‘Why missing out on your first-choice practice placement could set you up well for social work’

A rich and varied practice placement experience is a good foundation for social work - and may take your career in an unexpected direction, says Blair McPherson

By Blair McPherson
The part of your social work training that is going to stick with you and which you will refer back to is the student placement. A good experience will confirm you have made the right career choice, it will boost your confidence and maintain your levels of enthusiasm. Demand for popular placements and good practice teachers inevitably means not everyone gets their first choice or even their second choice. Most students don’t look beyond field social work so the choice is children or adults. Very few people put working with older people as a first choice. This is interesting because the biggest area of social work in terms of both number of clients and budget is older people.
Before I was accepted onto the social work course at Birmingham University I had worked in a children’s home, a special school and been a trainee social worker for two years. The trainee scheme involved a series of six-month and three-month placements. Six months in an adolescent unit was followed by six months in a rehabilitation unit for people with a physical disability and then three-month placements in a field social work office, a residential care home, an under-5s day nursery and a respite care unit for children with multiple disabilities. Although I was only in my 20s, by the time I got to the course I considered myself a bit of an expert in “doing placements”.
I didn’t choose any of these placements. I certainly wouldn’t have chosen to work in a home for older people and it was as depressing and uninspiring as I feared it would be. So it may surprise you to learn that on qualifying I joined a social work team for older people! Why? Because the team manager made it sound very different and exciting and my placements had prepared me for doing different things.
I became a specialist in dementia and part of a multi-disciplinary team operating out of a social services home offering respite care and day care. Later I supervised a small specialist team of home care assistants. The innovative nature of this post gave me experience, opportunities and skills which set me up for the rest of my career. This ultimately led to being a director of community services which included libraries, museums, registrars, coroners’ support and adult education  as well as adult social services – but that’s another story.
The lesson here is that your career rarely follows the path you imagined when you started. Skills are transferable across client groups, services and organisations. It’s not that all experiences are valuable, it’s just that it is not possible at the time to know which ones will be the valuable ones.
Blair McPherson is a former director of community services and author and commentator on the public sector www.blairmcpherson.co.uk

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One Response to ‘Why missing out on your first-choice practice placement could set you up well for social work’

  1. Pat Curran December 11, 2014 at 5:57 pm #

    Thank you Blair for an interesting article which is insightful and will prove invaluable to students. Alas due to the significant fee reduction this academic year for independent practice teachers their expertise is being lost because quite simply they cannot afford with their rising costs to continue in this role or be forced to cut down on the number of students. Add on the number of non statutory providers who are no longer able to provide placements for the same reason and student experiences is somewhat diluted. That said universities such as Bedfordshire and Northampton are working very hard to maintain the high quality of their placements which is a credit to them and their professionalism.