Professional development: Reforming practice education

The Social Work Reform Board is proposing that all practice education teachers should be qualified social workers and the quality of placements improved. Sally Gillen reports

The Social Work Reform Board is proposing that all practice education teachers should be qualified social workers and the quality of placements improved. Sally Gillen reports

Without high-quality placements and good practice educators, a social work student’s training and job prospects can be seriously undermined. Yet initiatives set up over the years to generate more placements and attract more people into practice education have had limited success.

Hilary Tompsett, chair of the Joint University Council’s Social Work Education Committee, describes good quality practice education as a “virtuous circle” that benefits students by giving them a grounding in the realities of social work and practice educators by keeping them up-to-date with developing theories. Employers with the foresight to take on students also gain a pool of possible future employees.

As part of the drive to improve social work education in England, the Social Work Reform Board has proposed setting a new requirement that practice educators must be qualified social workers with at least two years’ experience.

However, the board has already identified significant challenges to boosting the field with more social work-qualified teachers, including lack of time, stress and workloads, which are at an all-time high (see “Where students can add value”, below).

Its implementation deadline, originally 2013, has been relaxed to allow extra time to attract more people into practice education. It is now hoped the plans will come into effect by 2016.

Meanwhile, opinion remains divided over whether qualified social workers are best suited to practice teaching, to the exclusion of other professionals.

As a social worker and practice educator, Helen Bonnick supports the reform board’s proposal. “If we want it acknowledged that social work is a distinct body of knowledge and expertise, it is important that student social workers are taught by social workers. It doesn’t make sense for them not to be,” she says.

Writing on Community Care’s online forum, CareSpace, mental health nurse Stuart Sorensen agrees: “Even if your practice teacher is interested in training and teaching they can’t really support you to become a social worker if they’re not a social worker themselves. I don’t think it would work for nurses to be trained by other professions; I must assume this is true for social workers too.”

But June Sadd, a non-social work-qualified practice educator, takes a different view. Her involvement in practice teaching developed from her experience as a service user and she believes those with this background have a lot to contribute to the training of social workers. She currently works as an off-site practice educator for several universities on the south coast.

Sadd says the reform board’s requirement is based on an assumption that qualified social workers are better equipped to be practice educators: “There is no evidence to show non-social workers are not able to do this role. At least there should have been some research into our students’ outcomes before making this decision.

“I’m not saying that all student placements should be with non-social workers but by having one with, and one without, they get a breadth of experience that they would not otherwise have. My knowledge may be different from a social worker’s but values of social justice are the same whether you are a social worker or not.”

The current, unprecedented pressure on services and practitioners, especially those employed in local authorities, will present significant problems when it comes to attracting new practice educators into the field to replace the numbers of unqualified ones no longer able to do the work.

For those considering becoming off-site practice educators, visiting students on placement every fortnight, there are other deterrents. “It is very difficult to work just as a practice educator because you aren’t paid until the placement has finished, which could be months,” says Bonnick. I do know people who are working just as practice educators and it is a nightmare.e_SDRq

Other problems linked to pay also exist. Sadd says the time involved in travelling to placements, plus the fact that practice educator fees do not cover travel costs, mean that a £1,200 student placement fee can work out to be considerably less.

Sadd questions whether the situation will have changed by 2016: “Councils are cutting back a lot, making redundancies and so on. Practice education will be lower down the list of priorities, as they try to get on with the bread and butter stuff.”

Funding pressures raise concerns for future, says practice teacher

 As a qualified social worker and practice teacher at Carers’ Resource, an independent Yorkshire-based charity supporting carers, Kathryn Teasdale (pictured) is worried about the future of practice teaching.

“Because of funding pressures, I have concerns about the future for students and placements. As there is a sum of money attached to hosting a placement, I am worried that some organisations may begin to see this as an opportunity to earn cash and get ‘free labour’ to fill the gaps in their capacity being created by the cuts. Hosting a student properly is a major commitment and involves a great deal of induction, training, support and mentoring throughout.

“Agencies looking to make a quick buck could end up offering substandard levels of encouragement and supervision, leading to a poor experience for the student, the service users and the organisation. While our students have been extremely helpful, this was only after a substantial amount of initial preparatory work by myself and my colleagues. As my own workload increases, I have begun to question whether I can commit the amount of time needed to support further students.

“It would be a tragedy to see students lose the opportunity to be based in the voluntary sector, networking and partnership building. However, in order for them to continue, just as with statutory sector placements, there needs to be a recognition of the increased demands placed on the practice tutor. Perhaps there also needs to be an increase in the amount of funding linked to placements, which would enable organisations to compensate for lost capacity.”


Where students can add value

Social work students can carry out a range of activities, particularly if they are on their final placement. These students, along with those studying at master’s level, would be expected to work independently and take on more complex tasks.

The General Social Care Council requires students on placement in England to meet the National Occupational Standards, but it does not detail the specific tasks to be undertaken. To meet the NOS, students need to show, among other things, that they can plan, engage with service users, make assessments, formulate action plans, review and evaluate and bring work to a conclusion.

Students can gain valuable experience in several settings, not just local authorities. In a family and children’s centre they might, for example, be asked to help with cases involving the common assessment framework. In a school, they might work with a group of parents whose children have special needs. In a service for drug or alcohol users, a student might be part of a support group for abstainers or they might be involved in making assessments for the service and parenting assessments.

As well as the work expectations of the placement, it is normal for an off-site supervisor to set tasks. These might be to demonstrate different examples and styles of recording, read an article and prepare notes for discussion or research and present a particular issue.


Can a professional from a non-social work background adequately teach and asses a social work student?Join the debate on CareSpace

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Related articles

Special report: the Social Work Reform Board’s report

What every social work student needs to know in 2011-12

This article is published in the 6 October 2011 edition of Community Care under the headline “Reforming practice education”

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