In a practical discipline like social work, practice placements are hugely important. Students, otherwise immersed in their books and theories, find out what life is like on the front line where those client case studies leap off the pages into the real world. Sometimes they are disillusioned by the experience, seeing it as too demanding or out of keeping with their expectations.
But most of the time they are inspired by it, going back to college with renewed enthusiasm for their chosen career. That is why the General Social Care Council was right to insist on 200 days of assessed work experience as part of the social work degree. It is also why its new limits on travel costs are so bizarre. After an all too brief flirtation with repaying students’ actual travel costs to placements, the GSCC has now decided to introduce a flat rate of £575 annually. This may meet the expenses of most students, but a significant minority will lose out.
The GSCC claims that its calculations were fair; however, it is not hard to see that its sums were influenced by Department of Health bureaucrats. The flat rate is the second blow this year to English social work degree students, who also learned that they would have to pay variable tuition fees and were therefore likely to finish their courses with additional debts of 9,000.
It is ironic that these new money worries come now that the useful work of the Practice Learning Task Force is over. The gentle encouragement of the task force and the iron rod of performance indicators have combined to improve practice learning opportunities considerably over the past three years, though practice teachers still have a hard time meeting the needs of
students. Where the most successful placements are concerned, the benefits are clear: students who understand what employers want from them, social work teams enlivened by the creative energy of their temporary recruits.
As the professional standing of social work has improved, so have intakes on social work degree courses. The GSCC and the Department of Health deserve credit for these achievements. But there is still a shortage of good social workers and now is not the time to put obstacles in the way of anyone who aspires to join the profession.