Travelling to practice placements is pushing social work students further into debt

The cost of travelling to practice placements can run into thousands of pounds, particularly for students in rural areas. But the General Social Care Council has capped expense payments. Louise Tickle reports

If you’re a social work student, it is to be hoped you’ve got an excellent credit rating, don’t mind going a few grand more into debt and can pull in your belt a few notches. And if you intend to embark on a social work degree next September – and
you’ve got your head screwed on – you’ll apply for a course in a city with good public transport links.

This is the pithy advice condensed from numerous interviews with social work academics and students alike. It follows on from the cap on travel expenses for the Practice Learning Opportunity scheme that has just been imposed by the General Social Care Council, which administers Department of Health-funded bursaries for students on the social work degree course.

The cap is hitting those studying in rural areas the hardest as they have to travel long distances to their placements.

Until this year the maximum sum available from the DH to cover travel costs was £500. However, practice students from
the 2004-5 and 2005-6 academic years who incurred costs in excess of this were reimbursed by the GSCC as long as they submitted receipts and mileage logs. That has now changed. Every social work student now receives a flat contribution of £575 that is built into the bursary basic grant. The amount takes no account of the distances students have to travel to their practice placements, even though they are a required element of their professional social work qualification.

This is causing hardship, says Hannah Coles-Garbett, a second-year student on the Durham MA course. “The average is 60-65 miles a day. The worst case I’ve heard of is a student doing 100 miles a day, every day. I know students who are really struggling; since this has come in people are having to take on more loans.”

It also has the effect of making social work students feel second best before they even start their careers, she says.  People feel devalued, because you put so much hard work into your placement and it’s costing you to go and work. Plus a lot of the students have kids, and now they’re finding that all their money is going on petrol.”

Coles-Garbett has circulated a petition to 35 other universities and nearly all the students on her course have signed it. Her anger is directed not just at the cap, but at the way the new system was introduced. “Not to tell us about it till we were back at university is about the most underhand thing they could have done,” she says.

Bad timing
Her point is underlined by Fraser Shuttleworth, a third-year social work student at Oxford Brookes University. He says
many students agree placement arrangements with their providers well in advance and began their stints over the summer.

“It’s very sneaky of them to have made the decision so late and to send out the letter only in mid-August,” he says. “I’m furious about it. They should have informed everyone earlier so people could think about where they did their placement.

“When I agreed to the placement, the woman who was offering me the opportunity asked if I could drive and do visits. I said yes, because I thought we would get travel expenses reimbursed. It’s a 50-mile round trip to my placement, and then there are the visits. I only got the letter saying that the cap was coming in two weeks after I started, and clearly there was no opportunity to make any changes at that point.”

Until Community Care contacted him, Shuttleworth says he hadn’t dared work out the expenses he’s likely to incur. Now he has, he’s horrified: just travelling to his placement and back will cost £1,700. Including visits, that’s likely to rise to around £2,800.

One of his fellow students, Josephine Keegan, says there are some students who’ll be able to walk or cycle to their placement and will get to keep the £575. “How the GSCC figures it’s going to be saving money I don’t know, because they’ll be giving
hundreds to people who don’t need it, while there are others who can’t afford their transport costs.”

At York University’s department of social policy and social work, professor of social work Ian Shaw says he is angry about the effect the change is having on his students. Last month he wrote to the GSCC outlining a series of concerns, and several of his students have done the same.

“The new arrangements are grossly inequitable,” he says. “Taking the York course as an example, we estimate that 70 per cent of students in their final placement year will have costs exceeding the new fixed sum and so will be out of pocket.

“It’s also been applied retrospectively, so it is now affecting students who started their courses a year or two ago, who had
already made agreements with their practice placement providers.”

The problem is exacerbated by the nature of the area in which Shaw’s students have chosen to do their degree. Courses in small cities like York, with large rural hinterlands, involve students in higher travels cost than if they were studying in a large urban area. This, he points out, creates an unfair market for courses and for students.

“Students are likely to look around if they have any sense, and say ‘if I go here I’ll have a large debt and if I go there I won’t’.” Figures quoted by Shaw are likely to put the frighteners on any student, let alone those who already have  significant levels of debt. Taking one of his final year students now on placement as an example, his department has worked out that costs for her current placement will be £3,390.

“I would have expected her to receive the full amount before,” says Shaw. “The GSCC says that the DH policy has not changed, but what has happened in recent years is that the GSCC has found a way of topping up. So the issue is that the topping up process has been abandoned. I assume somewhere there’s a cost saving.”

