Last month, a social work student tweeted @CommunityCare to ask if he would find himself “unemployable” if he finished his course without a statutory placement under his belt. We posted his question on the website and the responses poured in – some reassuring, others from students and newly qualified social workers (NQSWs) sharing the same concerns.
“I am a NQSW who qualified in June with no statutory experience in my undergraduate degree. I seem to be lucky if I get an interview for a support type job,” said one respondent, Zoey Whitelaw. “I feel that a statutory placement throughout my degree would have made my applications stand out a bit more, when effectively I am competing with other NQSWs who have up to a year of experience in a statutory setting.”
Nyima Saidy said: “I graduated in July 2012 and still cannot get a social work role. I had a 2:1 classification with a distinction on my dissertation, but it just doesn’t seem to mean anything to employers without statutory experience.”
Statutory placements disappearing
According to a 2011 survey of social work employers by the now defunct General Social Care Council, 66% of placements in England at the time were considered statutory. But, as public spending cuts have begun to bite, universities are reporting that statutory placements are more difficult to secure.
Jane McLenachan, vice-chair of the Social Work Education Committee and head of social work studies at De Montfort University, says the number of statutory placements is being “curtailed”. “There are just so many examples of local authorities where whole frontline teams are being shelved and that’s often including teams that have provided universities with placements,” she says. “So the team goes and the placement setting disappears.”
There is no official requirement for social work students in England to do a statutory placement; they must only “undertake tasks to prepare them for statutory interventions”. “The reality, however, is that unless students have had a placement where they not only have experience of statutory interventions, but also have experience of the systems and processes that local authorities employ, they may well be at a disadvantage in the job market,” says Joe Godden, professional officer for the British Association of Social Workers (BASW).
Thus, the quandary for NQSWs in England is that competition for jobs is fierce and local authorities are increasingly insisting upon statutory experience, yet the number of placements that offer such experience is shrinking.
However, in one part of the UK, this is simply not a problem. In Wales, social work students are guaranteed a placement in a local authority social services department. To be approved by the Care Council of Wales, social work courses must offer one short and two long placements and one of the longer placements has to be in a local authority social services department.
Supply and demand
In 2012-13, 90% of final placements in Wales were in statutory settings and 83% in a field work team. In that year, the Care Council for Wales paid £1.32m to 22 Welsh local authorities who organised 798 placements, known as “practice learning opportunities”.
Under the Welsh model, the demand for NQSWs and the availability of placements is established through strategic meetings between local authorities and universities that take place three times a year, and an annual survey. Universities are prohibited from offering more course places to prospective students than there are placements available within their partner local authority. “Programmes will only be approved for an intake of students that their employer partners can provide practice learning opportunities for,” says Ian Thomas, workforce development manager with the Care Council for Wales. “It effectively acts as a brake on universities trying to expand courses when there aren’t resources for them.”
The Welsh system appears to champion a planned approach to social work education, in contrast to England’s more free market path in which there are definite winners and losers. And an evaluation of the degree undertaken in 2011 showed no appetite for changing the system, says Thomas. “Because we’ve got these arrangements in place, it’s much easier to do some strategic planning for social work education,” he says. “We can deliver what the sector needs.”
Thomas says social work employers are keen on the model, because they know universities won’t inundate them with requests for placements they cannot fulfil. However, within universities there is more of a mixed view: “If you talk to the social work staff at the universities, they like it, but they often have to explain to management why they are not able to expand in the way the university might like them to.”
England ‘more complex’
The question is, could this planned approach work in England? McLenachan says it is an “impressive model” that has often been discussed at Social Work Education Committee meetings. Godden too says the Welsh model is “worth looking at”.
But McLenachan goes on to explain that the situation in England in far more complex than Wales, primarily because the universities offering the social work degree are frequently working with multiple, overlapping local authorities to arrange placements. Coventry University, for example, has partnerships with Solihull, Warwick and Coventry councils.
“The system just doesn’t lend itself to the kind of nice, neat arrangement that they’ve got in Wales,” says McLenachan. Similarly, Kate Johnson, education advisor for The College of Social Work, says the Welsh model is interesting, but adds: “It may work very well in that region, but it is unlikely to be easily replicated in England due to the hugely increased scale of operation of social work education provision.”
Narrowing the definition of social work
Another objection is that the Welsh model is too focused on the statutory element of social work, to the detriment of other sectors and types of experience. Local authorities in Wales “host” students during their studies and organise placements for them, in contrast to England where it is the responsibility of universities. Whilst 41% of shorter placements are with the voluntary or private sector, just 10% of the final placements are. “You have to have employers involved in the management and delivery of the programme,” says Thomas.
Godden thinks there is a danger in following this model. “If social work is defined completely by employers, that could narrow the definition of what social work is,” he says. “Social work shouldn’t just be about producing worker drones that just come into local authorities and do exactly what the local authority wants them to do.”
England is awaiting two major reviews of children’s and adult social work, from Sir Martin Narey and David Croisdale-Appleby respectively. Unless those reviews advocate a major restructuring of the relationship between social work employers and higher education institutions, and the government accepts those recommendations, change is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
But the advice from readers commenting on Community Care’s discussion thread is not to give up. It may be harder for NQSWs in England without statutory placement experience to get work, but they are by no means “unemployable”.
As one respondent said: “I didn’t have any statutory experience when I graduated with a BA in July 2010, but managed to get interviews with four London local authorities and was offered a job by two of them by Sept 2010. In my opinion you need to think about what experience you did gain and clearly identify how that experience can be transferred into a statutory role.”