Practice teaching: the gap years

Practice learning and the provision of placement opportunities to
social work students have been given national prominence by the
launch of the social work degree, the high profile of initiatives
such as the practice learning task force and the incorporation of
practice learning as a key performance indicator.

Although these developments are to be welcomed, concern has also
been voiced at the high drop-out rate from the practice teacher
award, about 50 per cent nationally, and the long-standing
difficulty of retaining practice teachers. It is estimated that as
many as four out of 10 of all practice teachers are “inactive”,
although this figure is believed to be an underestimate.

To find out why – and to strengthen recruitment and retention –
Nottingham Council social services department’s practice learning
team launched a small-scale, long-term study into the aspirations,
concerns and careers of its practice teachers.

Twenty questionnaires were completed by staff who had attended the
department’s internal foundation courses for practice teachers last
year. Although it would be unwise to read too much into such a
modest sample, several clear messages emerge.

First, it was evident that most course participants had been
considering becoming practice teachers for long before enrolling.
Thirteen indicated that they had been waiting for more than a year.
In some cases, staff had been considering the career for several
years – more than four years in one instance.

Various reasons – mainly professional – were offered as to why they
had not more actively pursued practice teaching. Work pressures, a
lack of professional confidence and a desire for more experience
were cited. Worryingly, several people had not trained earlier due
to barriers, perceived and actual. Some could not access an
appropriate training course, one felt that she would not have
received enough support, and one had been dissuaded by her
perception that practice teaching was full of political

There was, however, a sense of timeliness in decisions to adopt the
role at that point in their careers. When course participants were
asked what they hoped to achieve as a practice teacher, all 20 gave
more than one response. Seven believed that, given their experience
and professional maturity, they could now provide a high-quality
placement and felt confident that they could do the task well.
Eight responses highlighted a concern to safeguard the profession
and to assist in providing good, competent fellow workers. As would
be expected from experienced practitioners, some also mentioned how
providing practice learning would enhance their own skills,
knowledge and practice.

It is pleasing that new practice teachers feel motivated, can
provide a quality product and believe the time is right for them to
embark on such a demanding and skilful task.

Although it is clear that staff had come to practice teaching at
their own pace, the length of time people took to decide on the
career deserves further consideration. Given the huge shortage of
placements and practice teachers, the profession cannot afford the
luxury of practitioners waiting several years before they assume
the role. The practice learning task force estimates that there
will be a shortfall of about 400,000 practice learning days by
2006-7 unless additional placements and practice assessors are
identified, trained and supported. It is clear that work by
practice learning teams and line managers to identify, encourage
and equip staff to become practice teachers earlier needs to be
given a higher priority. It could also be suggested that, given the
new prominence of practice learning in the performance indicator
system, that employers need to consider how they can free staff
from the constraints that prevent them starting their practice
teaching careers earlier.

The crucial role played by line managers, and the practice learning
team in creating and sustaining practice learning was highlighted
throughout the survey. Four respondents indicated that they had
been encouraged by their line managers to put themselves forward
for the course. It is implicit in two of these responses that this
reassurance and direction was the determining factor in their
decision. Conversely, three indicated that poor line manager
support in the future could be an issue and might force them to
reconsider their willingness to take a career in practice teaching.
Five indicated that continuing support from their line manager
would be crucial to their success in providing a quality placement.
Given the centrality of the line manager in supervision and
decision-making, it is not surprising that they exert a strong
influence on the ability of their staff to go into practice

The practice learning team was also identified as a key source of
support. Three respondents indicated that proactive contact from
the practice learning team had persuaded them to apply for the
course, and 11 out of the 20 felt that the practice learning team
would be their major source of support in the future. Practice
teachers need and deserve consistent, high-quality support. It
would be interesting to know how many practice teachers have
historically dropped out due to inadequate support. Again, given
their scarcity and their role in the recruitment of new staff
employers simply cannot afford to let practice teachers drift away.

The need for continuing support and recognition is echoed
throughout the study. When respondents were invited to voice their
fears about what might prevent them practice-teaching in the
future, 13 of the 20 indicated pressure of work and the need to
simultaneously accommodate a student. Four cited organisational
change, and a five more suggested moving jobs could affect them.
All these factors are an ever present reality in contemporary
social work and are reasons why practice teaching is in need of
constant reinforcement. Another well documented reason for practice
teachers deserting the task is the move into management. Six of our
sample acknowledged that a primary reason they had chosen to become
a practice teacher was to help promotion prospects.

Since the study started, three of the respondents have left
practice teaching in the department, two have moved to other
employers and one has moved into management. This attrition is not
uncommon. An oft-quoted statistic suggests that most practice
teachers take only one student before discontinuing the role.
Similarly, there is a large pool of practice teachers who, like
actors, are “resting” – undecided as to whether they wish to

Given the increasing demand for placements these trends must be
reversed. The recruitment and retention of such a scarce resource
is far from easy but essential to the success of the social work

Ian Mathews is practice learning officer for Nottingham
Council social services department.


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