Social Work England has introduced higher standards for education providers, including requirements to support students’ health and wellbeing and offer at least 200 days on placements.
The regulator’s new education and training standards, which came into force on 1 September, also include additional requirements for admissions and higher standards on involving people with lived experience in courses.
But academics said the standards reflected longstanding practice and there were respects in which they needed to go further.
Social Work England consulted on many of the new standards before it went live as the regulator in 2019 but did not include them in its initial education standards, which were adapted from those used by predecessor the Health and Care Professions Council and involved less stringent requirements.
The new standards were due to come into force last year but were delayed due to the pandemic.
Pastoral support for students
Social Work England’s new standards require educators to ensure students “have effective educational and pastoral support to progress through their course and meet the professional standards when they qualify”.
The regulator’s previous standards included no requirements on social work education providers to do this.
Under the new requirements, educators must ensure students have access to confidential counselling services, careers advice and support and occupational health services.
Minimum number of placement days
The new standards require providers to ensure that students spend at least 200 days, including up to 30 skills days, on placement in at least two different practice settings that provide contrasting experiences.
At least one of these must be a statutory setting and provide students with experience of sufficient numbers of statutory social work tasks involving high-risk decision making and legal interventions.
This is a return to the requirements that existed prior to the HCPC taking responsibility for social work education in 2012, but it has long been standard practice on courses since.
However, during the first coronavirus lockdown, the fact that Social Work England did not specify a minimum number of days meant providers were not in breach of standards if they had to cut, reduce or delay placements.
Under the new standards, unlike their predecessors, providers must also ensure that, while on placements, students have appropriate induction, supervision, support, access to resources and a realistic workload.
Increased admissions requirements
Social Work England has also strengthened the requirements that prospective social workers should meet to be admitted to courses.
Unlike previously, education providers must ensure prospective students are able “to use information and communication technology methods and techniques to achieve course outcomes”.
Applicants must also “have the potential to develop the knowledge and skills necessary to meet the professional standards”.
But Philip Hallam, executive director of registration, quality assurance and legal at Social Work England, said the regulator did not intend to make it harder for students to join social work courses or lower dropout rates.
Speaking to Community Care, he said the new rules were designed to ensure that all social work students have the “same consistent understanding of what they are expected to do”.
“It is continuing to ensure that social work courses meet the demands of society as it is now and as it will be in the future and that those students that go through the courses are able to understand the important role they’ll play when they go into practice in society in the future,” he said.
“Once we’ve done this activity to reapprove and reinspect every course, I’ve no doubt that in three to five years we’ll refresh those standards again.”
The regulator’s new standards also require education providers to include people with lived experience of social work in the design of their admissions processes, as well as their monitoring, evaluation and improvement systems and design, ongoing development and review of their curriculum.
Writing in a blog, Hallam said: “Social Work England works closely with people with lived experience of social work across many of its functions and it’s hugely important that people using social services help educate the educators.
“We encourage innovative and creative approaches to course development, but practice must be embedded and students must be prepared for the real world, within reason, as well as for the exam hall.”
Standards ‘do not go far enough’
Despite the tougher requirements, academic leaders said the standards would not challenge providers as they reflected how courses were already run.
Dr Janet Melville-Wiseman, chair of Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee, (JUCSWEC), said courses had been run in line with the then Department of Health’s Requirements for Social Work Training since their publication in 2002. This also required providers to ensure that all social work students spent at least 200 days in at least two different practice settings and gained experience of statutory social work tasks involving legal interventions
Melville-Wiseman said higher education providers also typically provided counselling and wellbeing services to students.
She added that there were areas in which she would have liked standards to be tougher, particularly in relation to requirements on academic staff.
“We do have concerns that the standards do not go far enough in terms of ensuring the standards of academic educators,” she said.
“For example, practice educators have long been required to have completed both levels of practice educator training but standard 3.8 simply requires academics to have ‘subject knowledge and expertise’.
“We would like this to include relevant teaching skills, expertise and qualifications as educators as well which is expected within universities but may not be required within current fast-track provision.”