Some social work students are being given unsupervised responsibility for cases requiring formal assessment of risk and safeguarding while on their practice placements, Community Care can reveal.
A quarter of the 385 students and newly qualified social workers (NQSWs) responding to our joint survey with Unison, most of whom are based in England, said they had been given unsupervised responsibility for one or more such cases during their first practice placement – and 44% said this had happened during their final placement.
Yet the College of Social Work’s practice learning guidance clearly states that students “will not hold case responsibility for formal assessment processes that include risk/safeguarding/child protection”.
Professor Hilary Tompsett, Professor of Social Work at Kingston University and St George’s University of London and chair JUC SWEC, said the findings “raised concerns” and more work was needed to clarify exactly what students were being asked to do during their practice placements.
Helga Pile, Unison’s national officer for social work, said the huge strain that many social work teams were under meant there was a growing danger that students on placements were being “leaned on” inappropriately.
“But this is unfair and potentially dangerous for both service users and students. The essence of being on placement is being able to learn safely from experienced practitioners through working under close supervision. We need to ensure that everyone involved has agreed and signed up to clear boundaries and working protocols”
The College’s guidance stipulates that students should gain experience of statutory social work tasks such as risk and safeguarding assessments only under the supervision of a qualified practice educator. It adds that, from 2013, all final placement practice educators should be registered social workers.
Our survey suggests that most employers are well on their way to meeting this requirement, with 92% of respondents reporting that their final year practice educator was a social worker.
Statutory versus voluntary
However, although many students and NQSWs said they were given the opportunity to carry out statutory tasks on their placements, supervised or otherwise, there is still a clear lack of consistency when it comes to ensuring all students have access to at least one placement in a statutory setting.
The majority of respondents (59%) spent their first placement in a voluntary sector organisation, with only a quarter based in local authorities and the rest spread out among private companies, schools and NHS settings.
This switched in the final placement, with 64% placed in a local authority, 18% in a voluntary sector organisation and 10% in an NHS trust or other medical setting.
Only two-thirds of respondents who had completed a final placement said they felt practice ready at the end of it.
“My first and second year placements were in charities,” said one respondent. “I have not yet worked with a social worker and although I am in my final year, I am still waiting for my 100-day placement. I have had no statutory involvement and this worries me, as I have no clue what I am going to do after I qualify. I am also worried that local authorities will not take me seriously as I do not have any statutory experience so far.”
Another said: “I am a qualified social worker that has no idea what a social worker actually does. Practice placements are a good way for charities to get free staff for six months and get paid for it. Local authorities should have a duty to provide placements. You would expect a qualified surgeon to know what a surgeon does before operating on you.”
Joan Beck, joint chair of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services’ workforce network, pointed out that the first placement is often an opportunity to try “something different”. But she added: “Students should not be finishing a course without statutory placement experience.”
Beck cautioned, however, that it was difficult to get a full picture of the situation without a larger sample of students and NQSWs.
Pile said statutory placement experience was a must and ought to be non-negotiable. “That means a much stronger commitment from all statutory agencies to providing their quota of placements.”
<strong”>Struggling to find work
Just over a third of unemployed NQSWs told us they feel the main reason they are struggling to find a job is due to the poor quality of their practice placements. A further 28% believe this to be a contributing factor.
Only half of the 160 NQSWs to respond are currently employed as social workers, while 15% are in social work assistant or support worker jobs and 17% are unemployed and looking for a job.
This is despite the fact that there is currently an average vacancy rate of 6.5% in local authority social work teams across the UK, rising to 14.7% in one region of England.
On the flip side, almost half of the graduates who are in work were employed by the organisation in which they did a placement.
Pile said the figures were striking, particularly the link between unemployment and practice placement experiences.
“Failure to tackle this means failing the next generation of social workers and potentially wasting the resources that have gone into their education. We are particularly concerned about the number of NQSWs working in social work assistant roles as this could effectively be employers getting social workers ‘on the cheap’ while they miss out on the vital ASYE support they should get.
“However, the fact that almost half of those in work were employed by an organisation in which they did a placement shows what a sound investment practice placements can be for employers.”
Improvements to come
A number of reforms have been put in place in recent years to improve practice education.
The Employers Standards, hosted by the Local Government Association, support the development of partnerships between HEIs and employers, the provision of high-quality practice placements and ensuring practice educators are enabled to provide appropriate support.
Higher education institutions must also now provide evidence of partnership working in order to gain approval from the Health and Care Professions Council (which is required) and endorsement by the College of Social Work.
Finally, the Practice Educator Practice Standards, which came into effect in last month and apply to this academic year, require that all practice educators must meet certain standards and must be registered social workers by October 2015.
“Quality placements are an essential part of social work education and the College is committed to promoting excellence in this area,” said Anne Mercer, professional adviser at the College of Social Work.
“Our qualifying social work programme endorsement recognises high quality support and supervision from a practice educator during placements, in addition to the opportunity for students to experience different social work settings, methods and service user groups. Students on our endorsed programmes will always be supervised on their final placements by registered social workers.”
Tompsett pointed out that the survey responses were from undergraduate and postgraduate students and NQSWs, so their experiences span up to the last four years; coinciding with the development of these reforms.
“I hope this means that the reforms now being introduced, in line with the Social Work Reform Board’s recommendations, will bring improvements that these students and NQSWs may not all have seen.”