Doomed to drop out?

Despite the recent growth of interest in qualifications, little
attention has been paid to part one of the post-qualifying award in
social work (PQ1) and the challenge it presents to experienced
social workers who may have qualified five or more years ago.

PQ1 is often overlooked as an insignificant award, its sole purpose
being to provide access to the more prestigious and substantial
post-qualifying awards, such as the child care award or approved
social worker training. Yet the experiences of agency
co-ordinators, mentors and academic staff at Kingston University
involved since 2000 with the South and West London and Surrey
(Sawlas) partnership have suggested that PQ1 can provide valuable
information about the skills, abilities and learning needs of the
present workforce of qualified social workers. As such, it offers
some important messages for employers and government, who are
seeking to raise professional standards and prepare for

After all, concern over variations in social work training was one
of the factors underpinning the development of the new social work
degree. The review of the Diploma in Social Work considered
problems about its “fitness for purpose”.1 The review praised the
DipSW for enabling a variety of students to enter social work,
including those without traditional university entry
qualifications, but expressed concern that DipSW competences were
interpreted differently in different programmes.

As experienced social workers come into contact for the first time
with the PQ framework, these differences in basic training may
explain the wide variations encountered on the Sawlas programme in
the way students have responded to the requirements of PQ1.

The Sawlas course is a fast-track PQ1 programme for social workers
qualified for more than two years that awards one-third of the
credits required for a full post-qualifying award. Students receive
two days’ academic teaching at the university, combined with four
group or individual mentor sessions, normally provided by their
agency, over a three- to four-month period. They produce a critical
career review and a 4,000-word commentary on current case material,
which reflects on their progress since they qualified.

Evaluations of the programme have shown that many found it a good
learning opportunity, welcoming the chance to gain up-to-date
knowledge of theory and research. Many felt motivated to move on to
other post-qualifying awards as a result of achieving a PQ1.

But programme organisers were increasingly aware that a significant
minority were dropping out of the course. In Surrey social
services, 37 per cent of candidates were not completing the course
and, in group supervision, agency mentors started to make links
between this and an unexpected range of learning needs they had
noticed with students. While these needs did not prevent workers
performing effectively in practice, they affected their ability for
written work.

It is difficult to untangle the reasons why students fail to
complete a course. Overload may cause students to withdraw if they
are working in a highly pressured environment, possibly without
management support or any opportunity to take study leave in work
time. The quality of the course itself may be another cause. Yet
these explanations could also mask underlying difficulties in
learning. So a questionnaire was sent to stakeholders in the Sawlas
partnership to promote discussion about why students were failing.

Two main difficulties were identified. Lack of confidence in study
skills was thought to be one significant factor. Social workers who
had not studied for a number of years sometimes found it difficult
to identify the theories, research and values underpinning their
work, even though they had kept up to date with the legal and
policy context of their work. Experienced workers were also less
likely to be familiar with the reflective and competence-based
approaches to learning in PQ, which may not have been taught when
they qualified. Without a firm foundation in approaches to
learning, what might have begun as lack of confidence in study
skills had for some students led to high levels of anxiety, which
prevented them completing the PQ1.

Second, a small number of social workers were thought to have
specific, possibly unrecognised, learning needs. Dyslexia
(affecting some 4 per cent of the population) was one possible
cause of difficulties in producing written work. Individuals can
devise a range of open and hidden strategies to manage, but the
requirements of the PQ1 programme tested this in a very direct way.

Another specific learning need concerned some for whom English was
a second language. As the education and the assimilation of
immigrants into a predominantly white, European culture is a
complex issue, sensitive handling within the mentoring relationship
was necessary. Without proper support and training, the fear of
being discriminatory sometimes prevented mentors addressing the
language needs of students effectively; also, it was likely that
fear of discrimination prevented some students seeking support.

When the new social work degree is introduced, screening for key
skills will take place at the point of entry, enabling learning
needs to be addressed appropriately either before or during
training. But increasing pressures to raise standards mean that the
employers of 50,000 staff have a responsibility to enable their
workers to achieve PQ1.2 The General Social Care Council’s codes of
practice state that employers must provide training and development
opportunities to enable workers to strengthen their skills and
knowledge. They should also support staff in meeting eligibility
criteria for registration and requirements for continuing
professional development. Social workers who “fall at the first
hurdle” of PQ1 may have their future career prospects damaged and
their value to their employer reduced. They may be denied access to
pay increments or further training in the PQ framework. In the
longer term, they may not be eligible for certain types of

Ultimately, individual social workers must commit themselves to
their own development. But employers and staff involved in
providing post-qualifying training, with PQ1 as the first stage,
must recognise that, in a diverse and differently trained
workforce, there should be a variety of routes leading to

Staff must feel safe enough to discuss their individual learning
needs, not just in an academic environment or with mentors, but
with their line managers too. The likely range of needs should be
acknowledged and supported at all levels of the organisation, with
resources allocated to preparing staff to undertake PQ1 if this is
necessary. At Surrey social services, for example, information
sessions for staff are now held to explain the expectations of PQ1,
and the requirements of a competence-based approach to study. Staff
are then given an opportunity to attend a return to study course if
they think this will help them manage the academic requirements of
PQ1 more effectively.

Mentors and line managers also need to extend their awareness of
the services available for people with dyslexia or English as a
second language and to develop skills in recognising when it is
appropriate to encourage staff to use them. It is demoralising for
students to struggle to undertake PQ1 if their learning needs are
not acknowledged, only to fail to meet the requirements when their
work is assessed. If needs are addressed earlier, as part of a
non-discriminatory learning or supervision contract, students can
have access to the additional support they may need while they are
studying for the award. CC Helen Keville was until recently human
resources development manager for Surrey social services


1 JM Consulting, Review of the Delivery of the Diploma
in Social Work in England for the Department of Health, DoH, 2000

2 JM Consulting, Review of the Content of the Diploma in
Social Work – Discussion Paper, DoH, 1998

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