A breed apart

Regardless of whether kaftans were all the rage or Wham! were
number one when you finished studying, student days are often
regarded as halcyon days. Struggling out of bed in time for your
afternoon lecture and conjuring experimental dishes with kidney
beans were the norm. But is this really what being a social care
student is like in 2004? Our exclusive Community Care
survey asked 300 social work students just this and discovered what
motivates them, what worries them and what they expect from their
employers when they qualify.

Student social workers are a different bunch from the stereotypical
student – more are mature students and most already have experience
of the sector: 30 per cent have worked in it for between six months
and two years, 26 per cent for between two and five years and 28
per cent have more than five years’ experience. This experience was
gained mainly through permanent jobs (46 per cent) and volunteering
or work experience (33 per cent).

Student social workers also tend to be well qualified. Before
starting their courses 65 per cent had GCSEs or O-levels, nearly
half had A-levels and 41 per cent had a bachelor degree. Six per
cent had a health-care related qualification.

So why did people decide to return to their textbooks? Forty per
cent say it was because they were already working in social care
and a qualification was a way to further their career, while almost
a quarter wanted to change careers or direction. Having “a fresh
challenge” motivated just 5 per cent. Surprisingly, 12 per cent
said it was simply that they were “interested in the

There are apples all round for teachers. The quality of teaching on
courses was highly regarded – 65 per cent described it as excellent
or good. Enthusiasm for practice placements is also high, with 87
per cent describing their practice teacher as good or excellent and
80 per cent saying the same about the placement itself. However,
more than one-third said they had not received the personal support
they needed during their studies.

So is the effort of studying worth it? Will it prepare students for
the demands of the social care workplace? Three-quarters of our
students believe their courses will prepare them “fairly well” or
“very well”. Nearly three-quarters of students expected to be
working for a local authority within a year of graduating and just
3 per cent see themselves being employed by the independent sector.
And specialisms were starting to emerge – one-third are committed
to children and families work, 13 per cent are keen to go into
mental health and just 8 per cent are interested in working with
older people. Sixteen per cent have yet to make their minds

More than half (57 per cent) expect to earn £20,000 to
£24,999 in the year after graduating. Most expected to
practise as a front-line social worker and 28 per cent think this
will be for between five and 10 years. An ambitious (or
pessimistic) 2 per cent want to work on the front line for as short
a time as possible.

My toughest placement 

Andrew Cozens explains what he learned  from his placement with
maladjusted children.  

My toughest moments on my social work course at Barnett House,
Oxford, were during my second long placement at the Mulberry Bush
School in Standlake. This was a residential school for children
with serious behavioural problems, usually associated with great
trauma in their lives. The school offered a degree of structure, as
well as treatment and education. 

I was 25 and had experience of play and residential work. I had
some intellectual grasp, too, of what such psychological damage
would mean for children’s development.  

But I was totally unprepared for what it would mean for me
personally. Adults had let these children down and every one of us
had to be tested to destruction to see if we could be

My first rousing and breakfast duties were chaos as I struggled
to interpret what was reasonable and what was them “trying it on.”
My instinct was to run away but I knew it was the one thing I
should not do. 

Each child wanted to be treated differently. Each had their own
preferences about how they did things. Some were silent, needing to
be coaxed out of bed; others roared about, shouting at each other.
Initially, like them, I found this early morning battle something
to survive. I dreaded it, to be frank.  

But with the support of my colleagues I began to understand more
about each child, how to respond to them individually and to gain
their trust. By the end of the placement, I was even able to make
suggestions about how their routine might be changed to give them
more structure, as many could not cope easily with long breaks
between activities, particularly at the weekend. It stimulated me
to write about theories underlying residential care as my main
essay topic. 

I learned a lot about myself and about difficult and damaged
children on that placement. I have had these children in the back
of my mind as I have argued for social work’s contribution to the
green paper vision during my year as president of the Association
of Directors of Social Services.  

Andrew Cozens is president of the Association of
Directors of Social Services.

Once bitten, Twice shy

A former practice teacher writes about her difficulties with her
first – and last – student.

Like your first love and your first job, you never forget your
first student. Kim* came with more baggage than British Airways
over the August bank holiday, and was often later than their

Plus, she came with a university health warning. Her tutor
hinted that she wasn’t entirely popular with the other students,
being a little too eager to share the benefit of her (by
self-assessment, extensive) knowledge. 

And then came the racist remark. It was halfway through the
placement. I challenged her. I created opportunities for her to
challenge herself. We tackled it in a three-way meeting and
supervision. She seemed to move on. 

I tried to understand the impact of her life experiences, the
power imbalance between us, and to be direct and honest. I found it
hard. A colleague fed back that there was a glass wall around her:
I felt it and sensed it with her clients. The three “Cs” of social
work: competencies, coursework and connecting. 

Inevitably, a fellow practice teacher had a student who could
have run master classes in empathy. The team loved her: when she
left they had a huge bash. Kim and I went out for a jacket potato.
Everyone else was busy.  I gave her a pass in the course with some
misgivings. I offered evidence of her strengths in some areas and
assessed her as having progressed well. I was very clear about the
work she would need to do on her next placement.  

She gave me a card with effusive thanks, and a picture of a big
bunny giving a small bunny a present. I think I was the small

It was four years ago. The other practice teacher is on her
third student. Kim was my first and last. Like first loves and
first babies, sometimes once is enough.  

* Name has been changed and the writer wishes to remain

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