I trained in social work and started practising in the US, but I’ve worked in London for the past six years as a social worker, manager, on-site supervisor and practice educator. I recognised a need for reform from the moment I began engaging with student social workers in England, so I was looking forward to Sir Martin Narey’s review, published last month.
There are two critical components to a social worker’s development. The first is education, which encompasses the practice placement. Basic social work education should include an introduction to the profession and its goals, direct practice models, history, values and ethics, specialisms, fields of practice and evaluative systems. But, more than that, social work students should be equipped with transferrable skills they are able to apply in any setting where social workers practise. There should be the option of doing two years of generic study followed by a year learning about a chosen specialism, leading to a certificate, and students should be given more options than statutory or voluntary work with children or adults.
The second component is on-the-job training. Though basic skills, theories and intervention methods are taught at university, employers also have a responsibility to build the knowledge base of their employees regarding specific topics, such as case management, legislation, organisational policies and support, supervision and lone working. The development of a social worker should be a dual investment by the educational institution and the employer. Even if you provide a specialist certificate option to students, every local authority implements tasks differently.
It is disheartening to hear that newly qualified social workers are not finding work; one would think local authorities would like the opportunity to mould young social workers into the practitioners their clients need. I do understand that there is the consideration of the quality of students. Why not, then, offer a premier induction to student social workers so the moulding process begins immediately? Local authority social work teams could each take one or two students, give them a three to five-week induction/introduction to practical children’s social care and a one-week induction into their respective teams, then get them started in the field shadowing and doing joint visits with senior practitioners.
This approach is contingent upon students being of a high calibre and eager to learn, but it could work and would foster loyalty to the local authority from the outset. Those hired by the local authority where they completed their placement (provided they have the specialist certificate and a thorough induction as proposed above) could be exempt from the Assessed and Supported Year in Employment, as they would be already integrated into the working environment.
However, it would also require stable, committed practice educators. And I have to say, I was taken aback by the amount of work practice educators are expected to undertake on behalf of the student here, which doubles if the practice educator happens to be on-site. It amazes me that I have to prove a student is meeting all the targets. In my mind, this is for the student to prove through the use of real life examples in assignments (corroborated by me), as well as participation in course activities. This was certainly my experience when I was at university.
So I would argue that, as well as a specialist certificate and improved induction process, there is a business case for larger local authorities to recruit dedicated practice educator teams who do nothing more than manage and support social work students.
Tiffany Green is director of TG Consultancy