So who took the decision to change the way expenses are paid? The DH maintains that it has only ever had one policy, which
has been to provide a flat rate contribution towards social work students’ travel costs. The GSCC states that this contribution was never intended to address individual circumstances.

“It has been recognised,” the GSCC statement goes on, “that having a contribution distinguished specifically for placement is problematic and has inevitably drawn comparison between the contribution level and individual circumstances. It is for that reason the contribution has been built into the bursary basic grant from 2006-7 and as such is no longer identified specifically for placement travel.”

Independent analysis
The GSCC adds that it conducted “an extensive independent analysis of the travel scheme, reviewing actual spend from the
academic year 2004-5” and that the conclusion was that the fixed contribution should be raised from £500 to £575 per student per academic year. It says it has been explicit in its communications since April 2006 that changes were possible and that placement arrangements for the academic year 2006-7 should not be based on funding levels for 2005-6. It says this was communicated in the 2006-7 application packs, on its website and in a letter sent to continuing students and institutions.

But Michael Preston-Shoot, dean of the faculty of health and social sciences at the University of Bedfordshire and chair of Joint University Council’s Social Work Education Committee remains critical of the way the change was introduced. “When you’ve got people saying the system is unfair then clearly one has to ask questions of the degree to which the decision was thought through, and the degree to which the people who are affected by it have been consulted.

“If you have a policy that all students get the same, that assumes that all students have the same opportunities. But if you’re at a university in central London, all of your practice placements are drawn from that part of London, and the costs that students incur are much lower than those incurred by students at the University of York, travelling all around north Yorkshire.”

He believes that social work students are getting a worse deal than their counterparts training for other areas of the public sector. “This issue is about the degree of financial support being provided,” he says, “and there are discrepancies in the degree of support for students of social work compared with student teachers and nurses.”

Pity the poor practice placement coordinators back at the coalface. They now have to deal with the prospect of students
refusing to go on placements because they simply can’t afford to get there. These placements are hard enough to come by,
says Hilary Beale, social work programme leader at Oxford Brookes, without messing around the providers once they’ve accepted the work involved in offering a student a learning opportunity.

“One third-year student is now refusing to do visits because he’s not funded for them,” she says. “We’re hoping no one will
drop out; the third years are dealing with it, but for the second years it’s definitely more problematic as they now have two years of travel expenses to find. We’ve looked to see if we can reimburse expenses ourselves, but we have no means of doing that.

“Now we’re looking at having to balance the quality of placement with the distance to be travelled. We’re looking at finding placements that are no further than the student would have had to travel to college. But administratively that’s very time-consuming and it’s extra work for the department.”

Placement providers
The DH says that it expects placement providers to cough up something towards students’ costs. And “pigs might fly”, is the
concerted response. Fraser Shuttleworth says he asked his statutory placement provider to reimburse his travel expenses,
and was told they couldn’t as he was not an officially employed staff member.

At Salford University, director of social work and social policy Hugh McLaughlin says the indication is that, while some
statutory agencies will make a contribution, others won’t.

“The smaller voluntary agencies can’t afford to. That could lead to students refusing placements, and that means some placement agencies will get fed up. For students struggling financially, this will be an added barrier to a social work career,” he says.

At York, Shaw says he has been told his letter to the GSCC has been passed to the DH and is being treated as an official
“policy representation”. He is awaiting the government’s response. In between burning money he doesn’t have on petrol he can’t afford, Shuttleworth is still smarting at the unfairness of it all. “I don’t know anyone on my course who will make any money on it,” he says glumly.

“Most of us will be out of pocket.”


“There does seem a certain irony that the GSCC seeks to regulate a profession with fairness and equality central to its agenda, while offering a one-off reimbursement for travel expenses which does nothing to recognise individual circumstances.”

“We are jeopardising our studies through having to work to finance travel to placement. If we, as the new generation of social workers, are to be the best that we can, we need financial support in order to be able to do this.”

“I’d like to know what consultation was carried out? Who was consulted? Certainly I wasn’t, nor was my university.”

“I have a disability and survive on the bursary as I could not handle working and studying alongside. What am I expected
to do – take out a loan to pay for the placement? I can’t pass without it!”

“When I undertook the course it was shown in terms of three years, explaining placement implications. Surely it cannot be
right to move the goalposts in the final year?”

To have your say go to the Discussion Forum

This article appeared in the 9 November issue under the headline “Placements: A Cost To Far”


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