The third-year student
Liz Hughes, 23, is looking forward to graduating with a BSc in social work from Southampton University this summer. Having worked in social care for three years with disabled children she felt the only way she could progress her career was to complete a social work degree. “I always wanted a degree because of the status – it takes you up to the same level as professionals like physios and teachers.”
Over the three years of her degree Hughes has found it “a bit up and down” and thinks this was because it was a new course and the university was trying out different approaches and not all of them worked. “For example we had to produce portfolios of evidence of our learning and it felt like it was rather thrown together at the end of the course.”
One of Hughes’s practice learning placements stood out as particularly helpful. She spent a week with a multi-disciplinary team and found out about the variety of professionals social workers come into contact with. “I learned about other people’s roles and
improved my communication skills. Before doing the degree I had no experience of working with them so this gave me a taster and I got to understand how inter-professional teams work.”
Having to complete 200 days’ practice learning in several settings meant that Hughes developed a deeper understanding of the social worker’s role. “Everything is so idealistic in lectures but when you get out into the field you see what it is really like. It was good to compare voluntary and statutory working environments.”
The toughest part of the course for Hughes was completing the academic workload, especially during her placements. Her practice learning ran from 8.30am until 5pm for five days a week and her weekends were taken up with writing essays.
She believes social work degree courses would do well to inform students earlier of the essays they are required to write.“It would have been better if I’d been given the essay deadlines at the start of the academic year so I could have gathered resources earlier.”
The senior lecturer
Trish Hafford-Letchfield teaches the BA and MSc in social work at London’s South Bank University. She has been a lecturer at South Bank for more than three years, having joined to establish the social work degree course after a social work career spanning 21 years.
So how has the degree panned out? “It’s been absolutely amazing. We have four applicants for every place and we have seen a 55 per cent increase in the number of students applying since the degree began.” South Bank offers full and part-time places on its social work degree and also runs a joint nursing and social work degree specialising in learning difficulties.
One of the most rewarding elements of teaching the degree has been the chance to focus on issues that Hafford-Letchfield feels passionate about. She specialises in adults, law, the management of organisations and disabilities. She says the fact that two of her colleagues divide their time between lecturing and front-line practice is a real strength. “It means we bring more current practice examples into teaching as well as developing our knowledge of local services and need.”
Hafford-Letchfield also acts as personal tutor to 25 students across the first, second and third years, holding tutorials,
supporting them during their dissertations and visiting them on their practice learning placements.
She says this latter element has been particularly rewarding for her. South Bank, like other educational establishments, must provide social work degree students with 200 days of practice learning over three different placements (instead of the 130 days in two different placements the DipSW required). Hafford-Letchfield says this increase has meant South Bank has had to be innovative in finding suitable placements.
Over the past three years some students have had placements in primary schools, prisons and charities includingVictim Support. “I really enjoy talking to professionals out there because you get a fantastic overview of what is going on in the sector.”
One of the biggest challenges for Hafford-Letchfield – other than teaching students in large groups – is that students are often not prepared for the rigours of a degree level course. “If people have been working in social care beforehand it can be a challenge,” she says, adding that she would like more preparation to help students develop study skills such as how to research and write in an analytical way.
The first-year student
Dean Craddock, 32, already has a degree in sociology and social policy and is a qualified psychiatric nurse. He has just finished the first year of a BA Honours in social work at the University of Wolverhampton.
Craddock decided to gain a degree in social work because he had had a lot of contact with social workers after qualifying to be a psychiatric nurse and working with adults with mental health difficulties. “I always thought social workers took a more holistic approach to people and that inspired me.”
Despite his experience of multidisciplinary meetings and familiarity with social work in practice, Craddock has been surprised at what he is being taught. “This course has opened my eyes to how they really work. I saw social workers as agents of change, someone
who could effect big change, but the university and the tutors have made it clear that things aren’t like that anymore.”
He adds that in one class he attended the tutor warned that once they graduated they would spend 85 per cent of their time in the office. “I was disappointed when I heard that. I didn’t expect it because I thought social workers could forge change.”
So is he enjoying his degree? “As it’s been such a shock and an eye opener to me ‘enjoy’ is a strong word to use. All of us students are pulling together because it’s an intensive course and a lot is expected of us so that is good. I am having to change my thinking about what is possible and what can be done.”
He would also appreciate being given more time to debate issues and theories with his classmates instead of being taught and then having to research additional information for himself. Would he recommend obtaining a social work degree to others? Yes, he says, but he advises would-be students to first gain a more realistic understanding of what the role of a social worker entails.