Buckinghamshire practice learning solution for social work students

This article appeared on page 38 under the heading Bucks the trend

Five years ago Buckinghamshire Council experienced a sharp decline in the number of practice placements for social work students. Graham Hopkins finds out how they were regained

Practice learning is at the heart of the new degree in social work. Students must spend a minimum of 200 days of their
training in work settings and are assessed throughout this time.

But the quantity and quality of placements remain somewhat erratic and Buckinghamshire Council’s experience was not uncommon. “Historically, our social work students’ practice learning experiences had been declining from 40 to a low of 28 in April 2001-March 2002,” says the council’s qualifications and practice learning co-ordinator, Graham Abdullah Dinn.

“By itself the traditional model of one practice teacher and one student was failing. We needed to identify potential causes and reverse this trend.”

And the trend was reversed quite dramatically. “Over a two-year period from April 2004 to March 2006 we increased the number, diversity and quality of the social work students’ practice learning experiences both within the council and supports within the voluntary and independent settings by 57.57 per cent,” he says.

“In the last financial year a total of 3,229 practice learning days were recorded for 70 students, which now moves us up into
the ‘good’ category for this performance indicator.”

The causes for the initial negative slide were a catalogue of the usual suspects. “We had high vacancy rates which added work
pressures and people were finding it impossible to find the time needed,” says Dinn.

“We were also losing practice teachers because they had become managers; others were completing their own post-qualifying
awards and no longer had the time.” The catalyst for the reversal of fortune came when the General Social Care Council published its codes of practice.

These imposed joint responsibilities for practice learning upon both employer and employee.

With renewed vigour the council began tackling the problem. “In 2003 we began implementing a long-term strategy,” says Dinn.
“This strategy was based upon local research that I carried out that year into final year students’ experiences of practice
learning in social work training. One of the key findings was that 67 per cent of students would consider working for the
organisation upon qualification.”

The strategy became part and parcel of the council’s recruitment and retention drive. Dinn also built on the resources
that already existed. “For over eight years the council had employed two practice teachers for half their working week (18.5
hours), the other half of the week they were employed as social workers within service area teams,” he says. “They acted as both on-site, but predominantly off-site practice teachers, the latter to great effect.”

Other prongs of attack included “Degrees of Understanding” – the social work trainee scheme, which includes three separate
practice experiences being provided within the first year before the trainees attend university in year two.

“We introduced a £6,000 final year bursary scheme for self-funding social work students,” adds Dinn. “Our graduate programme for newly qualified social workers within the children’s service sees employees work for six months within the care and protection team and then another six months within the assessment and referral team. At the end of the year they decide which of the two teams they prefer and a yearly retention bonus of £2,000 is also payable.”

He continues: “Other aspects include a part-time graduate programme senior practitioner to manage and supervise all participants on the scheme, a ‘care ambassador’ scheme for the whole social care workforce, and collaboration with the Thames Valley Learning Resource Network with the council hosting a development worker to both develop and support placements within voluntary and independent settings.”

Dinn believes success has been achieved through “a high degree of commitment on the part of a number of individual practice
educators, other individuals and organisations working in collaboration.”

● To find out more contact Graham Abdullah Dinn on 01296 382921 or e-mail: gdinn@buckscc.gov.uk

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