Placements closing, online lectures and uncertain futures: Covid-19’s impact on social work students

Students are facing anxiety over their prospects to complete their courses and join the workforce at a time when the need for them is as great as ever

Image of student at work
Photo: Solis Images/Fotolia

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?

Placement breakdown

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”.

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.

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.

Bursary impact

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.

Fast-track response

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.

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8 Responses to Placements closing, online lectures and uncertain futures: Covid-19’s impact on social work students

  1. Susie Abrahams April 2, 2020 at 7:48 am #

    I recently retired from mentoring students but was aware of the shortage, will this situation compound the problem, and require people to return

  2. Janet April 2, 2020 at 8:43 am #

    It feels as if this article serves partly as a pro-sounding board for Think Ahead and Step Up…when HEIs are also working tirelessly to secure placements for students to return as soon as possible, and many also have plans B and C ready too. We have to be careful that we do not rush through any students who are not ready, including those who would have required a placement extension or retake, in order to boost numbers, as we risk the reputation of Social Workers as being qualified professionals. We need it to be clear that, even in an emergency, we need qualified Social Workers…not cannon fodder.

    What would be useful, is that once the educators release the degree pass status to the regulator, the student is then given an emergency registration, so that they can work immediately as registered qualified social workers, and then be allowed do the paperwork at the same time as working, rather than doing it all before being registered.

    I cannot understand why social work students are not registered anyway…as it is a professional programme. You want students to understand the professional requirements, to uphold the standards…and yet they are not part of the ‘family’ until the end. This really needs to be addressed immediately, because built into that, could be that on degree completion, registration is automatic. Social Work England had the opportunity to do this immediately on taking over as the regulator, but fell short on this point…even though many educators were calling for it, it needs to now do this.

    • Patricia Curran April 3, 2020 at 5:46 pm #

      In Scotland,all student social workers are registered with SSSC, the Scottish equivalent of Social Work England. The courses for undergraduates are 4 years. It makes interesting reading looking at the outcomes of their tribunals for students.

      It goes without saying that some students on graduating are more qualified than others due to University, placements, practice educators.

  3. Alison P April 2, 2020 at 9:36 am #

    This is exactly the same position that AHP students are finding themselves in – occupational therapy, physiotherapy, speech & language, dietitians, all 3rd year students are having placements withdrawn and changed, and for those already with jobs lined up, the prospect of a later graduation or even a question of whether enough placement hours will be done (we need 1000) means we aren’t even sure if we will be able to take up the offers. There was talk of early registration with the HCPC but this seems to depend on the university rather than there being a universal approach. It’s very worrying.

  4. Thompson April 2, 2020 at 10:51 am #

    I think the final year social work students should also be allowed to fast track like the nursing students in final year in order to be able to contribute their own quota to the fight of this covid- 19.The students must have acquired a lot of social work theories and model in addition to the practice placements that would be an added value.
    Moreover, this is an avenue for the Social Work England to wave the ASYE and allow social work graduates to be registered as a qualified social worker immediately after graduation.

    • Wendy April 2, 2020 at 11:43 am #

      As a final year MA student due to qualify in October, I completely agree. Studen nurses are able to fast track, why can’t we?

      We have completed our first placements, passed all of our modules and submitted our dissertations. Our final placements were due to commence this month.

      Surely allowing us to practice not only helps with the current crisis it enables us to remain up to date with our skills!

      • Jim Greer April 2, 2020 at 4:35 pm #

        The type of settings and conditions in which nurses operate are completely different from that of social workers. Many social workers are working from home. There is little opportunity for the sort of support and guidance which can be given to inexperienced staff in a hospital setting. Neither is there is there the same opportunity to observe abnd quality assure what inexperienced staff are doing.
        Anyone keen to get into the frontline should consider the apparent underprovision of suitable PPE for medical staff in many parts of the health service due to the woefully inadequate preparation by the UK Government for the inevitaboe spread of this disease. Already four UK doctors have died and they will not be the last, sadly.
        Universities which have suspended placements have done so to protect the health of students,to ensure that they are not practising without adequate supervision, and to avoid burdening social care agencies with assessment and mentoring tasks.

  5. Disgruntled academic April 3, 2020 at 11:07 pm #

    SWE compounded the problem by advising HEIs to halt placements, which many did, and then reversing the decision 24 hours later with the statement that they could possibly continue. Very confusing for everyone involved, especially those courses that followed the initial advice.