Many social work students who are lucky enough to find a placement still end up feeling ill-prepared for the workplace. Amy Taylor examines efforts to involve employers in improving the quality of training
Spending half of their social work degree on placement, students should enter the workplace prepared for the demands of frontline practice. The reality is different.
The Social Work Task Force’s final report, published last month, backs up concerns about the extent of the placement shortages in England. Those that are available fail to provide students with the knowledge, skills and values required for safe and effective work with service users. The experience ill-prepares them for the realities of employment and limits their job prospects, the report found.
Graham Ixer, head of social work education at the General Social Care Council, welcomes the taskforce’s focus on placements. “Unless a student has a good quality placement, they will not be able to develop their competences in essential areas of social work,” he says.
The shortage of placements has prompted many course providers to rethink their approach. At Wiltshire College, social work degree admissions tutor Roger Southard wanted to ensure the practice learning elements benefited first-year students.
“Due to the complexity of social work it’s difficult to find something for them,” he says. “They always had a placement but they were starting to get to the edges of what was useful.”
Southard decided to move to a new model where, in 2008, groups of between two and five first-year students started undertaking placements simultaneously in the same agency. He secured agreements from providers in the voluntary and independent sectors to take on students in projects for older people, disabled adults, substance misuse, and children and families.
Southard says the advantage of this model is that the students can carry out joint projects for employers and there are more opportunities to interact with service users. For example, some designed accessible urban walks for disabled people; others worked on a project to monitor the water intake of older people to find out whether it affected the incidence of falls.
Isabel White, 26, is now in her second year of the social work degree at Wiltshire College. Last year she, and two other students, went on placement to the Ordinary Life Project Association (Olpa), a charity based in Warminster, Wiltshire, providing housing and support to people with learning disabilities throughout the county.
The students helped the charity by setting up a focus group so that service users could have their say about the quality of services.
“We gained confidence because there were three of us and we wouldn’t have been able to complete the project otherwise,” White says. “We didn’t want to leave them halfway. With three of us, we could achieve that.”
Sarah Davis, the supported living service co-ordinator at Olpa and the lead contact for the students, believes the group model provided a positive experience for students and staff. “The students had time to sit down and do this work,” she says. “They could do things that we [charity staff] would all like to do but other things take over.”
The taskforce wants all students to have worthwhile placements, and that they all complete at least one statutory placement.
Other proposals include reducing the length of placements from 200 to no fewer than 130 days to provide a “sharper focus” on what students are meant to achieve, and placing a duty on higher education institutions and employers to regularly audit the quality of placements.
To address concerns about the quality of supervision and assessment, the status of practice educators in social work career structures will be raised, while there will be national standards for those who teach and assess students on placement.
Funding arrangements for placements will also be revised, with financial rewards for employers and universities that provide high-quality placements and the introduction of a new status of advanced teaching organisation for service providers such as local authorities.
Ixer says the taskforce’s plans are sure to drive up quality, with the incentive scheme playing a major part.
“It is an excellent idea,” he says. “At the moment, funding for placements is allocated in accordance with the number of days completed. Although quality of placement delivery is measured as part of annual monitoring, it is not directly linked to funding.”
Manchester placements in less traditional settings
Manchester and Stockport councils are involved in the development of the degree programme at Manchester Metropolitan University, including practice learning.
“We have a panel consisting of representatives from different local authorities and agencies as well as university staff, which has an overview role for practice development and a key role in assessment,” says Liz Pell, the university’s head of social work.
Pell says education institutions ought to be flexible and understand that sometimes a council may be unable to provide placements.
“Apart from the frontline service requirements there are challenges for employers in terms of internal support for social workers doing continued professional development or on the newly qualified social worker programme,” she says. “It’s about recognising that different local authorities have different pressures at different times and working with that.”
Rachel Lomas, workforce planning and development officer at Manchester Council, says the university and employers trust one another, which allows flexibility in developing creative solutions in placement provision. For example, the council has organised placements which meet social work competency requirements but in less traditional settings such as schools and Greater Manchester Police.
“The students in schools carry out a family support worker role which might involve running Webster Strachan parenting programmes or self-esteem classes,” says Lomas. “But they also work for the statutory district social worker team so they get experience of both ends of practice.”
Lomas audited the new placement roles against the competences to ensure compliance and recommends this to other councils looking to widen their placement options.
Bournemouth University : “Employers wanted to become more involved”
The Social Care Task Force believes “active partnerships” between employers and education institutions are key to improving the quality of placements .
Bournemouth University recently evaluated its social work degree programme. It decided it wanted more input from employers. Jill Davey, programme leader for the degree at Bournemouth, says this has been successful.
“Now we have employers coming in to give presentations to students and advise on what should be in the course,” she says. “It’s more of a group process in terms of delivery. We said to employers: ‘You want them fit for practice so you need to come in and tell them what you need’. They all said they wanted to be more involved.”
The university has a longstanding relationship with Dorset Council, which provides 35 placements a year. Council representatives attend allocation panel meetings where placements are matched to students and both organisations meet regularly to discuss issues that arise.
Mike Henry, learning and development manager at the council’s children’s services, says managers look for applicants who have carried out their final placement in statutory children’s or adults’ services.
“If someone has had quite recent childcare fieldwork experience you can quickly tell and it shows at interview,” he says.
The university also works closely with Bournemouth Council, where student Cathy McAuliffe went on placement last year with a child safeguarding and assessment team. She says the experience exposed her to challenging situations, including dealing with difficult parents. She also had to battle for services for a boy with learning disabilities. “I did several assessments because he was on the border of eligibility criteria and I had to fight for as much support as I could,” she says.
This article is published in the 14 January issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Placements with added value