Practice Placements: is the crisis over?

The degree in social work was introduced in 2003 to the wide acclaim of social workers, employers and services users alike. The sector was cheered by promises of highly qualified graduates who would go on to become a highly skilled workforce.

But things haven’t quite gone to plan. Central to the degree is a greater focus on workplace learning – students are now required to spend 200 days at practice placements compared with 130 days for the old diploma. This experience, which can be gained in both the statutory and independent sectors, is invaluable for those seeking employment in the profession. Dealing with delicate situations in a pressurised environment is not something you can handle easily without a lot of practice.

The degree has attracted plenty of recruits with a 38% increase in enrolments over the past 10 years. But this has led to an increasing demand for placements and many universities are unable to find enough employers willing to take students on. Practice learning assessors – the people who arrange and support students on placements – are also under stress and they say they are not receiving enough support.

Brunel cuts

The strain on the system is beginning to show. Last year Brunel University announced it was cutting the number of social work students it would take by about a third because of a lack of placements. Lorraine De Souza, head of the university’s school of health and social care, blamed “major reorganisations”, heavy workloads and the audit requirements being imposed on social service departments, for the shortage.

And she is far from alone with her concerns. In September 2007 Keith Popple professor of social work at London South Bank University co-wrote an open letter to care services minister Ivan Lewis and secretary of state for children, schools and families Ed Balls, warning of the lack of statutory practice placements. He wrote that the situation had developed since 2003 despite increased investment in university practice placement co-ordinators. Placements have also been supported by the DH Practice Learning Taskforce, and then from 2006 by the Social Work Development Partnership (SWDP), jointly run by Skills for Care and the Children’s Development Workforce Council. These measures did not go far enough according to Popple, but he failed to make an impact in Whitehall.

“We’ve had no response from the government whatsoever,” he says. “That shows a disappointing lack of commitment to the issues facing social work education and training.

“The situation is much the same as it was last year. Of course these are local things and it may be worse in certain areas because university social work departments are relying on local providers for placements.”

London South Bank has managed to build fruitful relationships with local employers in the statutory and independent sectors. Popple says this co-operation has helped the department survive. “However, there is a lack of planning and co-ordination at a centralised level,” he says, “and this is making things difficult. This is a role that the government could take to help kick-start workforce planning and making sure that students and placements are fitted.”

Some investment

Although Popple did not hear back from Lewis or Balls, it is evident that steps are being taken behind the scenes. Amanda Hatton, Skills for Care’s director of social work development, points out that the government has pumped £5.5m into the SWDP to expand professional development. More than £4m is being spent on developing regional partnerships, divided equally between children and adult departments. She says that commitments such as this have led to an increase in the number of practice learning days from 565,524 days in 2002-3 to 740,743 in 2006-7.

“But the demand will rise to 1,3000,000 by 2008-9 and the SWDP is aware that this leap has raised questions about the quality of placements,” Hatton says. “One of the SWDP’s objectives specifies that there should be a substantial improvement in the quality of practice placements and regions will be expected to make plans to achieve this.”

Addressing the lack of co-ordination in arranging placements and, just as importantly, ensuring that they are up to scratch, has been uppermost in Hatton’s thoughts. “There is a variability of practice placements quality,” she says. “So we’ve developed a quality assurance in practice learning tool and benchmark statements to help support greater consistency. These have been piloted successfully in the North West and we are preparing to roll out them out nationally.”

In response to criticisms over lack of centralised co-ordination, Skills for Care is also on the verge of rolling out a project to organise student placements around the country. LeaRNS is a web-based system that gathers information on placements and practice learning assessors for universities, employers and local authorities.

“LeaRNs will also help us maximise quality placement opportunities by tracking independent and local authority placements in a more systematic way,” says Hatton.

Along with plans to give more support to practice learning assessors, Hatton is confident that the SWDP has everything in hand. Indeed, there may be indications that the green shoots of recovery are already poking through, research from Sheffield Hallam University suggests. Professor of social work Mark Doel was asked by the SWDP at the beginning of the year to investigate the problems. He found that worries over the increasing use of non-traditional placements – such as in health, criminal justice and educational agencies – due to the lack of local authority placements had been overstated.

“Actually the picture was quite positive in terms of the response of the students in those placements,” he says. “Particularly when there was good preparation and support for the placement. The key was when the student was seen as a potential resource.”

Doel also found that local authorities were, by-and-large, doing better than three years ago, especially when they had designated a “practice learning champion” in the department. But it’s not all good news. “The disruption of the reorganisations is having a damaging effect on practice learning,” he says. “There was a lot of uncertainty about the impact of the split into children’s and adults’ services.”

This point echoes Brunel University’s warning, and across the country many students are still finding it difficult to cope. It’s not just a question of finding a placement, it’s a question of finding one that properly supports you. One student who finished her first placement in a hospital social work department this year, and who wishes to remain anonymous, tells a common story. “It was a really good placement, because I work in childcare at the moment so it was good for me to see adult services – predominantly elderly,” she says. “It was a good focus to look at other aspects of social care work and see how a hospital actually works.

“But there were times when they’d clearly forgotten I was coming in. A lot of students after placements said ‘we felt like spare parts’. We could see that it was really busy, and it just didn’t feel like a worthwhile exercise.”


She doesn’t yet know where her next placement will be: “They are struggling to get placements because departments are so busy, and they haven’t got a placement assessor very often.”

Kathy Coleman is doing a degree with the Open University. “Last year the placement was at Mind and was very organised and well-structured,” she says. “However, the person who eventually took me this year, in childcare, at first refused saying the team was too busy. It would be a good idea to see if they are ready for you and actually want you, because the team I went to was not prepared. Also, I only had two cases the whole time I was there.”

These kinds of experiences appear all-too common. But, without doubt, the future quality of the workforce is dependent on the practice placement gap being closed.


Be pro-active: “Out of our comfort zone we need to be assertive, something that will set us
in good stead when qualified.”

Look at the positive angles of non-traditional placements – “It is also an ideal opportunity for students to begin networking and thinking about how they can work in multi-disciplinary settings.”

Be creative: “Personally I believe you get out of a placement what you are prepared to invest. Ask to go and visit other agencies anyway to gain an understanding of the bigger picture.”

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