by Gordon Carson
What placements do students have to do?
The Department of Health’s Requirements for Social Work Training state that all social work students in England must spend “at least 200 days gaining required experience and learning in practice settings”.
Each student must have experience in at least two practice settings, and of “statutory social work tasks involving legal interventions”. They must also provide services to “at least two user groups (for example, child care and mental health)”.
This 200-day requirement is applicable to both undergraduate and postgraduate studies. However, the structure of placements can differ depending on where you study. For example, some undergraduate courses divide the placement requirements into three sections, one in each year of study, while others do not require students to go on placement in the first year and divide the 200 days between their second and third years. Placements in the two-year social work MA are often split equally between the first and second years, so 100 days in each.
The requirements in Scotland are very similar to those in England. The Framework for Social Work Education in Scotland states that honours and postgraduate students must spend a minimum of 200 days in practice learning, of which at least 160 days must be spent in supervised direct practice. In addition, practice learning must include:
– carrying out statutory social work tasks, involving legal interventions
– working in at least two contrasting service delivery settings (for students entering through work-based routes, at least one of these should be outwith their employing agency other than in exceptional circumstances)
– providing services to at least two user groups
– providing services in a way that takes account of and values diversity
In Wales, students must also spend at least 200 days in practice learning (more information here – click on “Ensuring Consistency in Learning to Practice”). It also specifies how these days will be allocated over the course of the degree:
– 20 days will be spent in a practice setting
– 180 days must include two practice learning periods of 80 or more days
– one such period must involve social work with a materially different type of service user to the other
– at least one such period must be undertaken within a local authority setting
– where a student is also employed as a social care worker while undertaking the degree programme, at least one of those periods must be taken within a setting that it materially different to the setting within which he or she is employed
In Northern Ireland, students must spend at least 185 days in practice learning (full details in the Northern Ireland Practice Learning Requirements for the Degree in Social Work).
What types of placements are available?
This is a longstanding issue in social work, with many students unable to secure placements that will suitably equip them for post-qualifying employment.
Placements are available across the range of social work roles, in the statutory and voluntary sectors, children’s and adults’ services, with different client groups and in all types of authority, urban, suburban or rural, as well as national organisations such as Cafcass and the NSPCC.
However, in children’s services in England in particular, the type of placement you take during your studies can have a major bearing on your post-qualification employability.
For example, many students are unable to find placements in local authority children’s services due to the workload pressures these departments face. This can be a problem for newly qualified social workers seeking a job in children’s services, as they may be unable to secure employment in a statutory agency if they don’t have previous experience in such a setting. Completing statutory tasks during placement for other agencies is often not sufficient .
Conversely, social workers may end up in high-pressure frontline roles without gaining relevant placement experience as a student. Community Care revealed last year that Maria Ward, the social worker for Baby P at Haringey Council, did two placements in adults’ services during her degree and had no post-qualifying training in child protection.
This highlighted another gap in the regulations for England; although they stipulate that students must work with at least two groups of service users during placements, this could, for example, mean working with older people’s and adult mental health services, and nothing in children’s services.
With this in mind, students should research the placements records of universities during the application process, and find out where they offer placements and the types and strength of partnerships they have with employers in all sectors.
They should also look at the quality of practice assessment and processes for student feedback. Only this summer (see), the General Social Care Council said the most common failings among universities in England offering social work degree courses were quality checking of practice placements, the appointment of practice assessors, and student feedback processes. The GSCC has annual monitoring reports on individual institutions.
What will you do on a placement?
The Social Work Task Force’s final report, published in December 2009, found that many placements fail to provide students with the knowledge, skills and values required for safe and effective work with service users. The experience ill-prepares them for the realities of employment and limits their job prospects, the report found.
However, if they work well, placements can expose students to a wide range of situations that social workers face every day, and enable them to complete core tasks under the supervision of qualified social workers.
In children’s services, for example, this could involve working on child protection referrals, completing inter-agency checks, responding to emergencies and completing initial and core assessments, as well as attending case conferences.
Are any changes planned to placements?
The final report of the Social Work Task Force sets out proposals to reduce the number of placement days from 200 to no less than 130. The aim was to enable students to have better quality placements, and to “ensure a sharper focus on what the placement is meant to achieve in terms of the student’s learning and development”.
In addition, social workers would only be able to gain a full licence to practise if they completed an assessed year in employment following their studies. This would enable new social workers to develop experience in children’s or adults’ services and learn more on the job from shadowing and co-working with more experienced colleagues.
However, the previous government said in March that a decision on cutting the time spent on placements would not be made until a review of the degree curriculum in 2012. The assessed year in practice would form part of the social work degree from 2016 but models would be piloted from 2012, it added.
The coalition has not announced any major changes to these plans so far. The Department for Education says the Social Work Reform Board is looking at the issue of placements, along with many others, with the aim of publishing proposals in late 2011.
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