…last week I sat and sobbed pretty much most of the morning at how difficult it has been trying to just have that human contact with colleagues who are on hand in an office rather than guessing when they are available on Teams.” – Jane Barnard, social work student
The pandemic has caused disruption to all areas of social work, not least to social work students. As well as teaching moving online and changes to assessment and admission procedures, lockdowns have meant many placements went virtual, this year and last, with others delayed or cancelled altogether.
As well as the impact this has had on students’ learning experience and mental health, it has raised concerns about how well prepared those qualifying in 2020 and 2021 are to enter the workforce.
‘Robbed’ of a great experience
While remote working has been common across social work, the loss from not engaging in direct practice or working alongside colleagues in an office is arguably much greater for students than qualified practitioners
Jane Barnard, who will finish her placement in April, captured what many have felt about the implications of virtual working.
“The team have been really good and supportive but last week I sat and sobbed pretty much most of the morning at how difficult it has been trying to just have that human contact with colleagues who are on hand in an office rather than guessing when they are available on Teams,” she said.
Megan Kelsey, who started her final placement in January, echoed Barnard’s comments and said she felt “robbed” of the experience she was hoping to gain: “Honestly, yesterday and today I have sat at my desk and sobbed (that’s just home schooling). This is a journey that I have looked forward to for many years after working hard to get a sponsorship with my local authority to do the degree. I feel robbed of what should have been a great experience with so much opportunity, to find that it’s become one that I just have to get through.”
‘Uneasy and uncertain’
Cat Rundle, who qualified in 2020 from the fast-track Step Up to Social Work programme, and was on her placement when the first lockdown hit, said: “Everything is new and you’re feeling uneasy and uncertain a lot of the time and needing that level of support around you and you’re not having those, listening in to those conversations that are being had by more experienced workers.”
Ella*, who is on her final placement in a community mental health team after having to extend it numerous times, said that technology also contributed to the problem: “It’s been good, but I still feel like I haven’t had the right experience! Was given no VPN access so couldn’t even work from home. Very odd experience. So close to the end now that’s all keeping me motivated to finish this degree!!”
Rundle also pointed to the impact of missing out on direct work, under the impact of the pressures Covid landed on services: “We were working extended hours and trying to complete our portfolios and our observations in obviously different ways because we didn’t have that direct work and having to do it all from home.”
You can’t look after your own child on a level that you normally would, it’s difficult.”
As well as the experience of remote working, many students have faced the disruption of placements being delayed or cancelled, with no certainty for some if they would take place at all. For some, this has been exacerbated by the challenge of combining their degree with parenting under lockdown.
Jennifer*, whose placement was pushed back with no guarantee of when it would happen, said she was concerned her course could push into her children’s school holidays: “Was meant to start second year placement in January. It was pushed back to end of January. Now end of February and still no guarantee that will happen. Been told to expect the year to go into July/August to make up the hours. Hope this doesn’t take us into the summer holidays. Not so bad unless you have children!”
Rundle said that doing her placement from home during the first lockdown was challenging, especially with two young children, and affected the level of parenting she was able to provide: “Working at home and trying to home school the children and one of them was hurt in the garden and I was on a call and I couldn’t go out and help. It’s weighing that up, bringing social work into your home and it seeping into every corner of your life.
The disruption to schedules has led to uncertainty for many students over when they will be able to graduate. While Social Work England said that last autumn, broadly the expected number of graduates applied to join the social work register, at least some had to extend their studies because of placement disruption.
What have universities and providers done?
As with last year’s lockdown, Social Work England has said, in guidance issued in January 2021, that education providers can adapt, or shorten placements, so long as students meet its standards at the point they apply to join the register.
The regulator said: “The ongoing pandemic must not prevent student social workers from gaining the skills and experience they need to meet the professional standards and join such a vital profession.”
Rebekah Pierre, professional officer for the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), said there was a “great deal” of local and regional variation in placement experiences, with some universities working with placement providers to ensure gaps in students’ knowledge were identified, while for others, placements have been altogether deferred.
Amanda Fitchett, Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee (JUCSWEC) vice-chair, said that the JUCSWEC was aware that most universities were managing to place students either when originally scheduled or amending schedules to make up for any prior disrupted placements.
She said the issues affecting placement disruption were varied, “such as organisations not having sufficient staffing to offer placements, and some private, voluntary and independent sector organisations either not running their usual services due to Covid and the current lockdown, or not running services at all”.
To mitigate this, Fitchett said some universities were using a “blended approach” to placements, offering truncated placements along with some simulated experience to enable a wide range of learning.
From a practice educator perspective, Jill Yates, co-chair of the National Organisation of Practice Teaching (NOPT), said universities and practice educators were “adapting again to the constant challenges and changes that the pandemic has brought to the social work profession and education”.
She added: “With the advantage of hindsight some providers are continuing with usual placement days supporting students in a combination of working from home and on site. Others have reduced days or have plans in place for 10/20 days grace due to illness or Covid related issues. Where placements were cancelled during last academic year some students have an extended single placement.”
