By Rob Mitchell and Catherine Mawn
The air of resigned inevitability that met the announcement of a third national lockdown was quickly replaced with a stream of emails and telephone conversations as social workers hastily rearranged childcare and other caring responsibilities.
Once sorted, thoughts quickly then moved on to how social workers would ensure the wellbeing of people we support. Virtual calls, safe and well telephone checks and PPE supplies re-checked ready for face-to-face visits.
Finally, we then took time to think about our support to our social work students. Students whose studies have already been so badly impacted due to the pandemic. Once again, we found ourselves working out what could be put in place swiftly and effectively to get them through their placements.
During the first lockdown it took social work employers and universities a while to understand the full impact of the pandemic and consequences for student social workers on placement. This resulted in a number of different approaches being taken, and a sense of no overall national plan.
This was understandable given that it was unprecedented circumstances. Social work employers were collectively responding to: keeping people who needed social work support safe; transformation overnight (literally) of social work operational procedures; keeping our social work employees safe and well.
Our collective thoughts and actions had of course to first centre on people who received support, predominantly those at increased risk from the pandemic and the increased risk of isolation in unsafe settings.
As day centres, schools and community resources closed, we become more concerned about how people’s social needs could be met with ever decreasing options available to us.
Confusion for students
However, for many students the lack of a coherent national plan, and resulting diverse approaches from university and placement providers, left them confused. In the immediate aftermath of the first lockdown some students reported feeling abandoned and took to social media to vent their dismay.
It is important to add that among this there were sparks of brilliance, such as the emergence of the virtual social work student community offering support to other students along with colleagues at the British Association of Social Workers (BASW).
It was humbling to see online academics, independent social work educators and practice educators also respond to the situation, filling the gap caused by hastily ended or suspended placements and a lack of alternatives as face-to-face teaching ceased.
The development of a wide range of online support groups, webinars and other learning opportunities served to keep students connected. From the spring onwards it was clear that employers, working with Social Work England and following guidance to work closely with higher education institutions, managed somehow to ensure minimal disruption wherever possible and provide students with the support they needed.
However, we must learn the lessons from the first lockdown and be prepared to challenge ourselves to ensure we get the support right for students who remain impacted once again.
As we now enter a third lockdown, with so much learning and practical experience so badly impacted on due to the pandemic, it is vital that we go further and provide social work students with the guidance and support they need.
This should be provided at a national level so that we do not face the awful consequences of thousands of social work students who may be unable to evidence competence and are therefore not ready to move into practice.
Social work students have lives as complex as anyone else in social work. They are also having to again rearrange childcare and other caring responsibilities, worry about their paid work to support themselves and their families as they also face the impact on their studies and practice placements.
This is the time that the social work community must come together and demonstrate a commitment to social work students. To provide them with tangible support that enables them to continue to balance these acute responsibilities whilst recognising that we have a duty to ensure that practice is safe and sustainable.
Postcode lottery risk
The profession needs to help these students (and their practice educators) and it needs to help them fast. It is no longer acceptable to leave the support to individual universities and employers. Whilst there are great examples of ‘blended learning’ taking place in parts of the country to assist students, it is not a unified offer to all students.
A localised approach to the current situation risks a postcode lottery for our future workforce, who deserve so much better than that. This is not a time for knee-jerk reactions. However, neither is this a time for a reliance on inflexible processes that are only suitable in a non-emergency environment.
As a profession working in an environment where for the second year running A-Level and GCSE exams have been cancelled, we too need to be prepared to think the unthinkable to support our student colleagues.
We feel that if we make the big decisions now and while we have time to put support arrangements in place, there is hope that we can rise to the unprecedented challenge that we are facing.
At a national level, we need a coherent plan across the profession. There are two main areas that any national plan should address:
- A relaxation of requirements
For Social Work England to consider a relaxation of the requirements to fulfil two learning practice placements and 200 days of learning (inclusive of 30 skills days).Instead, it should be accepted that for some students the successful completion of one placement may be considered satisfactory evidence for progression where learning has been well evidenced. We recognise that this is not ideal and would not advocate a reduction on the number of placements lightly. However, a continued reliance on a 70 and final 100-day placement is potentially causing a severe backlog of student placements which will lead to late qualification of students.The profession relies on newly qualified social workers (NQSW) coming into the workforce each year and a delay of qualifying cohorts throughout 2021 could potentially have serious implications for workforce planning and meeting the needs of those we support.
- Working together
That social work employers work together with Skills for Care and Social Work England, to provide a national framework for the assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE) that provides comprehensive support to all qualifying social work students to help deliver ‘on the job’ professional support once registered and employed. The enhanced ASYE should consider that there will be learning gaps for students due to the pandemic but sets out an intensive, individually tailored programme of work to enable these NQSWs to access the extra support they will need post-graduation, to develop and learn and essentially meet any gaps in their skills and knowledge caused by the disruption of the pandemic. Whilst it is acknowledged that not all social work employers provide an assessed and supported year in employment, we would urge the profession to use this opportunity to ‘grasp the nettle’ and request that all those who employ newly qualified social workers sign up to providing the ASYE as a minimum standard for employing social workers.
Stepping up for students
Over the previous year we have seen the most amazing work from social work students. The creativity, innovation, values and resilience that they have shown since March 2020 is probably evidence enough for them to be offered any social work job, anywhere across the sector.
Social work students have stepped up and now it is our turn to do the same. We must demonstrate flexibility. We must not allow the rules and regulations that belong to pre-pandemic work to hold back students or worse still, hinder their progress.
We need to stop counting the number of placements or the days completed and ensure that the opportunities and experiences for students enable them to fulfil placement requirements, while working in such difficult circumstances.
The first year in practice needs to be accepted for this cohort of social work students, who qualify during the pandemic, as part of the continued learning experience. We owe it to the people we support to ensure that the talent pipeline is supported through the pandemic and so that they can rely on brilliant new social workers in the future.
Social work students need to see from social work educators, employers, regulators and administrators, the same level of creativity, empathy, values and understanding that the profession expects of them.
Rob Mitchell is a principal social worker for adults. Catherine Mawn is a social work development manager.