A world of good

Social work student placements can be challenging enough in this country. So what did students at Sheffield University make of taking themselves abroad? Graham Hopkins reports

Any student embarking on a social work qualification is required to spend a set minimum time away from their educational institution in a practice placement. In essence, it is an opportunity to test theories in practice.

It can be rewarding, challenging and unpredictable. And it is often the most memorable part of a course. This is certainly the case for a new scheme in South Yorkshire. Whereas most student practice placements organised by universities are with providers listed in the local phone directory, students at Sheffield University are spinning a globe: they can do their practice placements abroad.

“One of the aims in setting up our new degree course was to get students to take a world view, to be aware of social work practice in other countries,” says professor of child welfare, Jan Horwath. “We wanted this to happen in more than a theoretical way.”

She continues: “We are mindful that students will be working with people from a diverse range of cultures, faiths, perspectives and beliefs – so our students can work in some of the countries from where service users in England have originated and gain some insight into their differing needs.”

Students have responded positively. “I thought it was a good idea to have the flexibility to do something different,” says Tony Atkins. “I’m a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints which has its own social workers, so I worked in adoption services in Salt Lake City, Utah.”

Indeed, established charitable and religious organisations proved useful in setting up placements. Sally Madin and Elizabeth Lancaster went to a children’s orphanage in Chennai, India, working for Krupa, a Christian organisation. However, the poverty and culture also profoundly challenged their beliefs. “You take your English social work values across to a place where children aren’t respected as individuals and have no rights,” says Madin. “We watched children beaten with ladles, teachers walk around with sticks, things we would never dream of letting happen to our children.”

Katie Martin joined a summer camp in the US for children with behavioural and social problems. “There were about 400 children and 350 staff,” she says. “It was intense and structured but enjoyable. The extensive use of medication seemed unusual from our perspective.”

The idea of warehousing young people with challenging behaviours in the sun may not sit comfortably here, but it seems to work:

“They responded,” says Martin. “For many of them the people at camp are the only friends they have – so it’s incredibly important to them. It wasn’t direct social work but it was a chance to work with a social work population – to see how hard empowerment really is, helping children see themselves more positively.”

A very positive light fell upon Paul Harries’s placement in Cape Town, South Africa. “It was an absolutely unbelievable experience – being dropped somewhere and all you’ve got is what you’ve learned at university and experienced in social work. You’ve got to deal with and adapt to working with different cultures and a strange environment. But I’d recommend it to anyone – it’s one of the best things you can do.”

Some students said it was stressful to organise their own placement while doing the course. However, a database, informed by student experiences and those of placement providers, will help future students. Horwath says: “Different agencies around the world have heard about the project and want to be involved. We are now also providing a list of questions that students need to be asking when negotiating placements.”

Other students, including Martin, found organising their own placement empowering. “Many of our first placements had been in non-social work settings, such as nurseries. Finding our own meant we got the experience we felt we needed,” she says.

The scheme is, it seems, finding the best of all possible worlds. Horwath says: “It’s proving to be popular and it highlights the wealth of learning that comes from undertaking the placement in a different cultural context.”

Lessons learned

  • Working in a different cultural setting provides an opportunity for personal growth and development.
  • There may be problems completing essays on time, given a lack of computers and e-mail. Horwath says: “We have simplified the assessment task that students complete on placement which should make it easier.”
  • Funding can be problematic as Madin points out: “I funded the placement myself and the General Social Care Council would not pay my travel expenses because the people I worked with couldn’t verify them as they couldn’t speak English – I’ve lost 400.”
  • The scheme gives students a chance to challenge themselves. “They had to do a lot of the research in deciding and negotiating that placement and assess whether it would meet their learning needs,” says Horwath.

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