Lack of placements spark open letter to Ed Balls

London South Bank University
103 Borough Road

Dear Ed and Ivan,

Congratulations on your conferment in important positions in Gordon Brown’s first government.

Although we are sure you are very busy with a number of pressing issues, we would like to draw your attention to one that may have passed you by. It concerns the education of social work students and the impact on the field through retention of quality staff.

As we’re sure you know, there are issues around the recruitment and retention of good social workers. You will be aware that stability of staffing is fundamental to quality social work service delivery issues that have been a constant struggle for employers. Temporary solutions have been found by recruiting from abroad and using recruitment agencies. However, these have proved expensive ways to recruit social workers and, on the whole, such staff don’t stay long.

So what has this to do with the education and training of new social workers? We believe that a good deal of the problem – and the solution – lies with how we prepare new social workers for working life while they are following their qualifying degree.

Social work is a vocational degree, and people from all backgrounds and most age groups who care about our society and want to make a difference can study to do just that. There is no shortage of excellent applicants who want to study for social work, and competition for places on degree programmes is intense.

Central to any vocational degree is the quality of its practice learning opportunities, and making statutory experience a requirement was the right move to ensure that qualifying social workers are fit for practice.

But here lies the rub: there aren’t enough statutory practice placements to go round.

We knew there was a problem three years ago and most universities increased their investment in practice placement co-ordinators the Department of Health made provision of practice placements part of the performance indicator set for local authorities and Skills for Care launched learning resource networks to support and increase practice placements.

Unfortunately, this did not completely address the problem, and in London and other big cities there is a huge struggle to make sure every student is allocated a placement offering a statutory experience. Despite the demand to increase the size of social work programmes, universities are squeezed by the bottleneck of statutory practice placements.

It would be unfair to say local authorities have watched and done nothing. The well-performing authorities are developing as learning organisations, supporting continual professional development and providing employment-based schemes to train their own staff as social workers.

But what of the independent students who do not have the sponsorship of an employer behind them? What of the local authorities that struggle to increase their star-rating? What of the increasing number of independent employers who simply don’t have the resources to sponsor social work students?

It’s a chicken and egg situation: to provide quality practice learning opportunities, local authorities need enough professional staff who stay and are committed to providing stable, quality services. Local authorities do the most difficult and challenging work, so they need the best recruits from the social work programmes. Are they getting them? We don’t know.

Local authorities often report that newly qualified recruits do not have the knowledge or experience that is expected of them. We believe that local authorities need to address this by getting more involved with providing statutory placements. If they are offering more placements, they can also start making demands about what topics students cover.

Operational managers need to become involved along with training managers to see how they can make sure that providing practice placements is beneficial to all – namely the students receiving a guaranteed, good-quality statutory experience and the local authorities securing top-quality, fit-for-purpose recruits.

Higher education institutions (HEIs) have met their end of the bargain. They have increased the academic knowledge and skills social work students gain on the degree programmes and have responded to the demand for more qualified social workers by increasing the number of places. But they have not seen a similar commitment from all local authorities in the supply of practice placements.

No-one is saying local authorities have it easy. The uncertainty of past years and the extent of re-organisation have provided a substantial challenge. Also, fluctuating budgets and the loss of ring-fencing on training grants makes everything that much harder. In these circumstances, no-one can blame senior managers if they feel social work student placements aren’t exactly top of their agenda.

We offer a solution: a joined-up model of workforce planning at national, regional and local levels. Such a model would build a direct relationship between the number of social workers needed, practice placements provided and student places offered.

We would suggest that local authorities may need to become more competitive. In cities and big conurbations, people don’t have to move house or travel huge distances to change jobs. In London, you can have six local authority employers within a few miles of each other, not to mention independent employers and recruitment agencies. It’s a jobseekers’ market.

It’s interesting how the views of students can change as they experience working in local authorities. They arrive in university certain that local authorities are where the real social work happens, where they want their practice placements and where they want to end up working. But, after experiencing a statutory placement, students’ views can change radically. By contrast, good placements will bring good students and good recruits. If local authorities and the DH want more statutory sector social workers they will need to fund them.

Performance indicators need to be re-thought if they are to be effective drivers in cities and conurbations. Sufficient funds must go into training budgets – and be ring-fenced. Workload relief for practice assessors in the workplace and space for students to sit are enduring problems that must be addressed.

The potential consequences of doing nothing affect everyone. Students will feel insecure about achieving the experience to qualify and then practice HEIs will struggle to plan and staff responsible for practice placements will be anxious. Ultimately, it is potentially damaging for service delivery if councils do not invest in developing future generations of practitioners.

This is not a situation that can be changed by the goodwill and hard work of a few committed people in HEIs and local authorities alone. It needs all the key players involved to be working together towards a solution – HEIs, local authorities, the GSCC, the DH, Skills for Care and the Children’s Workforce Development Council. The way forward is a round-table meeting chaired by a relevant MP or a senior civil servant.

So now that you are settling into your new posts, we would ask you to do just that: chair a round table for us and help push this issue to the top of the agenda, where it needs to be.

Yours faithfully,

Keith Popple, professor of social work, London South Bank University
Jan O’Hara, independent consultant in social work education

This article appeared in the 20 September issue under the headline “A solution to our practice placements crisis”

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