Statutory placements are becoming gold dust as students compete for council social work roles, writes Gordon Carson
Taking reading classes in a primary school is unlikely to be the first task you’d associate with practice placements. But this is among the examples provided by Community Care readers of the type of placements social work students are being offered as alternatives to statutory settings, leading to fears that they will not be equipped for frontline practice after graduation.
Local authorities in England delivered 44% of practice placements in 2008-9, down from 47% in the previous year, according to the General Social Care Council’s annual report on social work education.
A separate Community Care investigation found councils across the UK cut placements for students by 11% last year. Alternatives are mainly being sourced in charities, which can involve statutory tasks – such as child protection enquiries at the NSPCC, or child in need assessments.
But employers often place a premium on experience gained in local authorities. Dr Barry Cooper, lecturer in social work at the Open University, says the downward trend will have a major impact on students’ employability. “It puts students at a great disadvantage if they haven’t had that experience of statutory placements,” he says.
There is no one reason for the decline in statutory placements, says Graham Ixer, head of education for the GSCC. But anecdotally it has heard that social workers are “finding it more difficult to manage placements because of increased workloads”.
A major challenge is that local authorities and higher education institutions are not currently required to provide placements in statutory agencies.
In England, HEIs have to ensure that all social work students spend at least 200 days in practice placements. Each student must have experience in at least two settings, and of statutory social work tasks involving legal interventions.
Meanwhile, a performance indicator introduced in 2003 to measure the number of practice placements provided by local authorities was removed in 2008, a decision opposed by academics including Professor Michael Preston-Shoot, dean of the faculty of health and social sciences at University of Bedfordshire.
The Social Work Reform Board is addressing placement problems, and in December 2010 announced proposals to introduce a national framework specifying the number and length of placements, as well as the development of a practice learning curriculum to “specify the components of statutory social work tasks and legal interventions that students must experience during placement”.
Students in England unhappy with their placement are advised to initially seek redress through their university’s complaints procedures. They can then raise the issue with the GSCC if necessary.
In 2009-10 the regulator received 22 complaints about placements, 19 of them from students.
Although concerns over employability seem to drive many students’ desire for statutory placements, Preston-Shoot believes they may gain “better exposure to law and ethics in other types of settings” – but this does not necessarily include observing classes in a primary school.
‘Students won’t gain the skills councils need’
Claire*, a student at a university in southern England, was hoping to gain vital experience of core social work tasks on her final placement.
But a placement in a children-in-need team fell through, as did another in an adults’ learning disabilities team.
Now she is based at an NHS-run care centre, working with children with complex disabilities and health needs – precisely the experience she didn’t need, having already spent two years working with young people with disabilities in a previous job.
Claire is clear about the implications of missing out on statutory placements during her social work master’s degree.
“If local authorities aren’t going to provide placements, they have to recognise that potential employees are not going to have the skills they want,” she says.
Her first placement during the master’s was in a family centre run by a voluntary provider, so she was keen that her second should be in a statutory children’s service.
“In one of [the potential placements] pretty much a whole department disintegrated,” she says.
“A friend of mine has had three different work-based supervisors on her placement.”
Although Claire’s university has been “very apologetic” about the problems she has experienced, it has not been able to offer her an alternative placement.
At least her practice educator is a qualified social worker. “I would not have been happy if she was not,” says Claire, who still plans to pursue a career in social work.
She is starting to look for jobs with the end of her master’s approaching, but is apprehensive about employers noting her lack of statutory experience. “I’m not sure they will see what skills I have,” she adds.
* Name has been changed
‘My supervisor has never been a social worker’
Jane’s* second practice placement probably wasn’t something the founders of the social work degree had in mind.
After a useful first placement in a drug and alcohol treatment centre, she aimed to apply for a second, 100-day placement on a local authority child protection team. But her university told her that this wouldn’t be possible because she did not have a car.
She ended up in a primary school instead. Her practice supervisor is a family support worker for the school and has never been a social worker.
“My job in the morning is to check late arrivals and greet parents, then to help children read and help to organise trips,” says Jane.
“That is all I’ve done so far. There are no children on protection plans or looked-after children in the school. I have lost my confidence and don’t see how I’m going to be able to get a job when I finish. In child protection most employers ask for experience, which I don’t have.
“I will not feel confident in a social work setting because I have no idea how to perform an assessment. Apart from what I have been taught in a classroom, I have no idea of many aspects of the role that I want to enter.”
Indeed, the only experience Jane has had of frontline practice during her master’s has been one day spent shadowing a local authority social worker.
Although her placement is not ideal, Jane says she has thrown herself into it and is using the opportunity to work with children to learn as much as she can about child development.
“I don’t think it’s anybody’s fault,” she says of her inability to secure a statutory placement. “It’s always been the case that not everybody gets a placement. But it’s worrying because the university says most councils will offer jobs to students who have performed well on their placements.”
* Name has been changed
Published in Community Care 17 February 2011 under the headline The Wrong Kind of Placements
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This article is published in the 17 February 2011 edition of Community Care under the headline “The wrong kind of placements”