My first, 80-day placement was in a voluntary sector agency that was closing due to funding issues. My practice educator (PE), although not a qualified social worker, was supportive, but there was little guidance on how to develop the skills associated with good social work practice. Supervision was once a week, but it was a discussion of the practicalities of the work allocated to me, rather than an opportunity to reflect. I was proactive and found myself other training and shadowing opportunities, and I was assured by university staff that I would be provided with a more rigorous learning opportunity for my 120-day placement the following year. I accepted this, not wanting be branded “difficult to place” or risk falling behind my peers by withdrawing from my first placement.
For my second placement, I was put in another voluntary sector agency with a small team of three. This time my PE was a qualified social worker, but he had graduated very recently. He had no experience of supervising anyone in the agency previously, let alone supporting a final year social work student. He was also my line manager, work-based supervisor and only colleague on the project I was working on.
From the beginning, with so few staff members, it was very difficult to get support from within the placement itself. Learning opportunities that had been highlighted at the pre-placement meeting were not made available once I started. I also had to contend with bullying behaviour from my PE; I would take an action, he would respond aggressively to my face and in writing – and I would be the one to apologise in order to maintain the placement.
Scared to speak out
At first I felt unable to speak to the university about my concerns. I had already started the position three weeks late because of the university’s struggle to locate placements and I was desperate to maintain it to ensure I completed my training. I reasoned with myself that I should just stick it out. After all, I had frequent contact with service users in the drop-in sessions and felt I was developing knowledge and skills needed to work with vulnerable adults, albeit with little supervision. I was worried the university might pull me from the placement, think I was unable to cope with the rigours of the work; even suggest a fitness to practise meeting.
However, in the end I approached my dissertation tutor for help. I emailed them and explained some of the issues I was facing. I had built up a good relationship with the tutor over the dissertation period and felt I could be completely honest about my concerns. But my dissertation tutor ask my placement tutor to contact me to offer support. This was the first real step for me gaining the emotional support I needed. My placement tutor listened and was not judgemental in any way. She never once made me feel the situation was my fault. She arranged a meeting with the university, myself and the placement providers and raised our issues regarding the suitability of the PE.
I was still reluctant to leave the placement – why should a student walk away from their learning opportunity and face the prospect of not being provided with another? – so a plan was put in place to give me better support, which was devised by my tutor. I was encouraged to visit her frequently to explain what was happening. I also contacted the student counselling service to seek support from a professional away from the setting and the department.
The good news is that I’m now qualified and working for a charity that offers offender resettlement, support for the homeless and people with mental health and/or substance misuse issues. I have a supportive team who I can approach for help when needed, and an extremely supportive manager. The worries I had and the difficulties I worked through have made me the practitioner I am today.
My advice to any social work student who finds themselves in a similar situation while on a placement:
- Seek out support immediately from your placement tutor or any member of university staff you feel comfortable approaching.
- Be clear and honest about what is occurring and keep a record of your concerns. If you have any evidence of bullying or inappropriate behaviour in writing, let your tutor have access to it.
- Try not to lose sight of why you applied for the course and why you want to become a social worker. Perhaps write these points down, to help you keep your focus.
- Consider arranging additional training and voluntary work, to ensure you are gaining the breadth of knowledge and skills needed to be a safe practitioner. Make sure you use your entitled study time.
- Do things you enjoy outside of work. Running helped me to keep things in perspective.
- If you don’t feel you can challenge your practice educator or placement provider while you’re there – and I suspect many students won’t want to – think about providing the university practice learning team with thorough feedback at the end of the placement.
Article produced in association with the College of Social Work