Story updated 2 April 2020
For social workers, coronavirus has been a perfect storm: a depleted workforce struggling to deliver services to a population experiencing increased need in the face of social distancing rules that further restrict practitioners’ ability to respond.
But what of tomorrow’s practitioners, the students on social work courses, many of whom will have been on placement working alongside those same social workers when the government’s so-called ‘lockdown’ started last month?
In particular, what will the pandemic mean for their prospects for completing their courses and registering as social workers, their welfare and their ability to contribute to the fight against Covid-19?
While students across all courses, and their lecturers, are having to adjust to universities moving teaching online wholesale, the biggest impact on social work students appears to be in relation to their placements.
Many are being cancelled or postponed by local authorities and education providers, in response to employers’ need to change their working practices and reduced capacity to support students.
In its latest guidance for education providers and social work students, Social Work England said that placements “may continue if they are appropriate to do so, be suspended, interrupted or deferred”.
More on social work’s response to coronavirus
The “primary concern” in which of these routes should be chosen should be “student wellbeing, safety and the need for support and supervision”, it said.
However, it is not clear how far this is driving decision-making. Initial results from the British Association of Social Workers’ ongoing survey of the impact of the crisis on the profession raised concerns that students not wanting to remain in their placements were feeling pressured to do so for fear of jeopardising their graduation and career prospects.
‘We didn’t know if we’d be able to stay on course’
One second-year student on placement who contacted Community Care said: “Placements started to fail and there was little information received from university other than to attend placement if we were able to. There was no indication as to whether we had a choice, simply it was the choice of the placement setting.”
She and fellow students then put a series of questions to the university about circumstances in which they could withdraw from placements, including because of school closures or because they had underlying health conditions, and the implications of doing so.
She added that the university said withdrawal was fine in these circumstances but was not clear on the implications. The student added:
We didn’t know if this would hinder progression to our final year or even termination from the programme.”
University social work courses are based on students undertaking two placements, typically a first of 70 and a second of 100 days, the assessment of which contributes to their final result.
Cutting placements short
The current Social Work England standards governing courses do not specify a set number of days for students’ practice learning – instead, they state that “the structure, duration and range of practice based learning will support the achievement of the learning outcomes and the professional standards”.
Timing here is crucial as Social Work England standards due to come into force later this year will require education providers to ensure students do a minimum of 200 days’ practice learning.
In this context, the regulator said that “in these exceptional circumstances, education providers can consider a reduction in the number of placement days” so long as they ensure that students “meet our standards at the point they wish to apply to join the register”.
Education providers will also be able to vary the requirements for types of evidence, such as the number of observations and feedback, as long as standards are met.
However, academic face a delicate balance in enabling students to complete and pass their degrees, safeguarding their welfare and ensuring standards Social Work England’s standards are met, as Keele University lecturer Helen Franklin set out on Twitter today.
We have a steer from SWE. We do need to get people through asap, by expected timescales, but it is a fine balance between our duty of care for a student’s safety, and ensuring that the individual student has met the PCF requirements. We can’t push every student through.
— Helen Franklin (@helfrank) April 1, 2020
Another issue is that a number of final-year students already have job offers, but are facing uncertainty over these because of the risks of them not being able to complete their courses and register as social workers.
Respondents to BASW’s survey also raised concerns about the impact of the crisis on access to student finance.
The NHS Business Services Authority (NHSBSA), which manages the social work bursary, has said that payments will continue as scheduled during the period of university closures regardless of whether a student’s placement is halted.
Parts of the bursary are contingent on the student’s circumstances, including their income, childcare costs and placement travel costs. While students should continue to inform NHSBSA of any significant changes in their circumstances, an authority spokesperson said: “We do not expect that students will pay back bursary payments as a result of the changes during this time, the NHSBSA are making payments based on the information that they currently hold.”
Also, students will not have to pay back bursary money if their placement is halted, it has confirmed on Twitter.
Applications for bursaries for the 2020-21 academic year, starting in September, were temporarily paused, to allow the authority to focus on making payments for the current year, but this has now resumed. Students need to send in their applications before the end of August to ensure payment in September.
What of the fast-track providers, Frontline and Think Ahead, whose current students are working in local authority or NHS trust teams, either as year 1 trainees or year 2 master’s students, and whose forthcoming cohorts are due to start the annual residential summer institutes in July?
In a message posted on Twitter this week, Frontline chief executive Josh McAllister said that, alongside the safety of students, staff and other stakeholders, its priority was “keeping going” and that it was more important than ever for the organisation to be continuing to train social workers.
But he said changes had been made, including remotely conducting recall teaching days for year 1 and year 2 students, weekly unit meetings, during which students are supervised on their cases, and assessment centres for candidates for the 2020 cohort.
Mental health fast-track provider Think Ahead has taken a similar approach, enabling some placement days to take place from home, with all remaining teaching for current cohorts to be delivered remotely. Assessment centres to join the 2020 cohort will also be carried out remotely.
Both Frontline and Think Ahead have confirmed their summer institutes will be going ahead this July. Both are residential and carried over five or six weeks, and would not be permitted in their usual form without a significant relaxation of current social distancing rules.
In his Twitter message, McAllister said: “That will be starting on time. We’re going to have to make some changes to that programme, particularly for the beginning, and we will be communicating that to those affected, but the programme will be going ahead and it will be starting on time.”
Think Ahead’s co-chief executive, Ella Joseph, said: “We are committed to doing everything we can to ensure the 2020 Cohort can begin in July – and expect that to be the case. Over the coming weeks we will be able to share details with people due to join us about any changes we need to make to the programme.”
Joining the battle against Covid-19
Social Work England (SWE) has just opened a temporary register of previously registered social workers to enable them to return to practice and bolster the workforce, without having to meet the usual requirements. This has been something enabled by the Coronavirus Act 2020, recently enacted by Parliament at high speed.
Students, however, are currently not able to register, other than through graduating, though Social Work England has highlighted this could change in “extreme circumstances”.
If students are unable to register to become social workers and placements have been cancelled, how can they contribute to the battle against coronavirus?
Social Work England has said students are able to volunteer in community and wider frontline and NHS support services – however this would not constitute a placement.
The regulator said: “Where a student is engaged in a related employed or volunteering capacity it is important to be clear this is not a practice placement. Therefore, education providers and practice educators will be unable to offer support in the manner ordinarily expected whilst in a placement setting.”
However, it added that a voluntary role may bring valuable learning experiences to students that “could be used retrospectively in the consideration of placement days if there is a clear link to placement learning outcomes or relevance to social work models”.
And it’s not just students seeing the potential opportunities – Oxfordshire County Council recently shared a tweet calling for social work students to talk to them about possible roles. The council said in a statement that it was calling on Oxfordshire residents looking for a ‘new career’ in care “especially if they are looking for new avenues of income during the current coronavirus crisis.”
It may be that other councils follow suit but it is clear that the biggest need in relation to students is ensuring they can complete their courses, graduate and be enabled to bolster the ranks of the workforce, as social workers, as soon as possible.