Learning the way to work

Recent research has shown a link between councils providing good practice learning opportunities and recruiting staff,  write Jonathan Parker and John Whitfield

Last summer, care minister Liam Byrne launched the Options for Excellence review of the social care workforce which, along with the government’s new recruitment campaigns for social workers and social care staff, has again put the spotlight on the sector’s workforce.

In addition to these major initiatives, the Practice Learning Taskforce recently looked at the links between practice learning and the recruitment and retention of staff.

The research found that quality practice learning experiences were important in attracting and retaining recruits and in promoting the council to other prospective employees.

A third of councils that responded said there was a clear link between taking a placement and gaining employment, while the remaining two-thirds did not have such information. This showed a need for the systematic collection and sharing of data about the workforce and practice learning.

Practice learning co-ordinators, practice teachers, new recruits and students said that incentives such as cash bonuses, educational opportunities and on-the-job support were offered to attract new recruits. Less was said, however, about retention bonuses, which may create potential tension between new and existing employees and might be implicated in increased staff turnover.

There was also strong emphasis in councils on the development of a learning environment, socialisation into practice and the opportunity for student and team to test or interview each other at length. But socialisation is double-edged. While it provides benefits for students and prospective employers in developing workers “fit for purpose” and able to “hit the ground running”, it may also inculcate practices that reflect a team ethos rather than critical and challenging practices that are focused on users.

Understanding placements as a way of nurturing new workers does not necessarily provide good practitioners. It may also work against the idea of practice learning in which the social work student learns knowledge, skills and values and questions rather than accepts uncritically to “fit in”.

An increasingly important way of providing new social workers is through “grow your own schemes”. They are effective in recruiting staff but they often “fish from a local and pre-existing pool” and so may subtract from the wider social care workforce. Also they can lead to a misguided idea that the only way to push one’s career forward in social care is to train as a social worker. Such schemes may also contribute to a staff group being recruited from only one or a few ethnic groups, which may reflect the local population but not necessarily create a diverse workforce. The desire to recruit a workforce reflecting the local area may mean that the specific needs of vulnerable groups such as other ethnic minorities are missed.

Another problem with grow your own schemes is that they may restrict practice learning opportunities to those who will work locally and therefore create tensions with universities whose primary obligation is to place students in suitable practice learning opportunities. These schemes need to work closely in partnership with universities.

Once employed the emphasis shifts to retention and there are several strategies used at the recruitment stage to begin the process – offering post-qualifying training, guaranteed levels of supervision, financial tie-ins and so on. The effectiveness of these schemes has not been evaluated and they usually have no association with practice learning, but local initiatives may create competition between councils that impact on wider social care workforce planning. While this may drive up rewards and incentives, as reported by some local authorities in our research, it may create a more fluid and mobile workforce that obstructs long-term planning and increases uncertainties within the workforce.

Recruitment and retention issues also affect those involved in practice learning such as teachers. A range of practical incentives was seen as useful in recruiting and retaining practice teachers, including the payment of individual rewards and workload relief. Importantly, taking students on placement was no longer seen as the singular responsibility of the practice teacher. The study also suggested that the payment of individual rewards may militate against developing a learning culture or team approach by fragmenting rewards and responsibilities.

Respondents said that taking on students enlivened and enriched a team, and helped continued learning and was important in creating a new workforce. People were attracted into a practice teaching role where teams were actively involved in practice learning, offered a variety of supportive measures and enjoyed the encouragement of management. Many teams were paid for their involvement in and support of practice learning. This allowed the team to decide how they wished to spend the money with most saying that training, conferences, team days, books and other resources were bought from this budget. All the team could see the benefit of practice learning and were more likely to respond positively to practice teacher requests for specific pieces of work with students.

It is important that universities and practice agencies work together to develop learning cultures that engage in active and continued workforce planning while recognising competing demands in each sector. Continuing workforce pressures have meant that practice learning opportunities are increasingly seen as part of the strategic response to recruitment initiatives.

However, this has the potential to run at the expense of the learning and development of critical, challenging practice and sometimes counter to the direction of travel of the universities who are providing academic and professional education. For example, the research found that respondents gave little attention to negative reports by students, universities or practice teaching staff, nor did they collect data on the quality of experiences that could inform practice learning in the future.

A false separation between universities and practice may lead to anti-intellectualism on behalf of employer agencies or preciousness among universities that would be to the detriment of both, and especially users of services. A partnership built on respect can assist in workforce planning, diversity and enhancement of the student experience by a concerted effort to maximise learning opportunities that improve the education of students, increase the pool of new recruits and promote the reputation of the employing authority.

For best practice to develop, data-management and sharing systems need to be created that detail any link between practice learning and recruitment and retention of staff or practice teachers. Approaches in which practice learning is the responsibility of every member of the team should be fostered and perhaps this can be best achieved by bridging the perceived practice and academic divide.

Jonathan Parker is professor of social work at Bournemouth University. He has published on social work education, practice learning and dementia care. He is series editor of the Transforming Social Work Practice. John Whitfield is a lecturer in social work at the University of Hull. Before embarking on an academic career he had long experience as a practitioner and manager in youth justice settings.

Training and learning
The author has provided questions about this article to guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at www.communitycare.co.uk/prtl and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be registered on a free, password-protected training log held on the site. This is a service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered professionals.

This article reports the findings of research into the links between practice learning and the recruitment and retention of social work staff. Findings highlighted the lack of access to recruitment and retention data and that existing recruitment schemes were effective but may create problems in the workforce. But positive efforts were being made in constructing team approaches to practice learning.

About the Research
The study consisted of two parts. First, we invited councils in England to take part in a survey of practice learning and recruitment and retention activities. Key contacts were training and development managers. In total, 39 questionnaires were returned. We then undertook follow-up telephone interviews with 11 of the initial respondents and arranged 11 face-to-face interviews with practice teachers and new recruits and a further five telephone or e-mail contacts with new recruits and final year students.

Further information
Further information about this research from the Practice Learning Taskforce website www.practicelearning.org.uk

Contact the author
parkerj@bournemouth.ac.uk  or j.whitfield@hull.ac.uk  

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.