‘This pressure to pass social work students is wrong. Some won’t be up to the job’

Commercial interests risk a reliance on practice educators to weed out trainees without the skills for practice, writes a social work academic


It’s half way through term and I’ve just returned a batch of marking to a group of social work students. They aren’t happy. I’ve a queue outside my office ready to complain.

I feel genuinely sorry for them. Students are working hard, many of them have weekend jobs to survive financially and it must be so difficult to fit in all the academic work. They are all also paying high levels of fees for their academic degree.

This is really hard for them, but I also notice that they are fairly forthright in bringing up how much they are paying for their input. Maybe I’m paranoid, but there is certainly some sense that people have paid their fees and deserve their degree.

The university is also trying to survive in a competitive market and they are very concerned about their student satisfaction levels. They want satisfied students and students not getting the marks they feel they deserve are not happy.

Added together these factors create a strong sense of pressure to pass students. Yet in all this, my own loyalty still lies ultimately with the service user. Who is making sure that people who aren’t up to the job don’t pass their degrees? It shouldn’t be just left to practice educators to weed out people who don’t have the skills for practice, but I’m worried about the pressure on academics to keep students happy and the conflicting demands of an increasingly commercialised university environment.


Today I get an angry email from a student I’ve been helping individually with an essay. He’s not happy with my feedback. I immediately feel defensive. It’s very frustrating to receive criticism from someone you have been striving to help.

Various responses go through my mind but I stop and leave it a few hours until I’m calmer. I compose a thoughtful, and hopefully compassionate response. A short email takes about an hour to write. It reminds me of writing emails when I was in practice – carefully thinking of ways to express myself, self-consciously analysing what aspects of blame I might be taking on, and what could be used against me on future occasions.

It’s not a nice way to work and I’d been hoping in academic life I would have to do less of it: bringing more of myself, and no longer requiring the endless preoccupation of whether you are making yourself professionally vulnerable.

It feels a shame that I’m now doing this in an environment where learning should be central and making mistakes allowed. It seems to me that when we work in this defensive way everybody loses out.


Today I’m teaching a session with another year group. They are enthusiastic and keen to learn. It is a real pleasure to be learning with them and reminding me why I enjoy this job. They are in the middle of their second year and most of them are in third sector placements.

There is a lot of discontent about statutory social workers they are observing who they think are not offering a good enough service. One student comments, ‘It makes me wonder why I’m training to be a social worker. I want to actually help people.’

After many years as a statutory social worker I feel the need to put the other side.

‘People usually want to do more’, I respond, ‘but the cuts are real and very severe. You can’t spend money that isn’t in your budget’.

I try and point out that a key issue is where you locate the blame for this. Is it the individual social workers or team managers trying to stretch resources as best they can or is it the people who made the cuts? And what about the people who voted for the people who made the cuts?

It’s food for thought.

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2 Responses to ‘This pressure to pass social work students is wrong. Some won’t be up to the job’

  1. Alison November 18, 2015 at 3:19 pm #

    Excellent article. Thank you for sharing your experiences in the UK. I’ve had similar teaching experiences in North America. Often Schools of Social Work don’t screen for professional suitability. They don’t look at whether students are capable of doing the work, what the personal agenda is for getting into the field or even require criminal background checks – not that, that really means anything in terms of client safety. Next, the accepted students aren’t taught evidence based skills in an evidence based format. There isn’t a focus on ensuring that faculty update their course outlines every year. They were reviewed, but some of the faculty have used the same course outlines since they received tenure and are using the same outdated teaching methods! The whole process does not seem to be either/or – either you get skills or you get context (anti-oppressive, structural…). It certainly doesn’t seem to be client focused, otherwise every School of Social Work would have the adverse childhood experiences study as a foundation document for understanding and incorporate structural approaches to macro level practice. Every single helper needs to be able to work with someone who has been abused and understand what happens when people experience developmental trauma. Yet, that is not only not the norm, but actually RARE. I feel like our field has totally missed the mark and is now so entrenched that is has become a part of the system which oppresses and continues maintaining the status quo. How can we expect students to see our profession differently, if we do things like everyone else? Students often would say they were there for the piece of paper. That was the worst insult ever, since a piece of paper doesn’t save lives, skilled professionals do.

  2. Alisoun Milne November 20, 2015 at 10:00 am #

    Great article, I so agree that it is our TOP priority to consider whether a student is able and fit to serve the service user and their family. It IS part of an academic’s role to protect the client and work alongside the practice educator is ensuring that weak students are not able to pass. Weak academically and weak in terms of practice skills and values. Social work is a tough job requiring top notch skills. My own University does not always appreciate this and its systems do not necessarily support it. I am sure this is the case at other HEI’s (In fact I know it is). This is a national issue. With all the changes and assaults on social work education (yes education not training!) right now this is not a national priority: but it needs to be. It is matter of social justice for service users. This is not an issue that will go away; thanks for raising it so eloquently.