Increased demand for social work practice placements has resulted in several local authorities and universities looking elsewhere to offer their students the statutory experience they need.
But while undergraduate placements within education have become commonplace, Lewisham Council has taken a more comprehensive approach than most to placing students at primary and secondary schools across its borough. Not only are students linked with learning mentors and school staff, but two practice educators are also employed to carry out assessments and provide practice teaching support.
Akilah Moseley, Lewisham’s practice learning co-ordinator, was responsible for planning the project in partnership with two stakeholder universities, South Bank University and Goldsmiths College.
She says one of the crucial elements to the project’s success has been the delivery of clear and consistent messages to students, school staff and practice educators alike. This is helped by having the latter employed as paid members of staff.
“With freelance workers, sometimes you find people doing their own thing,” Moseley says. “But we had a level of consistency as everyone was getting the same message. This meant the schools were very clear about what they could expect from us.”
The project, piloted this academic year, has so far offered placements to 10 social work students across six schools and extended services.
Moseley took a year to plan the project, during which forum meetings were held at which schools could register their interest. Before the pilot went live, all staff at participating schools were given a two-day training session incorporating a working knowledge of the social work degree, national occupational standards and practice observation.
“For me, the training we gave the schools was really important,” she says. “The benefit of taking the year out to plan the project was that we didn’t really have any problems. We were lucky – it paid off.”
Despite a number of positive outcomes for the students and schools that took part, Moseley says the main obstacle arose from those students who had been placed in schools on their own. “Being able to carve out a social work identity was really difficult [for them],” she says. “They ideally would have liked to have gone into a school with another social work student. But lots of our primary schools wanted to work with just one student because it was a pilot project.”
For David Allman, a third-year social work student at Goldsmiths College, finding out he had been placed at a large secondary school in Lewisham was daunting.
“I was quite nervous before I went into the school because I knew there wouldn’t be another social worker present,” Allman says. “As well as establishing my own identity, I had to find out what work I could do there.”
According to Allman, the training provided to the school where he was placed helped staff allocate appropriate work to him. He was responsible for working with two young people in care and providing one-to-one sessions as well as off-site support.
He adds that having good supervision helped alleviate his initial anxieties about undertaking a placement at a school. “I had spent a year and a half studying theories, and the notion of putting that into practice was huge. But I saw an external supervisor every two weeks and a school supervisor every week which was really helpful.”
Allman says educational placements cover enough mainstream social work issues to make them beneficial to undergraduates. “Every issue comes through those school gates,” he says. “A social worker is a valuable resource in a school.”
Jill Yates, course director for practice learning social work at South Bank University, provided training for the schools involved in the Lewisham project. Having already been involved at her university in co-ordinating school placements for the past four years, she is adamant that school placements are a “positive way forward”.
“If a placement is linked with a social services team then students will get to experience traditional social work,” Yates says. “Some placements do it better than others – in some schools you get to cover enough mainstream issues but a student in a primary school might have less opportunity.”
As a former social worker and teacher, Yates is aware that professionals are often unclear about the school social work role.
For his part, Allman admits arriving at his placement with certain assumptions about education and being met with preconceptions about social work. “I hadn’t been inside a school since I was 18,” Allman says. “But this increases understanding of what both sides do, which is incredibly useful.”
This article appeared in the 17 January issue under the headline “Back to school”