By Helen Scholar
As of September, a flat daily fee will be paid to all organisations hosting social work students on placements. The change in funding will mean a reduction of £8 per day for settings outside the statutory sector.
The reasons behind this are partly financial and partly because of the current emphasis on providing students with statutory placements. This is intended to prepare them for the demands of social work practice in local authorities, particularly in children’s services.
Social work educators have commented on the likely negative implications for many smaller organisations. It may also effect the numbers of placements available to provide practice learning opportunities for student social workers.
Already, some smaller organisations have stopped providing student placements as they can no longer afford them.
But what about the potential impact on social work as a profession? What is the contribution of voluntary, independent and charitable organisations, and of the increasing number of “non-traditional” placement settings, to social work’s role and identity?
What is the contribution of non-traditional placements to social work’s role and identity?”
Non-traditional social work placements can be defined as placements in organisations whose primary business is not the delivery of a social work service, but where vulnerable members of the organisation’s client group have a need for additional support. Student social workers have the developing skills and knowledge to contribute towards providing this.
Examples of such settings include schools, prisons, community groups and training organisations. Many do not employ any qualified social workers, and their own staff may have little understanding of the nature of social work as a professional discipline. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that there is scepticism on the part of students and employers about the value of these placements.
Evaluating non-traditional settings
My evaluation, carried out with a team of social work academics through the University of Salford, of one “non-traditional” placement scheme revealed some findings which challenged this scepticism.
Social work students were recognised as providing valuable support for vulnerable young people using the organisation, having time to provide one-to-one contact and to access external services where needed.
Challenges involved students in developing a deeper understanding of social work values”
Young people were shown to benefit directly from their involvement, and students were able to identify many opportunities to meet social work learning requirements. Student social workers commonly reported instances of having to explain and account for their approach to the work, in settings where it could not be assumed that colleagues shared the same value base. Responding to these challenges involved students in developing a deeper understanding of social work values and how these may be demonstrated in practice.
Professional Capabilities Framework
The research also identified factors vital to the success of placements of this kind. These included a clear role for student social workers; commitment on the part of the organisation to supporting students’ learning; recognition that student support provided a development opportunity for their own staff; the involvement of experienced and engaged practice educators; and good relationships and communication between the placement organisation and the higher education institution.
The Professional Capabilities Framework implies that all social workers, no matter where they work, share a professional identity that transcends both organisational settings and the specific tasks and roles associated with particular service user groups.
Sharing social work values
In some non-traditional placements, student social workers, properly supported by qualified practice educators, have opportunities to express and develop this professional identity. They are able to represent the profession by advocating for and modeling a distinctive perspective grounded in social work values and principles.
Social workers share a professional identity that transcends organisational settings”
Such placements have the potential to support the development of social workers who will be able to negotiate the complexities of statutory responsibilities as critical and creative professionals concerned with the promotion of individual and social change.
The recently accepted global definition of social work, approved by the International Federation of Social Workers, affirms that social work is more than child protection. Let’s not lose these rich opportunities for student learning by narrowing our view about the nature of social work.