A degree of flexibility?

The new social work degree is expected to
bring with it a sudden jump in the number of practice placement
days for students. But with too few practice teachers and
placements to go around, universities will have to look at other,
more flexible, practice learning options. Natalie Valios

Last year’s announcement of a three-year
social work degree to replace the Diploma in Social Work was
welcomed by the social care sector, but as the starting date for
the first intake of students draws nearer, some sticking points are
beginning to emerge.

One of
the biggest is the timescale for its introduction. In England, the
new degree programmes could be running as early as September 2003.
Wales and Northern Ireland are looking at September 2004, and
although the date for the new degree in Scotland has yet to be set,
it is also expected to be 2004. But universities in England will
not know whether they have been accredited by the General Social
Care Council to run a degree course until later this

curriculum for the degree is also expected from the Department of
Health later this month. It will combine two documents – the
national occupational standards produced by training organisation
Topss and the quality assurance agency benchmark statement from
universities. The standards outline what an employer needs from a
qualified social worker, while the benchmark statement sets out
what areas should be included in social work education. The
curriculum will be a single statement of the knowledge areas that
need to be built into a social work programme, and the GSCC will be
responsible for monitoring its implementation.

the curriculum is published, it will finally clear up speculation
over the balance the government wants to strike between
college-based learning and placements. The figure being discussed
is about 200 supervised practice days out of 450 days over the
three years, says Arthur Keefe, chairperson of Topss and a member
of the GSCC.

represents a 50 per cent rise in the number of placement days,
which currently stands at about 50 in a student’s first DipSW year
and 80 in the second. But this raises the problem of the continuing
shortage of practice teachers.

According to Keefe, improving the
quality and quantity of supervised practice is likely to be the
biggest challenge for the new degree. Although more than 7,000
people in England have a GSCC practice teaching qualification, few
carry on practice teaching for more than a year after qualifying.
There are two reasons for the shortage of practice teachers – they
are not paid enough nor do they get enough relief from their

8,000 practice placements are provided each year, half of them in
councils. So where will the extra placements come from? A clue may
be in the vague definition of “practice experience” used by the
government when talking about the degree, says Mark Peel, director
of social work studies at the Open University. This leaves room for
approaches other than that of one practice teacher to one student,
he says.

foresees universities being expected to be more creative over
practice learning. So the Open University’s IT department has
created an “all-singing, all-dancing high-tech way of doing it”, he
says. The OU has devised a practice environment database that
allows students to make changes to a virtual community, so they can
see the impact of their decisions.

a good way to pick up practice skills as an alternative to
placements,” says Peel. “Combining this virtual practice with
placements is likely to be the best way forward. Programme
directors say they are finding it difficult to find placements for
their students, so any model that supplements them with other ways
of helping social workers gain the skills they need has got to be

Another computer-based approach
being explored by universities is e-learning, which overcomes
problems of travel, location and time. And the wealth of placement
opportunities on offer elsewhere – agencies that social work has
dispersed to, such as the NHS, criminal justice agencies and
primary care trusts, as well as the private and voluntary sectors –
should not be overlooked either. A problem here, however, is that
most voluntary organisations cannot afford to fund

Keefe is not concerned about the availability of appropriate funds:
“I’m confident that additional funds will be made available by the
DoH to match the increased practice learning

expect to see the re-emergence of practice learning centres. These
were units where students were taught together, the idea being that
this was cost-effective. But when the GSCC’s predecessor, CCETSW,
changed its funding arrangements for practice learning several
years ago, it became clear that this had not been so.

Instead of signing individual
contracts with the centres, CCETSW decided to distribute money to
DipSW programmes to allow them to decide how best to use the money.
Most stopped funding practice learning centres, choosing instead to
purchase practice teacher placements directly with social services
departments. So, with the loss of funding, most centres

Wilkes, operations manager in the social work, education and
training division of the GSCC, says: “The majority chose not to
fund these centres, which might indicate that they felt it wasn’t
the best use of funding.”

GSCC is not going to revert to the previous system of funding, so
universities will have to work out the best ways of providing
placements, Wilkes says. “Should the higher education sector wish
to set up centres in tandem with those handling the funding, they
will be at liberty to do so.”

is in favour of several options for practice learning, including
the return of practice learning centres as long as they can be
cost-effective. “I would be delighted if centres were to re-emerge
because it would be a clear demonstration that organisations we
work with are putting resources into practice teaching.”

Oxfordshire Practice Learning Centre is one of the old units
formerly funded by CCETSW. Its funding now comes from Ruskin
College, which runs a DipSW course, and Barnet House at Oxford
University. It’s a small outfit, with two part-time practice
teachers, Cathy Lloyd and Dave Wysling, and takes 15 students a

bulk of their work is finding suitable placements for students in
the voluntary and community sectors. Like others, Lloyd is waiting
to see what comes out of the curriculum. “There are still huge
questions about how practice teaching is going to operate. We think
some will be virtual placement learning, so not all of it will be
in the field doing the job,” she says.

the relationship an individual practice teacher has with their
student is central to the learning process and we wouldn’t want
that to be taken away.”

believes that practice learning centres will become an important
tool in helping to boost recruitment and retention. They are an
attractive proposition to social services directors who want their
unqualified staff to be trained, he says.

most agree about the priority that should be given to high-quality
practice learning, there are some who still want a debate over the
balance between the amount of time spent in practice learning and
gaining the underpinning knowledge. The problem here is that the
balance varies for different groups of students, says Keefe. Some
come on a social work course with very little academic background
but with substantial prior experience, so they need plenty of
opportunity to develop their knowledge base and cognitive skills.
Others come with a social science background and need more
opportunities to develop their practical skills. The difficulty is
in designing a programme that reflects their different needs, he

“Personally, I’m not certain that
200 days is the right compromise,” says Keefe. “I would prefer to
see more emphasis on the classroom side of things. After all, the
justification for moving from a two-year diploma to a three-year
degree, particularly for non-graduate students, was primarily to
allow more time for academic development.”

there is consensus for a range of practice learning options, the
role of practice teachers remains vital, says Wilkes. “Students
must have contact time with service users and be assessed on their
capacity to carry out that work. Ultimately, nobody can be a
substitute for a practice teacher.”

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