Graduates on a new fast-track scheme for trainee social workers will help manage caseloads after just five weeks of intensive training.
The “Frontline” scheme aims to attract top graduates into the profession.
Government funding for a pilot for 100 trainees has been announced by Education Secretary Michael Gove.
The British Association of Social Workers has voiced concern that the timescale will not prepare the trainees adequately for safe practice.
The new scheme follows high-profile cases such as Victoria Climbie and baby Peter Connelly when social workers failed to spot signs of abuse. It has cross-party support. Improving the standing and performance of social workers has been a goal for successive governments.
The pilots, in London and Manchester, will begin in September 2014.
After a five-week residential summer school at a leading university, students will go straight into hands-on work in a local authority for the next two years, along with further university-based study.
They will qualify as social workers at the end of the first year with the chance to do a masters degree in the second year.
Trainees will be paid on the job and will earn the same as a qualified social worker after their first year. The scheme promises intensive leadership training.
Josh MacAlister, chief executive of Frontline, said the two years of placements would be run along similar lines to the clinical training of hospital doctors when they first go on the wards. Small teams of trainees will help manage caseloads, heavily supervised by senior social workers.
The Frontline scheme aims to “bring the best people into one of Britain’s toughest jobs”, said Mr MacAlister.
He added that it would be “totally focused on recruiting and developing outstanding social workers to lead change for disadvantaged children”.
Some local authorities say the new scheme is needed.
Andrew Christie who runs children’s services in three London boroughs said: “We don’t have enough social workers arriving in the workplace who are properly qualified and fit to practise. We are reliant on higher education courses which have not moved with the times and are not able to provide students with the right practical experience or give them the right kind of skillset they need in the job.”
Cllr Dora Dixon Fyle of London Borough of Southwark said it was time to challenge “the traditional perception of this underrated profession.
“This isn’t about saying what was done in the past was wrong but recognises that we must be progressive and consider how things can be done differently.”
However Harry Ferguson, professor of social work at Nottingham University, defended existing social work training.
“My research into day-to-day practice shows that social workers already do exceptional work in often bewilderingly complex cases. These great practitioners have come off the very courses that some people are arguing have failed to produce graduates fit enough to do the work.
“A key reason why these social workers are so effective is that they have been given the time in university to develop by acquiring the theory, skills and self-knowledge that are essential to working effectively with children and families.”
Bridget Robb of the British Association of Social Workers said that while Frontline offered the potential to attract new talent into the profession, she was worried about trainees going straight into hands-on work after only five weeks of training.
There continue to be enormous challenges in the proposed timescale to prepare people with sufficient academic and practical experience for safe practice.”
She added that the workload and conditions of social workers had to change so that skilled staff remained in the profession: “We cannot go on ignoring social workers when they speak of excessive caseloads and paperwork – and no time to see the service users including children – or resources to help families.”
In another move to strengthen social work the government has announced that Isabelle Trowler who reformed children’s services in the London Borough of Hackney, has been appointed England’s first Chief Social Worker.
Ms Trowler who will take up her post later this year said: “I know the best social work can transform lives but too often we only hear about the things that go wrong.”
She said her new job was a chance to “champion social work as well as challenge the profession, its employers and educators too, to deliver the very best for families”.
Mr Gove said: “Good social workers literally save lives; the bad can leave them in ruins. I am delighted that Isabelle Trowler has agreed to lead our reform programme; to challenge as well as to champion the profession so that vulnerable children and families are better protected.”
“I am also very pleased to announce our support for Frontline, an exciting proposal and a real challenge for the brightest applicants who will have the privilege and satisfaction of helping improve the lives of the most vulnerable children in the country.”
Shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg said the scheme had his full support, calling it “an exciting opportunity that could play a major role in reforming children’s social work”.
“Getting great people into one of Britain’s toughest jobs to lead change with children and families is one of our top priorities.”