Lack of statutory practice placements for students leaves newly qualified social workers struggling for jobs

As research into statutory practice placements for students in London finds a chronic shortage, Sally Gillen gauges the extent to which students have to fight for the right experience

It is the classic graduate Catch 22: you can’t get a job without experience and yet nobody will give you a job so that you can get that experience. But while those training for careers in highly competitive job markets anticipate a hard slog for work, once they have completed their studies, social work graduates never expect to be in that position. Chronic staff shortages in social work, highlighted regularly by government recruitment campaigns, promote the message that there are jobs aplenty for those who want them.

But the sales pitch has a flip side. An investigation by Community Care has found that newly qualified social workers are being turned down for jobs – in some cases being forced to accept the salary of an unqualified worker in order to secure a post – and many others who do find work are embarking on their career in social work feeling unconfident and unprepared despite their three years training.

The reason? Practice placements. Graduates are finding, perversely, that their training can be their undoing when it comes to finding a job. A mismatch between government regulations on social work training and the expectations of employers are to blame. While the Department of Health regulations on social work training require students to complete 200 practice learning days in which they carry out “statutory social work tasks including legal interventions”, employers want graduates who have experience of working in a statutory agency, preferably a council.

Exclusive research

That’s bad news for the hundreds of social work graduates who are not provided with a placement in a statutory agency. Exclusive research by Community Care has found that in 2008 more than 200 students qualified as social workers without ever having worked in a local authority or any other statutory agency. Our survey of 77 colleges and universities running the social work degree in England revealed that 22 had not provided statutory placements for all students. The number is likely to be higher, given that 17 refused to provide the information and one had not collated the figures.

Social worker Liz* gained a social work degree in 2006 without working in a council. She has struggled ever since. As part of her training, she did two placements in the voluntary sector. The first was at a drop-in centre for homeless people, which lasted 100 days. “My manager had no social work background at all. Quite early on I voiced concerns several times but I was told there were no other placements,” she says.

Her second placement was at Women’s Aid, where her practice assessor, a freelance worker paid for by the organisation, would visit weekly or fortnightly. If she wanted help in between visits Liz was expected to contact her via e-mail or telephone.

Once she graduated, Liz quickly found that her lack of experience of statutory social work meant she couldn’t even get an interview let alone a job.

Joined agency

“I was told it was because I hadn’t any experience of statutory social work. Eventually I was forced to join an agency because it was my only option, although I would have preferred to have been in a permanent post for the support given to newly qualified workers. At one point I had considered applying for unqualified posts, which was very disheartening. My agency told me to stick with it and they would negotiate with employers. It eventually worked. But I had to work on an unqualified worker’s rate for a month until I proved I could do the work.”

Angela*, a second year social work student, agrees. She also faced a battle with her university over her placement. In her first year she was placed for 20 days with Women’s Aid. Two weeks in, Angela spoke up, concerned that she would not be able to fulfil the occupational standards and complete her portfolio.

“I had been sat in the office doing nothing apart from taking calls on the helpline. After I raised my concerns I was moved to the refuge and did some work where I was able to interview women. I did inform the university but they said there was nowhere else for me to go. But after I left that placement they said they would not use it again.”

She was then placed for five months in a child protection team at a council. “Having worked there I have seen how stressful it is. It is not a job I would want but I learned a lot. The work is as much about performance indicators and time limits as anything else. All the team are overworked and stressed to the hilt. The department is desperately understaffed.”

Statutory sector placement essential

Like many student social workers, Angela believes a placement in the statutory sector is an essential part of the training. And Lord Laming’s recommendation that all social work students should complete a practice placement in the statutory sector is evidence of growing pressure for the training regulations to be addressed. The General Social Care Council has received complaints from students about placements at Bradford College and Liverpool John Moores, London Metropolitan and Canterbury Christ Church universities since September 2007, indicating that students themselves are prepared to push for improvements in what they see as an invaluable part of the social work degree.

But even those placements defined as statutory do not always provide students with the opportunity to do social work, which raises questions about how universities assess the suitability of settings. Between October 2007 and July 2008 seven universities across the north west of England piloted a series of national standards for placements as part of a project run by the General Social Care Council and Skills for Care. They will eventually be made mandatory.

This was something that Laura* found out when she was placed for 100 days in a residential setting for adults with mental health problems, run by a primary care trust.

“It was totally unsuitable. There were no other social workers there and I couldn’t meet the national occupational standards I needed to complete my portfolio. They didn’t know what to do with me.”

Wasn’t listened to

She spent 30 days in the placement before being moved to a local authority child protection team. “I had a meeting to discuss my concerns but I wasn’t listened to. It took a lot of fighting and energy and in the end I found my own placement in the statutory sector by calling on contacts,” she says. “I threw my toys out of the pram.”

Only when she made it known that she was considering legal action, after seeking advice from the British Association of Social Workers, did the university relent and allow Laura to do the placement she had found. She believes that students who are unhappy about their placements must be assertive and insist they are given one that is suitable, even if it means resorting to legal action.

Salima Mawji, of Match Solicitors, which specialises in education law, says students may have a case depending on what they were told about placements by the university at the outset. “It is important for the course provider to make the students aware of what they offer. It may then be arguable that the course provider did not fulfil what they said they would offer and for students to pursue legal action on the basis of breach of contract,” she explains.

Students can seek advice from the National Union of Students or professional organisations such as the British Association of Social Workers, as Laura did.

Seek assurances

Nobody, of course, wants to find themselves in what is likely to be a very stressful situation midway through their course. But Laura and many like her are finding that without proper experience long-term job prospects can be damaged. Those considering the social work degree should seek some assurances about the availability of statutory placements from the course provider before accepting a place.

Asking how many students graduated the previous year and how many had done placements in a statutory agency is a useful starting point. But it is advisable to ask specifically about the numbers of placements in councils as well.

Despite successfully changing placements Laura is now unsure as to whether she will need to complete extra days in order to graduate. Extending her studies would, she says, cause her financial problems because she has not budgeted for them. By the time she graduates she will have debts of about £25,000, despite working part-time during her training.

She gave up an eight-year career as a bank manager and a large salary to train as a social worker. “There are people in my class in the same situation who felt unable to stand up and be counted,” she says. “A lot of people – young and mature students – have not had adequate placements but have not said anything. They have been for job interviews and are being told they haven’t got the experience. Students must stand up for themselves. In the end we are customers of the university and we are paying them a lot of money.”

* Names have been changed.

This article is published in the 16 July 2009 edition of Community Care under the headline “No place to go”

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