Degree of hope

Pencils are being sharpened as students across England prepare
to begin the first ever social work degree this autumn. John
Hutton, former health minister, announced the new training
programme for social workers in March 2001, with assurances that it
would transform the profession.

The new degree replaces the 14-year-old Diploma in Social Work
(DipSW). Academic institutions’ final intake of DipSW students will
take place in January.

Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) has 55 undergraduates
studying for the social work degree, a third of whom are aged 18 or
19. Aidan Worsley, head of social work at MMU, says the new degree
is a professional qualification requiring students “to show they
can walk the walk and get out there and be a social worker”.

He says MMU is looking at ways to involve service users in the
development of its degree and believes this approach will benefit
students. MMU’s social work degree is also linked with youth

The University of Bradford also has 55 undergraduates starting
full-time on its degree course this autumn. Next year it plans to
run a masters course and a part-time version of the degree. Social
work programme director Pat Wilkinson says she is excited about the
degree: “The opportunity to focus on practice and be responsive to
a whole range of social work employers is much greater with the

Wilkinson wants her students to have a well-rounded view and be
confident of their skills: “They will need to appropriately
challenge managers’ skills and be able to make a decision based on
their own judgement.” This is a skill that was highlighted as
lacking in the Victoria Climbi’ case, she adds.

One of the most significant parts of the new degree is the increase
in practice learning. Under the DipSW, students had to complete
just 130 practice days in two placements. Now each university will
have to decide how they divide the 200 days of practice learning
opportunities over three different placements. Some, such as MMU,
are leaving the practice learning until years two and three, while
others will offer placements in every year. The new phrase
“practice learning opportunities” reflects a move away from
placements solely in traditional social services settings.

Finding suitable practice placements for DipSW students was often a
challenge for universities and there are concerns that with a rise
in practice days, this pressure will intensify. To help, the
government last April announced £7m extra funding to cover the
costs of increased practice learning days. In autumn 2002, the
Department of Health established a practice learning task force,
hosted by social care training organisation Topss England. The task
force will operate until December 2004 and is liaising with the
voluntary, statutory and private sectors, user and carer-led
organisations and higher education institutions to create more
opportunities. Task force project manager Fiona Waddington says
people are working hard to meet the target of increasing practice
learning opportunities by 50 per cent by the end of its

The degree introduces a “practice assessor” as the professional who
teaches and assesses the student on a placement. In the past this
was done by a qualified practice teacher. Some in the sector fear
the change will lead to a reduction in the quality of assessments.
It also begs the question, if they are all assessors, who does the

Konnie Lloyd is co-chairperson of the National Organisation of
Practice Teachers. She says there is “tremendous concern” that the
role of the practice teacher will be diluted. “The role of the
practice assessor is complex and understanding what students do is
essential because they will be assessing students at different

Waddington says while she understands the professionals’ concern,
she insists they have nothing to worry about. “The baseline is that
anyone involved in assessing the development and learning of a
social work student has to undertake training.” She adds that the
task force has a target to increase the numbers of practice
assessors by 50 per cent by December 2004.

The idea of increasing the number of practice days has won
Worsley’s support: “It reminds academics that practice underlines
all our ivory tower teachings so we don’t just have a discussion
about Karl Marx but what social work means to the guy in the
street.” He says longer placements will make students better at
their jobs “because if they are not then we have done something

However, he adds north west England has experienced a shortage of
agencies offering suitable placements. Wilkinson agrees: “The lack
of placements in the past has been horrendous, particularly in
statutory agencies.”

When the idea of a social work degree was first mooted, there was a
concern that it would create a two-tier system within which those
social workers without a degree would lose out. Wilkinson disagrees
that the degree will be valued more highly: “When in employment,
most employers forget what qualification staff have.”

Lloyd says what matters most is the quality of people graduating
from social work courses. The only gap, she says, is the one
between what newly qualified social workers are capable of and what
their hard-pressed employers want them to do.

The sector, adds Worsley, is used to social workers having
different qualifications but still doing the same job. He adds: “I
would be extremely saddened if a two-tier system was the

The student
Bob James is 35 years old and lives in London. He has
worked in therapeutic units and residential homes dealing with
young people with challenging behaviour for 12 years. Before
starting a social work degree at Middlesex University in September,
James was an assessment worker for families in child protection
cases at children’s charity NCH for 18 months. While studying he
hopes to do agency work part-time at NCH and other organisations.
James says he was motivated to do a social work degree because he
“couldn’t move any further in the profession without that
credibility”. He says: “I want to refine my expertise and my
knowledge so my assessments are more effective.” He believes the
three-year degree has more emphasis on practice and performance
than the DipSW, which also appealed to him. He admits that when
other people ask him what course he is studying he thinks twice
before telling them because of the stigma the profession attracts. 
He chose Middlesex University because he felt it was the most
student-focused: “The teaching staff have been very supportive
without compromising their wishes to maintain excellent standards.”
When he finishes his degree he would like to continue working with
adolescents and conduct research into intervention models for
different ethnic groups.

The lecturer
Helen Cosis Brown is principal lecturer and social work
curriculum leader at Middlesex University. The university has 34
undergraduates enrolled on its social work degree, including 10 who
are sponsored by their employers.  Middlesex University has
provided social work qualifications for 30 years and Cosis Brown
says the new degree contains elements of its previous DipSW course.
She is pleased with the degree’s module on communication skills.
Students’ interviews with clients, played by actors, are recorded
and assessed by tutors and students must produce analytical essays
on their interviews.   Cosis Brown agrees with increasing practice
learning days and says having to assess pupils’ suitability before
they undertake practice is important. “The first assessment can
weed people out and it’s about safeguarding the social work agency
providing the practice, the pupil and clients.”  She believes
ensuring enough agencies offer appropriate practice learning
opportunities will remain a challenge for London’s universities.
“DipSW students had some choice over their placements but it’s not
like the choice available 20 years ago.”  Employers might view
those with the new degree more favourably over time, she says. But
she adds that with the current recruitment and retention problems,
employers will be happy to take on competent staff regardless of
the level of their qualification.   

Course work
A total of 66 universities have been accredited by the
General Social Care Council (GSCC) to offer the new degree. The
GSCC has approved 87 social work degree courses, six of which are
at postgraduate level. Last month, 2,340 students started the new
degree. The first students were enrolled at Central Lancashire,
Chichester, Middlesex, Plymouth, Portsmouth and Teesside
universities. Not all courses started this year, some will begin in

The practice teacher
Dave Bosworth has been practice learning officer and
practice teacher at Nottingham Council for one year. He was
previously a qualified social worker in the local authority’s
community learning difficulties team and has worked in social care
for 12 years. During the 1990s, Bosworth taught in Africa as part
of Voluntary Services Overseas. This experience inspired him to
return to teaching and combine it with his career. “I never lost
the desire to teach and as soon as I could I did a part-time
practice teacher award because it was the most rewarding part of my
job.” He says the new degree is one of the most important changes
in social work. “It raises it to graduate level. What social
workers do is eminently professional and should be reflected in the
qualification required to practice it.” Bosworth says the degree’s
commitment to 200 days of practice learning is a “very positive”
move. However, he says ensuring enough organisations provide
practice placements and practice assessors will be a challenge for
universities and agencies alike.  His one concern is the change
from practice teacher to practice assessor. “Using a practice
assessor suggests a student will perform certain tasks for
assessment, whereas having a practice teacher implies that a
student will learn from an experienced and qualified teacher,”
Bosworth says.

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