The practice placement squeeze: what’s the problem?

Last week, Community Care published an open letter from two academics to government ministers about the difficulties faced by universities in finding sufficient statutory placements for social work students, particularly in London and other cities.

As if to illustrate the point, Brunel University in west London announced it was cutting its intake for the social work degree this year from 65 to about 45 because of a lack of placements.

This situation follows four years of effort from government, the General Social Care Council and others to increase the profile and supply of practice placements since the social work degree was introduced.

The degree increased practice learning requirements for students to a minimum of 200 days in England, Scotland and Wales – up from 130 for the Diploma in Social Work – with a requirement of one statutory placement.

Yet in 2003, Jacqui Smith, then social care minister, admitted there was a lack of capacity in the practice teaching system.

Direct funding for placements in England trebled from £7m in 2003-4 to £21m in 2006-7. The Department of Health also set up the Practice Learning Taskforce, which ran from 2003-6 and whose remit was to increase the quantity, quality and diversity of placements. It also set up learning resource centre networks in each region to develop practice learning in their area, and which later took on the taskforce’s functions. They now spend £3m a year on promoting practice learning.

And the DH introduced a performance indicator measuring the number of placements offered by councils.

Between 2003-4 and 2005-6, the average number of placement days offered by councils, either directly or through other employers, for each social worker they employed, rose from nine to 12.8.

And Mike Leadbetter, who led the taskforce, looks back on its record proudly: “We were very successful in getting a range of placements in different places: prisons, schools, health, black and minority ethnic organisations and voluntary ones.”

But he adds: “There were real difficulties in engaging some statutory services, and it’s been an ongoing issue.”

Council variations

There is a wide range in the numbers of placements offered by councils, with 39 of the 150 councils offering 10 or fewer days for each social worker in 2005-6, and 23 offering 17 or more the average for inner London authorities was 11, while unitary councils averaged over 15.

London South Bank University professor of social work Keith Popple, who co-authored last week’s letter, says his university has very good relationships with the councils that supply its placements. But, more generally, he says other employers appear more prepared to offer placements than councils, a view echoed by Leadbetter, now chair of the Children’s Workforce Development Council.

He says many non-council employers appreciate the advantages of taking on a student. Private and voluntary organisations see the prospect of newly qualified social workers entering council work with a knowledge of their sectors’ needs.

Graeme Jones, a practice teacher and executive director of mental health employment support charity Hillside Clubhouse, takes two students a year on 100-day placements.

He says: “If you do it properly, it adds to the organisation. We’ve had students who take on specific pieces of work who really relieve work from staff. Obviously if you have a student who needs more support it can be an issue. But the paybacks outweigh the investment.”

This question of whether students constitute a cost or an investment for employers is the crux of the issue.

Lack of knowledge

In their letter, Popple, and consultant Jan O’Hara, said councils often complained that newly qualified social workers did not have the knowledge expected of them, but that was down to some councils not providing enough placements.

British Association of Social Workers chair Jennifer Orgill, who was a practice learning co-ordinator for Birmingham Council before becoming a freelance practice teacher in London, cites low payment as a main barrier to practitioners becoming practice teachers or assessors, as they are officially known. While employers receive a daily GSCC-funded fee from universities – £18 for public bodies, £28 for those from other sectors – for each placement, they decide how much to pay assessors.

Orgill says the scale of the role – observing and supervising students, writing reports, coaching and assessing – is overly daunting for the money on offer.

A lack of workload relief is another issue. Jones believes half a day a week is a conservative estimate of how much time assessors should devote to placements, which may last more than three months.

But, he adds: “The pressures are the same for charities as for councils, for us if not more so. We face more pressure in terms of keeping ourselves afloat.”

Sandie Keen, adults’ services director at Leeds Council, the best authority in terms of placement provision in 2005-6, says there’s an “inevitable conflict between managing workload and supporting learning”.

But she says the council has seen the investment value in taking on students, in terms of benefits to teams and securing high-quality future employees (see case study).

While Popple and O’Hara called on children’s secretary Ed Balls and care services minister Ivan Lewis to set up a meeting of stakeholders to sort through the current problems and consider increased, ring-fenced funding, Leadbetter points to a problem of culture.

He says: “The social work profession has got to look at other professions, such as law and medicine, and take responsibility for its own training and development. There are problems with resources and vacancies but they are there in other professions too.”

Leadbetter sees no need for another taskforce, but points to the influence of the current performance indicator on increasing provision. He suggests new, “smarter” targets for workforce development, but warns that it could be a long road ahead: “Changing cultures and hearts and minds is very difficult.”

Case study: leeds prioritises investment

In its final report, the Practice Learning Taskforce said that the best councils had champions for practice learning at a high level saw it as an organisational and team responsibility, not an individual one offered incentives to assessors and teams had active relationships with universities, and trained assessors to a high level.

Leeds Council, which provided 33 placement days for every social worker it employed in 2005-6, almost three times the national average, exemplifies a number of these. Adults’ services director Sandie Keen points to a strong partnership with Leeds Metropolitan University, where the council’s four full-time practice teachers have associate lecturer status and teach classes. Social services managers help select students for courses.

Keen also points to the importance of having a full-time practice learning co-ordinator, which she says are few in councils, and says team managers must commit to a specific number of practice days each year as part of their business plans. She adds: “It’s about prioritising investment in practice learning, which Leeds has continued to do.”

Further information
Social work degree practice learning requirement
Figures on local authority provision of practice learning placements for 2005-6

Contact the author
Mithran Samuel

This article appeared in the 27 September issue under the headline “Are students a cost or an investment?”

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