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Devaluing non-traditional social work placements is a loss to the profession

Helen Scholar, lead researcher on an evaluation of a non-traditional placements scheme, explains why she thinks they can be so valuable

Placements like prisons provide positive learning experiences
Placements in institutions such as prisons provide positive learning experiences (Credit:REX)

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.

Placements devalued

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.

4 Responses to Devaluing non-traditional social work placements is a loss to the profession

  1. Alex August 18, 2014 at 2:22 pm #

    It’s all very well for academics to wax lyrical on the value of non-statutory placements, but it’s of little consolation to NQSW who struggle to find an employer willing to take them on due to their lack of frontline experience.

    For me, the two villains of the piece are 1) the significant number of local authorities who aren’t willing to take students on placement (at least not in anything approaching significant numbers) then have the audacity to moan about a lack of statutory experience amongst job applicants and 2) lazy/disinterested university placement teams who view SW students as an inconvenience and just want everyone farmed out to a placement. Any placement.

    • Jim Greer August 20, 2014 at 8:19 pm #

      Alex. I can tell you from my own experience that no University that I have ever had any dealings with including my own would take placements as lightly as you suggest. We care about ensuring that all students get a good experience and every student has to get one that offers experience of statutory work.
      As a social work manager I was always most interested in the personal qualities and skills of the people who I interviewed for positions. Its a lot easier to teach a good graduate procedures than it is to teach a poorer one report writing skills or professionalism.
      There is more to being a social worker than what goes on in statutory social work. A lot of very good work goes on in the voluntary sector and graduates need to value what they have learned and project confidence in their applications and interviews.

      • Alex August 24, 2014 at 4:35 pm #

        Jim, whilst not discounting your experience I can assure you that I and a significant proportion of fellow students from my cohort encountered behaviour ranging from casual disregard to outright dishonesty when dealing with the placement team and personal tutors who were assigned to us. My experience was by no means the worst (I successfully completed the course with excellent results), but others dropped out or decided that SW was not for them as a direct consequence of the lack of support that they received. The irony wasn’t lost on us that whilst we were constantly encouraged to empower individuals and act as an agent for change, the exact opposite was true for us as SW students. The message was loud and clear…’shut up and take it’ or ‘you can always quit if you don’t like it’. We were expectedto ignore aggression, bullying, threats and in at least one case persistent unwanted sexual advances. Oh, there were policies in place, but in practice placements would be terminated and academic years would have to be repeated. This was unacceptable and financially unaffordable.

  2. Terry Sullivan August 21, 2014 at 11:03 am #

    As a PE specialising in the voluntary sector I agree with Jim on this.I also think Alex hits the nail on the head. The government is being very short sighted if it believes that there are enough statutory placements to go round? In my practice experience there aren’t-end of. The clear implication of this is that the current Government is yet again sidelining social work and has no intention of valuing the profession given the draconic fee reductions & the negative implications of this.