Cuts take toll on student placements at councils

Placements for social work students in council settings were slashed by 11% last year, a ­Community Care investigation has revealed.

More than 70 councils across the UK said they were providing fewer placements this academic year compared with 2009-10 – more than 40% of the 162 authorities that replied to our Freedom of Information request.

The fall in placements comes despite national requirements for all social work degree students to gain experience of statutory tasks involving legal interventions before qualifying.

The Social Work Reform Board said that all students should have at least one ­placement in a local authority, mental health trust or national organisation undertaking statutory work. Other placements are delivered in the voluntary or private sectors.

Students have used CareSpace, Community Care‘s online forum, and letters to the magazine to raise concerns about inappropriate placements.

Providers such as a Sure Start children’s centre, a further education college and a primary school were deemed unsuitable, as students struggled to find places with local authorities.

Community Care contacted all local authorities in England, Wales and Scotland and health and social care trusts in Northern Ireland at the end of last year, asking for the number of social work placements offered in 2009-10, and how many they were likely to provide in 2010-11.

Our survey revealed Scottish councils were responsible for the most significant reductions in placements at 17%, followed by Wales with 11% and 10% in England.

The only part of the UK to have avoided significant cuts in student placements is Northern Ireland, where health and social care trusts reported a reduction of less than 1% in 2010-11 compared with the previous year.

Hounslow Council, which cut its placements by 64%, blamed the reduction on a shortage of practice teachers, while others pointed to rising pressure on social work teams caused by widespread spending cuts and increased demand for services.

John Nawrockyi, secretary of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services’ workforce network, said: “Councils are doing well in maintaining 90% of placements in such dramatically difficult circumstances.”

Our figures revealed that more councils were cutting placements in adults’ services than children’s, something Nawrockyi said was explained by the “widespread systemic change required by personalisation”.

However, social work lecturers warned that reductions in the numbers of placements could damage students’ career prospects.

Association of Professors of Social Work chair Sue White said: “This will have a significant impact on students, particularly if they are looking for their first post-qualifying post in a statutory service.”

The General Social Care Council recently highlighted a fall in the proportion of student placements being provided by councils in England.

The regulator’s annual report on social work education for 2009-10, published last week, showed local authorities delivered 44% of practice placements in 2008-9, down from 47% in 2007-8 and 48% in 2006-7.

Graham Ixer, head of social work education at the General Social Care Council, said: “Anecdotally, we have been told by sector representatives that local authority social workers find it more difficult to manage social work placements because of increased workloads.

“Also, in areas with large numbers of universities there is often increased competition for placements.”

Ixer emphasised that stronger partnerships between universities and employers were needed to match the supply of placements with demand from courses, and these were already visible in some areas.

Community Care revealed in September that Birmingham Council had cut the number of student placements by more than half in the previous year.

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