Sheffield Hallam university pilots student placements with service users

Direct placement of students in the homes of service users can provide insights into personalisation funding, but is the experience broad enough? Louise Tickle reports

The next generation of social workers will need to be at ease with the changes in the role that will result from the increasing personalisation of services – a message that is starting to be taken on board by the institutions charged with training them.

Sheffield Hallam University‘s pilot, which this year placed three second-year social work students directly with service users for one of their required practice learning elements, is not unique. Plymouth University ran a similar pilot two years ago and has now embedded this type of placement into its degree course.

But it’s not as simple as plonking a student in the home of a service user expecting learning to just happen. Volunteers from Sheffield Hallam’s service user involvement panel were trained in workplace supervision to ensure they were well prepared for the role they would have to take on.

Variety of experience

There was a concern that in being placed with one service user or carer, students would not get the variety of experience needed to fulfil their course requirements – this had to be addressed in the way the pilot was structured.

It emerged that payments which are rightly due to service users who provide practice learning opportunities can compromise their entitlement to benefits. And despite initial feedback being overwhelmingly positive about the value of the learning experience, few such placements are ever likely to be secured, which means that only a small number of the university’s social work students will have the chance to do them.

Now in the second year of running these direct placements, Avril Butler, senior social work lecturer at Plymouth University, says it is worth working to overcome the hurdles.


“Service users’ feedback to students is richer and deeper than we have from any other agency, and so students’ learning is richer and deeper – also because it’s more challenging,” she says.

But what will students learn in this kind of placement that they couldn’t in a local authority or agency setting?

“That the capacity of people to know what they need is great,” says Butler. “And they also very swiftly come to understand that services that are wrong are a terrible waste and frustration, and that therefore to take a little more time to understand what would make a difference in people’s lives, and to be more sensitive to their needs, is more effective in the long term.”

Individual budgets

From his research on individual budgets Guy Daly, associate dean of the faculty of health and life sciences at Coventry University, concludes that for personalisation to work, social workers and care managers must develop a greater appreciation of the opportunities it offers, and be both able and willing to exploit them.

“The antipathy of some professionals and local authorities to the concept will have to be overcome, and social workers will need to develop a greater understanding of what individual budgets are about,” he says.

But Daly is concerned that using direct placements as a way of ensuring newly qualified social workers take this on board may not be an effective strategy.

“It’s about whether they’d get the breadth of experience they need,” he says. “I wonder if they’ll be developing the social work skills, rather than gaining a deeper appreciation of what it means to be a service user.”

At Bournemouth University’s school of health and social care, senior lecturer Gillian Thomas says that some consideration has been given to the idea of direct placements. One drawback, she notes, is that only a small number of students would be able to participate, because it would be difficult to recruit 40 or 50 service users willing to offer the placement to an entire cohort.

Though it may seem counter-intuitive, she also says “there may be better ways for students to learn about the service user perspective”. Her course, for instance, has chosen to ask students for an assignment analysing a piece of work they’ve done on placement from a service user’s point of view. To complete it they will have to interview service users and reflect their experiences in their work.

Targeting students

Given the difficulty of securing placements with service users, carefully targeting those students who are likely to benefit the most is likely to be the way ahead in maximising opportunities, suggests Butler.

She is adamant that, as long as the placement supervisor “really knows how to support the students’ learning, you can get really rich learning from all kinds of new and emerging settings, and that includes direct placements with service users”.

Sheffield Hallam is now evaluating its pilot, but feedback so far indicates that it has been an exceptional experience on both sides, says Jane McLenachan, subject leader for social work, social care and community studies, at the university.

“Service users especially have valued the fact that they have a contribution to make to social work education which goes further than being dragged in occasionally to talk about what being ill or old or disabled is like,” she says.


‘It’s about seeing how things work practically’

When social work student Jenny Holroyd began her practice learning placement with service user Geoff Pick, she had no experience of working with disabled people. But now she knows all about the frustration felt by service users organising their daily lives.

Holroyd is one of three students on Sheffield Hallam university’s social work degree to have taken part in this pilot, which offered second year students the chance to do one of their placements based in a service user’s home, rather than in a local authority or agency.

Placement supervisor

Geoff Pick – who also acted as Holroyd’s placement supervisor – says that helping a student see the nitty gritty of his life has been a valuable way of demonstrating the difference in approach that will be needed to achieve the aims of the personalisation agenda. “It’s about seeing how things work practically, rather than learning it from a book or a DVD,” he says.

Arranging transport to facilitate Pick’s busy life, for instance, was surprisingly difficult to arrange. Holroyd says: “Geoff is very active, going to meetings, conferences, shopping and out and about. The planning needed to make sure he could get where he needed to be was incredible.”

Her fellow student Charlene Bennett had her placement with full-time carer Muriel Crookes, and makes the point that, “if you work in an organisation, you see the organisation’s point of view; its concerns, budgets and targets – and you’ll be seeing service users on an appointment basis only. This way we see all that from the service user’s perspective, and it was a great way to understand that it’s really true that every service user has unique needs.”

Huge shifts in practice

The pilot was launched, says Jane McLenachan, subject leader for social work at Sheffield Hallam, in response to the huge shifts in practice that will be required as the numbers of service users managing individual budgets and staff rise. This type of practice learning opportunity, she says, will hopefully help students understand that success in meeting the aims of personalisation means always asking the question, “what’s the best way of using that budget to enhance their lives?” rather than service users being told, “this is what’s available”.

But are the opportunities for learning sufficient for a student placed one-to-one with a service user for their entire placement?

“We had to explore the range of learning opportunities that could be offered by the service users who volunteered in their home environment, map that against the national occupational requirements that students were required to meet, and discovered that there were, in fact, plenty,” says McLenachan.

She points out that to ensure the fullest learning opportunity possible, each student was placed with two service users and also spent time each week at the voluntary sector organisation Inclusive Living Sheffield.

Published in 3 September 2009 issue of Community Care under the heading Placement on the frontline

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