Paths to learning

Full-time work can be an obstacle to studying
for a Diploma in Social Work while part-time employment frees up
time but can lead to poverty. Ruth Winchester examines some
innovative ways to become a qualified social worker.

Undertaking lengthy and intensive professional
training in the middle of a working life can be a double-edged
sword. Better career prospects and improved earning potential are
undoubtedly attractive. But the personal and financial price to be
paid for such training can be onerous.

A vast number of people working in social care
would love to do a Diploma in Social Work – the industry standard
social work qualification. Unfortunately the number of employers
who can afford to fully sponsor someone through a DipSW course is
now very small.

And for most people, particularly low-paid,
unqualified front-line staff, taking two years off to go and study
social work full time is out of the question. They are unable to
support themselves and their families while they learn, let alone
pay course fees. The result is that there are a lot of experienced,
committed people – particularly women, older people and people from
ethnic minorities – stuck at the bottom of the career ladder with
nowhere to go.

But faced with an undeniable recruitment
crisis in social work – and particularly among qualified social
workers – innovative schemes are being set up to offer a viable
alternative to the conventional full-time university course.

One example is a work-based DipSW scheme set
up by public sector union Unison and Ruskin College, Oxford.
Suffolk Council started the first pilot of this scheme in Suffolk
in 1999, and its first students are now approaching the end of
their three-year courses (see box). Several other local authorities
are in the process of setting up in-house training schemes in
conjunction with Unison and Ruskin College.

Other examples are the well-established Open
University distance learning DipSW course, which was launched in
1997, and smaller-scale local schemes such as the one run by Tower
Hamlets in London. This scheme was set up in 1997 to provide
seconded DipSW training for 10 staff per year from the area’s
Bangladeshi, Somali and African-Caribbean populations.

These work-based routes to qualification are
undoubtedly paying dividends to the employers running them, and to
those staff lucky enough to get places. The fact that more than 150
people returned completed application forms for the 18 places on
the Suffolk course is evidence of the demand for these courses. And
the fact that all of the original 18 students are expected to
qualify next March is also an indication of how much people value
the opportunity and are prepared to slog through to the bitter

But are these work-based schemes really an
alternative to a full-time, in-depth DipSW course? What are the
problems associated with training within the organisation that
employs you? And what will happen to these courses when the
government launches the three-year social work degree course in
September 2003?

Helen Wenman is the General Social Care
Council’s national lead adviser on DipSW and social work qualifying
training. She says: “The work-based route obviously has some
strengths -Ênot least that it enables people to train who
wouldn’t otherwise be able to do so. And because people are
learning as they are going along, it means they immediately apply
what they are learning.”

But she warns that both employer and employee
have to be clear about what is involved, and the person’s line
manager needs to be supportive if work and study boundaries are not
to become blurred. “It’s important that people aren’t put under
pressure – for example, by seeing team members struggling under
extra work -Êand that they know in advance that a lot of the
work will have to be done in their own time.” She also suggests
that the second work placement should always take place outside the
employing organisation to give the student a sufficiently broad
range of experience.

Mark Peel is director of social work studies
for the Open University. A distance learning DipSW costs
£4,000, and, he says, has most of the advantages of other
work-based routes including being able to put learning into
practice immediately. It can also be completed over four years
giving students added flexibility. But Peel adds: “It’s fair to say
that students can sometimes feel isolated working alone rather than
in a group. Although we run workshops and tutorials for students,
sometimes distance learning can feel a bit distant.”

There may still be suspicions that any
work-based route is inevitably going to be second best to a
two-year full time course.

But the government has stated very clearly
it’s commitment to high-quality work-based training in social work
– and the emphasis is clearly on quality. Alongside this, the new
three-year social work degree is expected to put an increased
amount of emphasis on a student’s previous experience and training,
and on lengthy in-depth practice experience during the course. Both
of these factors could mean that in future work place learning is
the preferred option for social care.  

– Unison, the Open University, Ruskin College
and the Workers Educational Association are working in partnership
to develop a full range of work-based learning opportunities. These
courses range from training in basic skills such as literacy and
computer skills, through social care-specific courses to higher
level courses. For more information contact Steve Williams or
Donald Cameron at Unison, 1 Mabledon Place, London, WC1H 9AJ.

Learning in Suffolk

Students on the Suffolk Council course spend
one day a week in training provided locally by Ruskin College. The
course, which is being externally validated, costs approximately
£2,250 per student, but the council also provides teams with
cover for 50 per cent of the time students are absent, which
inevitably increases the cost. However, compared with an estimated
£35,000 to £40,000 to sponsor someone through a full-time
Diploma in Social Work, the idea of “growing your own” starts to
look more appealing.

Paul Davis was part of the first group of
DipSW students in Suffolk. He was working in deaf services as an
assessment officer and with voluntary organisations for the deaf
prior to the course. He is now a social worker on the adult

“I’d always wanted to do it, but it was just
impossible – there was no way I could just give up a job and go off
for two years,” Davis explains. “All the students have gelled
really well and been very supportive of each other, and the course
placements really broaden your experience and interests. I still
have a huge interest in deafness, but I’m interested in mental
health and community care too.”

But it can be difficult to keep things ticking
over while working on two different priorities, he adds. “It does
mean double effort having to do the course in the same place as you
work. I used to dress differently on student days to make the
distinction. It can get a bit much when you’re living, eating and
sleeping social work – when the course ends it’ll be nice to get
back to having a life.”

Pam Woodard’s third child was born on the day
the course started, but she too will qualify in March after “three
exhausting years”. She had been working in residential care for
more than 15 years and was a senior child care practitioner when
she started the DipSW. “I got to the stage where I felt I had more
to offer, but couldn’t go any further without doing the DipSW,” she
says. “It’s involved a lot of juggling and discipline, and my
husband has taken over a lot of the child care. We’ve got a caravan
and I go out there to study.” Woodard starts her new job as a
family support social worker in Eye, Suffolk in April.

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