Social work students have enjoyed the benefits of high-quality
learning during practice placements for years. But new developments
and policy statements indicate that practice teaching is
At first glance, the new social work degree takes positive steps
forward particularly, many would argue, in its firm emphasis on
practice learning. These include:
- The establishment of a practice learning task force to increase
practice learning opportunities and numbers of “practice assessors”
by 50 per cent by December 2004.
- The move from 130 to 200 days on placement in the
- Practice learning becoming from 2004-5 one of the 50
performance indicators by which social services departments are
assessed by the government.
- An assessed preparation for placement and “final assessment”
made by a “qualified and experienced social worker”.
It seems there is a positive promotion of the concept. However,
neither the Department of Health’s Requirements for Social Work
Training1 nor the General Social Care Council’s
Statement of Commitment2 makes reference to
“practice teachers” or “practice teaching”. It is as if the words
are being erased. What we find is the birth of a new phrase,
The GSCC has also published guidance on the “work-based assessor”,
further promoting the new title. It divides good practice into
three key domains, none of which includes a reference to “practice
teaching” or “teaching” as an activity. Surely such terminology
undermines the quality of the process and management of learning
opportunities in the field. If we all become assessors who does the
Academics are not able to deliver the pragmatics of how to do the
job, let alone provide the depth of understanding and critical
awareness that underpins everyday practice. Students who are
disadvantaged in this way will undoubtedly present costs to their
future employers unless we can be sure that standards of quality
are maintained under the new arrangements. Practice assessors will
be responsible for teaching, and this should be acknowledged.
Under the new social work degree, the responsibility for the
quality assurance of practice learning lies within the academic
institution. Each social work programme will be responsible for the
auditing, allocation and quality of placements. This may place
insufficient emphasis on the external verification of quality,
leaving individual institutions to arrive at their own arrangements
about what constitutes a placement, appropriate learning
opportunities and a “practice assessor”.
Academic institutions are likely to be guided by the Quality
Assurance Agency for Higher Education’s code of practice for
placement learning,3 which most of those involved in
social work education would recognise as a lower level quality
This is of particular concern because of the truism that quality
costs. The GSCC’s limited role with regard to the quality of
placements and practice teachers leaves considerable scope for some
pressured academic institutions to develop low-cost, low-quality
models – perhaps in a rush to find a short cut to more
It is a matter of concern that many permutations of “practice
learning” are being arrived at in the new degree – and some of them
may bear little resemblance to the structures and quality levels
that we have come to expect.
Furthermore, it appears that practice teaching programmes (PTPs)
are under threat from some quarters, which see them as having
failed to deliver adequate numbers of qualified practice teachers
into the workplace. As a result, the funding and future of such
programmes are uncertain. This argument appears wrong and
over-simplified; it ignores the responsibility of social services
departments for releasing staff for such courses, while the DoH’s
promotion of the post-qualifying (PQ) award in child care has also
inevitably poached practice teachers and prevented them providing
placements for Diploma in Social Work programmes.
There are also some suggestions that a five-day programme –
currently the duration of an introductory course – will be enough
for all needs. The National Organisation for Practice Teaching
(NOPT) says the practice teaching award has many strengths and
provides a platform on which to build rather than to reject. This
is not to say that change cannot be embraced. PTPs should develop
modularised, multi-disciplinary ways forward but they must be
adequately funded and rooted within a framework of continuing
professional development for social work as a whole.
The NOPT has produced guidance on the baselines that should be held
within any new structures on the future of practice learning. In
relation to practice assessors, the NOPT argues that they should
have an understanding and ability in relation to:
- Social work values and anti-oppressive practice.
- Adult learning and teaching.
- Social work theories, methods and skills.
- Reflective and critical practice.
- Student assessment.
- Management of the students’ learning experience.
The demonstration of such vital and important attributes needs
to be located within two important frameworks: one of continual
professional development at different levels, and one of
professional and academic qualification.
New practice assessor programmes of training and awards should be
developed for work-based supervisors, and both new and experienced
practice assessors. Such programmes might take the form of short
introductory courses, five-day intermediate courses and a generic,
multi-professional or multi-disciplinary modularised award, which
should be explicitly accredited with PQ and academic credits. The
profession should retain a national award structure for this key
area of its practice.
Practice teachers, social services departments, voluntary sector
social care agencies and social work programmes have a
responsibility to engage with these developments and ensure that
quality is upheld in how practice learning is developed for the new
social work degree.
There are many reasons to be optimistic about the new degree and
the future of practice learning – or whatever it ends up being
called. But we must not stand by and, through inaction, allow the
quality of practice learning to be compromised.
We risk a situation where social work students join agencies with
insufficient training and professional development. Beyond them,
the future of the profession is similarly compromised if we allow
the scope for change in the new degree to be an excuse to cut costs
and lower quality. Is that what users and carers would want?
Aidan Worsley is co-chairperson, National Organisation for
Practice Teaching, and principal lecturer, applied community
studies department, Manchester Metropolitan
1 Department of Health, The
Requirements for Social Work Training, 2002. Go to
2 General Social Care Council,
Statement of Commitment, 2002. Go to www.gscc.org.uk/pdf/statement_of_commitment.doc
3 Quality Assurance Agency for
Higher Education, Code of Practice for the Assurance of Academic
Quality and Standards in Higher Education: Placement Learning,
2001. Go to
GSCC, Codes of Conduct for Social Care Workers and