‘A lack of completeness’
The question students’ experience leaves is how ready those graduating this year will be to join the workforce.
Chris, who studied on Step Up and qualified in 2020, said that her cancelled placement left her feeling “a lack of completeness” and that it wasn’t the same learning experience she’d hoped for: “It just didn’t give us quite the same learning experience as we would have had, and don’t get me wrong I’m grateful for the fact that we were able to do it and finish, but it would have just been expanded learning to have stayed in [the placement]. It’s a disappointment.”
Marta*, who finished her final placement earlier this year, said she worries she hasn’t had enough experience: “It’s been so strange mainly working from home. I worry I haven’t had enough experience but my practice educator has been amazing and really made the experience as good as it can be.”
Ashley*, who is on placement in short-term accommodation for homeless people, expressed similar concerns: “I am in placement and it started late. But due to staff shortages I have had little training, no supervision and I have been expected to just get on with it! I am learning very little about social work but a lot about free labour!”
Pierre said that those who had undertaken virtual placements “may not have had the opportunity to develop ‘soft skills’ required in face-to-face interactions with children and families, such as observations, de-escalating conflict or responding to emotionally challenging scenarios”.
“When joining the workforce, students may therefore be less equipped than they otherwise would have been to manage more complex cases,” she added.
Yates said the flexibility in the guidance provided by Social Work England may have resulted in “unequal opportunity” for students.
While she said the NOPT recognised the extra difficulties providers have faced in allocating placements, she said that a single placement “does not provide the student with contrasting placement experience” and, combined with placements being delayed, “could impact on possible future employment opportunities”.
Yates added: “This may not be ideal in a profession that has interacting with people at its core, but we should not forget that students begin their course with some experience of working with users of services and together with their virtual communication skills may adapt well to the usual face-to-face tasks when ‘normality’ resumes.”
Should the ASYE be strengthened?
She said she hoped the ASYE would help in filling the gaps in some students’ experiences, adding: “We rely on practice educators and ASYE assessors to ensure that the ASYE is a positive way forward in enabling safe and supported transition from student to newly qualified worker.”
However, the situation has led some to call for the ASYE to be strengthened to deal with the particular circumstances facing this cohort of graduates.
In an article for Community Care in January, Rob Mitchell, a principal social worker for adults, and Catherine Mawn, a social work development manager, called on employers, Social Work England and Skills for Care to come together to develop an enhanced ASYE that would need to be applied nationally.
They said this would be 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”.
They said localised approaches to help students risked a “postcode lottery for our future workforce”.
Pierre said: “BASW England supports the idea of strengthening the ASYE as it would provide much-needed opportunity for students to identify learning needs, supplement knowledge, and to gain further experience; not only would this benefit the student directly in terms of competency and future employability, but this would also mean that children and families would receive a better service.”
To fully meet the needs of students, Pierre said the ASYE should be “strengthened by extending the programme to allow more time to develop skills, through the provision of a greater number of allocated training days, increased supervision, and the opportunity to shadow social workers in other departments or agencies to create a holistic understanding of social care”.
Cat Rundle, who is now in her ASYE year, said: “My ASYE support in relation to training has been probably quite intense, we have a lot of workshops, we’ve got a new PSW who’s been leading on that and making sure that we are up to speed with all types of different relevant training and they’re really keen on ensuring that we have the support we need during the current time and aware that everyone is feeling really isolated.”
Graham Woodham, Skills for Care’s programme head for the regulated professional workforce, said it was in regular discussions with Social Work England and government departments about the ASYE: “We are working with employers to ensure they are able to provide the focused support and meet the individual development needs of every newly qualified social worker joining the workforce taking into account the different experiences they have had during their qualifying programme due to the pandemic.
“This includes taking a flexible approach to refreshing the ASYE guidance and resources so that it remains responsive to changing circumstances. The hard work of employers to keep their ASYE programmes functioning during these exceptional times should be acknowledged by us all.”
A hybrid future?
With the roadmap out of lockdown set out, there are hopes that placements will return to an in-person experience.
But, with Covid looking like something we will have to learn to live with, will some aspects of virtual working and learning be here to stay alongside direct work, creating a new hybrid model within social work education?
Siobhan MacLean, a practice educator who has hosted webinars throughout the pandemic for social work students, helping them to connect and discuss the issues they’re facing, said she had also been carrying out her supervision and direct observations virtually since the pandemic began and said they had worked “really well”.
MacLean said that even if restrictions were lifted tomorrow that she would still use some of what she did: “I would still do some supervision virtually because it worked very effectively. I would still do some direct observations virtually because it was better than doing them in person.”
Step Up student Nicola Sandy said that there were some positives from her studies going virtual, mainly that it gave her more time to read things in-depth and slow down. She added that for some service users the ‘online’ aspect “takes away the barrier of a social worker turning up at your house”.
*Some names have been changed.