The new social work degree’s focus on practice learning has been
welcomed, but some practitioners doubt whether younger students are
what is needed. Sally Gillen reports.
Practice makes perfect. Or at least that is what the department
of health seems to be banking on with its new social work degree.
The curriculum, which was unveiled at the end of last month,
emphasises the practical nature of social work.
In a foreword to the guidance, health minister Jacqui Smith
says: “This is not a tinkering at the edges of social work
training. This is a major shift in the expectations of those
providing the training and those undertaking it.” The emphasis on
practice learning is at the heart of these changes
Those applying to do the three-year course, which will replace
the two-year DipSW from September 2003, will spend at least 200
days in practice learning environments in a range of settings – an
increase of 70 days from the diploma.
Co-chairperson of the National Organisation of Practice Teachers
Konnie Lloyd welcomes the increase in practice teaching days, and
believes the degree is likely to attract more younger entrants. The
average age of a DipSW student is 32. But Lloyd has concerns that
18-20 year olds will be less likely to be able to bring “life
experience” to the job.
Lloyd also concedes that the shortage of practice teachers that
blights social work training may make fulfilling the 200 days’
placement practice requirement of the degree course problematic.
The lack of financial reward and the pressure that social workers
operate under means few are willing to take on the additional work
involved in being a practice teacher. Practice teaching has been
“very much a secondary feature” to the work of a social services
department, Lloyd explains.
The government has recognised the current problems with practice
teaching and is to commission a review into it, the outcome of
which will be published in the autumn. It will also fund – for two
years – nine posts that will aim to change the culture of practice
Lloyd predicts difficulties in the early stages, but is adamant
that the government has adopted a “constructive and
forward-thinking” approach to tackling the practice placement
The extra days should help to prepare young people for a job in
social work but they must also have the support. “Employers often
want someone who can get on with the job and if there are enormous
pressures they will not always get the support they should,” Lloyd
Andrea Rowe, chief executive of Training Organisation for
Personal Social Services England, believes that the occupational
standards drawn up by the organisation as part of the degree
emphasise the responsibility individual social workers must take
for their own work and self-development. Increasingly, says Rowe,
social workers are moving into work environments where they are
being called upon to be accountable for their own practice. She
offers the example of approved social workers, who do not have any
But there appears to be a potential problem with expecting a
20-year-old, in their first job, to have the professional expertise
and maturity to exercise such self-management. Rowe accepts this
point, and adds that it is the responsibility of the employer to
support newly qualified staff.
More also needs to be done to make social work a career
profession. Rowe says the work lacks the opportunities for career
progression that other professions offer. Money is also a factor,
but other incentives could be used, such as company cars and credit
Belinda Adams, a senior consultant at the Employers’
Organisation, is hopeful that the degree will have an impact on the
recruitment and retention crisis by increasing the professionalism
of the work.
Initial fears that a full-time degree would deter applications
from mature students, many of whom have families, also look to be
unfounded. Like the DipSW, access to the degree will be via a
number of routes, including part-time and distance-learning
The General Social Care Council will be responsible for
accrediting universities that apply to deliver the social work
degree, but responsibility for accrediting and assessing the course
itself will be left to the university.
The GSCC also has inspection powers and statutory powers to
intervene and remove accreditation, which may be used if there are
complaints about the quality of the course offered. Students and
members of the Quality Assurance Agency, which checks the course is
meeting requirements, are among those who might make a
All of the 78 organisations that deliver the DipSW have
expressed an interest in taking on the degree, and the GSCC plans
to use Universities UK, an organisation that acts on behalf of
university vice chancellors, to promote the existence of the degree
to other universities.
At the beginning of the month, the GSCC released the
accreditation document for universities. Courses will be phased in
at universities around the country over two years. Details of
funding for students will be released next May but it is
anticipated that financial incentives such as bursaries may be
offered to encourage take-up of the course.
The department of health has also introduced a handful of
compulsory minimum requirements for those who apply to complete the
new social work degree. Among them is the need for all potential
students to have C grade GCSEs in English and maths. Degree
providers must also demonstrate that all students undertake
specific learning and assessment in partnership working and
information sharing across professional disciplines and
Association of Directors of Social Services spokesperson for
human resources and training Bill McKitterick is pleased to see the
inclusion of basic literacy and numeracy skills as part of the
degree’s entry requirements and does not believe that it will be a
barrier to those wanting to do a degree in social work.
McKitterick argues: “As employers, we have a reasonable
expectation that people who have completed a DipSW, which is
two-thirds of a degree, do have a good level of literacy.
But it has not always been the case for some courses,” he adds.
Such were the problems in Bristol that the council decided to
introduce a basic literacy test as part of its selection
McKitterick is also happy that greater emphasis has been given
to partnership working, describing it as “confirmation of how we
work now”. It recognises that social workers “work every day with a
wide mix of professionals and that is one of the complexities of
the job”, he adds.
His only concern is that, while the additional practice
placement days will be helpful in giving students a better idea of
what their job will involve, the academic aspect of the degree
McKitterick dismisses the argument often levelled at the DipSW
that it is too theoretical. “The student needs a solid knowledge of
what causes social problems but also knowledge of what social
methods work in tackling them,” he explains. With the new degree,
social work students should hopefully have the best of both worlds
and receive a rounded training.
For more details of social work degree go to www.doh.gov.uk/swqualification/
Core competences in the new degree
Key role 1: Prepare for and work with individuals, families,
carers, groups and communities to assess their needs and
Key role 2: Plan, carry out, review and evaluate social work
practice, with individuals families, carers’ groups and communities
and other professionals.
Key role 3: Support individuals to represent their needs, views
Key role 4: Manage risk to individuals, families, carers groups
Key role 5: Manage and be accountable, with supervision and
support, for your own social work practice within your
Key role 6: Demonstrate professional competence in social work