Should England adopt the Welsh model of ensuring all social work students gain statutory experience?

Welsh universities are not allowed to take on more students than there are placements available in their partner local authority. Mathew Little reports

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.”

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4 Responses to Should England adopt the Welsh model of ensuring all social work students gain statutory experience?

  1. Dan, Completely Care Ltd February 5, 2014 at 11:14 am #

    I am a director of a social care agency with branches in England and Wales.

    I agree that statutory placements would a great benefit to social workers coming into the sector. We regularly hear of social workers leaving the sector for other jobs. I understand the average social worker changes career after 8 years.

    Perhaps preparing them better for this career could help them when they get thier first role.

    However, one problem we see from the Welsh system is that the industry has lost it’s flexibility and this is impacting recruitment and staffing.

    This is to the point that candidates with a full set of statutory training from Bristol are not deemed suitable to work in care homes in Newport because their training is not recognised by those care providers.

    My concern would be that restricting the workforce in England more than necessary would result in less people working in the care sector and as a result actually be detrimental to the sector. I think such a move would serve as an obstacle to people coming into the care industry at a time when what we critically need is a boost!

    Dan, Completely Care Ltd.

  2. Rachael Ray February 6, 2014 at 9:24 am #

    I qualified in Wales and had two excellent placements, 80 days in a private fostering agency and my final 100 days with the Local Authority in Children’s Services. Having recently moved to live and work in England I was horrified to hear of two social work students placed in a school which was not able to provide them with the appropriate support or development that they needed. They had no supervision and had clearly been taken on by the school as a way of raising money.

    To ensure NQSWs leave University ready for the workplace they need placements that develop their skills and knowledge, the situation in England needs to change to offer students appropriate placement opportunities.

  3. Joe Godden February 6, 2014 at 12:06 pm #

    Interesting point by Dan re the social work degree in England helps recruitment into the care sector more generally. Certainly when advising NQSWs looking for work that they should also consider gaining more experience if they can’t get the social work post that they want. This could be in a job that would give them more direct experience of local authority social service departments, for example in a care co-ordinator or assessor role or family support worker. Our experience via our mentor scheme is that some NQSWs have been able to get into a social work job after a year or so in these sort of roles. However others also discover that there are some really interesting jobs availalble in the private and voluntary sector in the wider health / social care / housing sector and that that is the career route that they want to follow. I must say that at a recent University Jobs fair in the North West I was very concerned that out of about 15 NQSWs I spoke to only one had had a placement in a local authority. Now that is totally unacceptable.
    Joe Godden Professional Officer BASW

  4. Mala February 7, 2014 at 2:58 pm #

    I am a current social work student in England. Having had no statutory placements I feel that my preparation for work has been woeful. I had joined the course expecting to become trained and ready for employment but I am neither. I doubt with my experience I will be successful finding a social work position and feel that I have wasted my time. I began this course with such zeal only to be let down and disillusioned. Those who accuse the Welsh system of inflexibility make a lie of their own claim that all experience is transferable. In the end poor placements make poor social workers.