Getting the best from social work degree placements

Getting the best from social work degree placements by Dr Barry Cooper, lecturer in social work, Open University

by Dr Barry Cooper, lecturer in social work, Open University.

The Open University Social Work Degree Programme arranges and monitors more than 700 student placements across the UK every year. The following tips and advice are drawn from this experience.


What placement do you want and what do you want to get out of it?

It’s good to be clear about the kind of placement you want – but in the words of the classic Rolling Stones song, “you can’t always get what you want…”  In other words, the supply of social work placements rarely completely matches demand, so you need to be prepared to take advantage of whatever is available.

“I really wanted to work with young people and adolescents, as this was my background experience. However, I was offered a placement in an adult care agency and it brought me right out of my comfort zone. I learned loads and saw aspects of social work that I had no idea about.” Jane – 1st year student

What do you need to do to prepare?

Once you know what your placement is going to be, there are a few questions that will help you get off to a good start:

• What can you find out about where you are going and the practice learning opportunities on offer?

• What information is available locally or online? Ask your placement tutor.

• Take a trip to the office and decide how best to make the journey to get there on time.

• Once you know who your practice teacher/educator will be, make early contact with them to say hello and find out how they like to prepare for students.

What should you do when the placement starts to quickly settle into the team?

The “induction” period is important. Some agencies and practice teachers will have an induction programme while others will expect you to make many of the arrangements. However it happens, you need to take an active part to ensure that you quickly become familiar with who and what you need to know.


• Your immediate colleagues in the team and office are important so get introduced to them and find out their roles. Administrative colleagues are equally important.

• Multi-disciplinary colleagues are also crucial. You’ll discover most on a “need to know” basis arising from your practice learning but check if there are key people that you should contact straightaway.


• Office procedures are vital to get to know quickly so that you can fulfill the tasks and duties expected of you and, crucially, produce evidence of practice competence.

• Health and safety awareness is important for keeping yourself safe. Important things to know include contact arrangements if on home visits, and how to raise the alarm in an emergency.

• Get to know the local area. Walking around, rather than driving, is a much under-estimated way of gaining ‘street knowledge’.

What questions should you ask your tutor and in your placement?

Questions fall into two main categories:

1. Practice that happens in your placement setting

There is no such thing as a stupid question. You will be provided with a wealth of information and should study it all carefully. However, it isn’t possible to cover all eventualities and much of social work practice is ‘implicit’. In other words, it isn’t always clear why things happen the way they do and, as a student, you will be expected to ask questions about what is known as “custom and practice”.

“My advice is ‘don’t suffer in silence’. Asking questions was my way of getting into really interesting conversations with other workers who were always willing to try to answer. They said that it helped them to think of things that they had come to just accept and take for granted. ‘Permission’ to ask questions is one of the advantages of being a student.” Fay – 1st year student

2. Assessment of your practice

The criteria by which you are being assessed are set out in great detail in different sets of National Occupational Standards. Your social work programme has to provide clear processes by which this happens in a transparent manner. You should receive regular feedback on your performance in supervision. If you are in doubt about any aspect of how you are doing, you must ask and be clear. You, your practice teacher and your tutor are the “practice learning team” for your placement and between all three it is important that questions are answered as they arise for all parties to the practice learning agreement.

What is expected of students in placements?

Basically, you are expected to “learn the job” of being a social worker in your particular placement and to “be a student”. As a student you aren’t expected to know how to do everything but you will be expected to take on new practice learning opportunities, be open to professional development and actively contribute to the life and work of the team.

What should you do after the placement ends to make the most of the experience?

If the placement is your first or penultimate then you should carefully review all of your practice feedback from supervision notes, service users and from your practice educator’s report and begin to prepare for your next placement. If it is your final placement, you should remember that professional qualification is just a point at which you go over the threshold of continuing professional development. Learning never ends in social work.

Further reading:

Surviving your Social Work Placement, by Robert Lomax et al (2010), Palgrave

“Careering through social work: Metaphors of continuing professional development”, by Barry Cooper (2010), in Janet Seden, et al (Eds.), Professional Development in Social Work: Complex Issues in Practice, Routledge

Do you have questions about placements? Get advice from fellow students and social workers on CareSpace

Keep up to date with the latest developments in social care Sign up to our daily and weekly emails

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.