learning at Work Week takes place from 14th - 20th May and we're planning a series of articles on the theme of Networked for Learning - keep an eye on www.scopt.co.uk/laww.

ThursdayThunking will be back on Thursday 7th June with Jo Finch's 10 reasons to be a practice educator - www.scopt.co.uk/thunking


  1. Sue Downie says:

    What an interesting article, and findings from your PhD. This does very much chime with my own experience as a PT of almost 30 years experience, where I find both students (and a number of practitioners) using language such a ‘lifestyle choices’ without any reflection on the wider issues/ discrimination affecting clients’ behaviours or decisions – even whilst (academically) having an understanding of (eg) Thompson’s PCS model. Your phrase ‘moralising self-sufficiency discourse’ sums this up very well!
    I wonder however of this lack of awareness/ comprehension of structural discrimination is the same as the lack of critical thinking that you refer to later on in the article? It would perhaps to interesting to look further as whether there is a positive correlation between these two ‘gaps’ in skills/ aptitudes – eg are they aspects of the same concept? and if so, would identification of such a relationship help inform teaching strategies to address.

    • Jane Fenton says:

      Hi Sue and thanks for your reply! Glad you found the piece interesting. I think your raise an excellent point about critical thinking being absolutely necessary for the deconstruction of neoliberal hegemony. I completely agree that not doing well on that deconstruction (or, as you say ‘comprehension of structural discrimination’) is actually a symptom of underlying poor critical thinking skill. It just seems so easy to adopt reductionist causal thinking: lifestyle choice = problems; or bad behavior = problems; rather than understand less causal, more indirect influences such as economic inequality. So, yes, I agree with you – teaching needs to be better at addressing that ‘logic gap’ or critical thinking or whatever. We espouse critical thinking as essential to social work, and so we need to do something about the emerging picture of social work graduates as lacking in that ability. Sheppard et al suggest more explicit focus on logic/problem solving/deconstructing assumptions/etc. but also do raise the next thorny issue that if critical thinking is pre-dispositional, then we should maybe look again at entry requirements/process. What do you think?

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